Both parties wasted no time digging in on Thursday following Congress’s first witness interview related to President Trump‘s dealings with Ukraine, the topic that now stands at the forefront of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Emerging from a nearly 10-hour deposition in the Capitol basement, Republican and Democratic members offered decidedly different takes regarding testimony from Kurt Volker, who resigned last week as Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine.
Democrats said Volker validated previous claims from a government whistleblower that the president had sought to pressure his Ukrainian counterpart into investigating Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential contender, while withholding military aid to the country.
“We saw further evidence that there was a shadow shakedown going on,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), an Intelligence Committee member, told reporters afterward.
Republicans, meanwhile, rushed to Trump’s defense. They argued that Volker had not only exonerated the president of any wrongdoing, but also provided damning new evidence regarding Biden’s son, Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
“The allegations of a quid pro quo, basically today just blew a massive hole throughout the entirety of that argument,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The administration is in an even stronger place today than they were this morning as a product of Ambassador Volker coming to testify.”
The conflicting accounts reflect much of the stark partisanship that has come to dominate Capitol Hill while signaling the sharp tenor of a looming impeachment debate, with Democrats pressing ahead with their inquiry in the face of fierce opposition from Trump’s GOP allies.
Trump has vehemently denied any threat to make aid to Ukraine contingent on the country’s willingness to investigate the Bidens. But he’s embraced the idea that he did urge a probe into his political rival — and he doubled down on that entreaty Thursday by publicly encouraging Ukraine and China to investigate the former vice president.
“I would think that if they were honest about it they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
The remarks led to a rebuke from the head of the Federal Election Commission, Ellen Weintraub, who tweeted an unsubtle reminder that it’s illegal for campaigns to accept foreign help. And House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Trump had committed a “fundamental breach” of presidential decorum — one that threatened national security.
Most Republicans who attended Thursday’s deposition with Volker claimed to have not seen details of Trump’s comments, but none pushed back on Trump encouraging foreign governments to investigate a political rival.
“You’re not above law by being either a member of Congress or an elected official or a candidate for office,” Zeldin said. “If there is illegality to investigate, it should be investigated.”
Democrats — led by the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees — are trying to demonstrate that they are trying to gather as much evidence as possible before moving to potentially drafting articles of impeachment. They are also still working to build public support for such an effort.
Swalwell suggested that Trump’s public statements encouraging foreign governments to investigate Biden could speed up Democrats’ investigations.
“I think every time he confesses to a crime, it limits the number of other witnesses we probably have to talk to,” Swalwell said.
Democrats pounced on newly revealed text messages, which Volker reportedly shared Thursday with the lawmakers, showing deep concern from a top diplomat toward Trump’s Ukraine dealings. In the exchange, William Taylor, the leading U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, said “it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
The remark received pushback from Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, who said Taylor was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions.”
“The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelenskiy promised during his campaign,” Sondland wrote.
“You have more and more evidence that the president of the United States was improperly using his office, using our taxpayer dollars to leverage help from an ally in our upcoming 2020 election,” Swalwell said of the exchange.
Yet Republicans saw the remarks in a different light, saying they proved that Trump was not dangling aid to secure an investigation into Biden.
“There are text messages that make it absolutely, crystal clear — without any shadow of a doubt — that there was no quid pro quo whatsoever, and it was known as a policy of the United States government,” Zeldin said.
Republicans are urging Democratic leaders to release the full transcript of Thursday’s deposition, which they say will only reinforce Trump’s case.
“If we release the transcripts it will have a very chilling effect on impeachment,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
“The facts we learned today undercut the salacious narrative that Adam Schiff is using to sell his impeachment ambitions. We hope the American people get to read the transcript of today’s testimony and see the truth,” Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the respective ranking Republicans on the Oversight and Intelligence committees, said in a joint statement.
The deposition from Volker, who served as Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine until his resignation last Friday, is the first of several that Democrats have requested of current and former State Department officials with knowledge of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The intelligence community whistleblower alleged in the complaint that Volker visited Kiev with Sondland a day after Trump’s call with Zelensky and met with Ukrainian officials to discuss how to “navigate” Trump’s “demands.”
The House Intelligence Committee will meet again behind closed doors on Friday with the intelligence community’s inspector general, which conducted a preliminary investigation of the whistleblower’s complaint and found it “credible.”
Maggie Miller contributed.