Analysis after Gordon Sondland, Laura Cooper and David Hale's impeachment testimony

Image: Day 4 of Impeachment hearings with Laura Cooper and Gordon Sondland
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The fourth day of public hearings in the House's impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump saw testimony from three Trump administration officials.

Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, testified before the House Intelligence Committee at just before 6 p.m. ET Wednesday. Their appearance followed testimony from U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who appeared before the committee for a hearing that began more than eight hours earlier.

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Cooper suggests Trump admin didn’t follow legal mechanisms for hold on Ukraine aid

Cooper suggested in testimony that the administration didn't follow what she believes are the legal mechanisms to put a hold on already appropriated aid.

During an exchange with Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, Cooper said that Congress was notified of the aid to Ukraine, through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and then there was a waiting period before it became available around mid-June. 

But on July 18, the Office of Management and Budget announced that the U.S. would freeze the aid to Ukraine. Cooper said that during a July 26 meeting, her superiors at the Pentagon raised the question of how the president’s guidance could be implemented. These officials, she said, suggested that a reprogramming action might be the best option to execute the decision, but more research would be required. 

After that meeting, Cooper said that there a discussion on July 31 at her level in which she expressed that it was “my understanding” that there were two ways to stop the dissemination of funds to Ukraine. 

Either the president could propose a recission, Cooper said, or a reprogramming request could be done by the Defense Department. Cooper confirmed that both options would require providing notice to Congress. 

“There was no such notice, to my knowledge, or preparation of a notice, to my knowledge,” Cooper said. 

The aid ultimately was released by the administration on Sept. 11.

An hour of hearing remains

There are fewer than 10 members left to ask questions of Cooper and Hale, which means this hearing should wrap in about an hour barring any breaks. Nunes and Schiff can make closing remarks after the five-minute member round ends.

Quigley notes State and DoD haven't complied with subpoenas to hand over docs

Rep. Quigley pointed out during his questioning that the Defense and State departments have not complied with subpoenas issued by the House Intel, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees for documents as part of the impeachment inquiry, so the committee doesn’t have the emails Cooper referenced tonight.

Carolyn Maloney chosen as first woman to lead House Oversight panel

Veteran New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney was elected Wednesday to lead the powerful House Oversight and Reform Committee, the first woman to hold the job in the panel’s 92-year history.

Maloney defeated Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly by a 133-86 vote in a secret ballot among the full Democratic caucus. She succeeds Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who died last month.

As Oversight chief, Maloney, 73, will play a key role in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

The committee has a broad portfolio, including oversight of the Trump administration’s handling of the census and immigration matters, as well as investigations into Trump’s business dealings and security clearances granted to White House officials.

Read the story.

It happens. Rep. Ratcliffe says aid has been frozen to Lebanon, Pakistan, other countries

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, argued Wednesday that the U.S. occasionally withholds security assistance from foreign countries for a variety of reasons. 

Ratcliffe said that Hale had characterized in his previous testimony during a closed-door deposition that it’s a "normal" occurrence. 

"It is certainly an occurrence. It does occur," Hale confirmed Wednesday. 

Ratcliffe then listed a number of countries whose aid the U.S. froze over the last year and asked Hale to confirm or elaborate about those cases.

Hale said, for example, that U.S. aid to Pakistan was withheld "because of unhappiness over policies and (the) behavior of the Pakistani government toward certain proxy groups in conflicts with the U.S."

He also said that aid has been withheld over the last year from three countries in northern Central America, including Honduras. Lastly, U.S. aid to Lebanon has been and still is being withheld for reasons that are unknown, Hale said. 

Ratcliffe was attempting to normalize what occurred in Ukraine in which the Office of Management and Budget halted the U.S. assistance on July 18 and released it again on Sept. 11. A number of key witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, however, have testified that the release of the aid was contingent on Ukraine announcing investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 presidential election. 

During further questioning by Schiff, Hale agreed that it would be unusual and inappropriate to withhold aid in exchange for some conditionality.

State Department contradicts Sondland, says he has 'full access' to his records

The State Department is disputing Sondland’s sworn testimony from Wednesday morning that he could not access records, such as emails, relevant to the impeachment inquiry. 

“Ambassador Sondland, like every current Department of State employee called before Congress in this matter, retained at all times, and continues to retain, full access to his State Department documentary records and his State Department e-mail account, which he has always been fully free to access and review at will,” a State Department official said Wednesday evening. 

But that is not what Sondland said just a few hours earlier. 

“I have not had access to all of my phone records," Sondland said in his opening statement. "State Department emails, and other State Department documents. And I was told I could not work with my EU Staff to pull together the relevant files. Having access to the State Department materials would have been very helpful to me in trying to reconstruct with whom I spoke and met, when, and what was said.” 

At Wednesday's impeachment second hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, asked Undersecretary of State David Hale to respond to the State Department’s comment, asking if that sounded like standard department policy.

“I hadn't seen it until shortly before entering this hearing room, but it sounds accurate, yes,” Hale said.

Timing of Ukraine's knowledge of hold is a key point, journos note

Cooper says Ukrainians were aware of hold on July 25, contradicting GOP

Cooper, in a straightforward opening statement that focused almost entirely on procedure, explained how and when she became aware of the hold on the military aid to Ukraine. 

But in an addendum to her prepared statement, she explained that she’s learned of the existence of multiple emails that had been sent to her office (but that she hadn’t received) pertaining to questions she had been asked during her October deposition about whether she knew if the Ukrainians had known about the hold or had asked any questions about it. 

Cooper said that her staff later showed her two unclassified emails from the State Department. Both were sent two hours apart on the afternoon of July 25. The first, Cooper said, showed that the Ukrainian Embassy was “asking about the security assistance,” and the second suggested that “Hill knows about the [aid freeze] situation.”

Cooper said that a third email, on July 3, from the State Department, showed that the “CN [congressional notification] was being blocked from OMB [White House Office of Management and Budget].”

Schiff, a moment later, asked Cooper whether her sharing the existence of those emails meant that the Ukrainians “knew there was something going on with” the aid.

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

This means that Cooper is saying the Ukrainians were, in fact, aware of the aid hold on the same day as the well-documented July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy. This contradicts the argument by Republicans, including Trump, that the Ukrainians had no idea of the hold this early — meaning, according to that argument, that there could not have been a quid pro quo.

Hale, unlike all previous public inquiry witnesses, did not deliver an opening statement.

Hale and Cooper are sworn in before their testimony

Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper, right, and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale are sworn in before their testimony before the House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill on Nov. 20, 2019.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

Nunes plays the greatest hits

Nunes, in his opening statement, hit on many of the same topics he’s mentioned in his past opening statements in the previous hearings.

He said that Democrats “accused us” of trying to out the whistleblower during the hearings on Tuesday, “even though they claim they don’t even know who it is.”

He also accused Democrats of “sparing” Hunter Biden from under-oath questioning and alleged that they have employed “petty tricks” in the hearings.

“What exactly are the Democrats impeaching the president for?” he said in closing.

“None of us here actually know,” he added.

Schiff opens second public hearing of the day

Schiff, in his opening statement of the second of two hearings of the day, summarized the case House Democrats are building in their impeachment inquiry and explained how the testimony of the next two witnesses, Laura Cooper, the top Pentagon official overseeing U.S. policy regarding Ukraine, and David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, plays into it.

“Cooper, along with others, learned about the freeze” in a series of interagency meetings in July, Schiff explained.

Hale, he said, “was witness to the smear campaign against Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and the efforts by some in the State Department to help her.”