‘Smoking Gun’ Testimony Accelerates Democrats Timeline on Impeaching Trump

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(Bloomberg) -- The explosive testimony of senior U.S. diplomat William Taylor handed Democrats a key to unlock their impeachment case against President Donald Trump, which soon will be brought into public view.

Even as the Trump administration attempts to block witnesses and withhold documents, the inquiry has managed to snare testimony that sketches out a back-channel outreach to Ukraine by the president and his closest advisers that appears to have focused on leveraging U.S. foreign policy to dig up dirt on a political rival.

“We have smoking gun sitting on top of smoking gun at this point. And there is no alternative story,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland said Wednesday. Taylor’s statement on Tuesday “has dramatically accelerated the investigation.”

‘Smoking Gun’ Testimony Accelerates Democrats Timeline on Impeaching Trump

Taylor’s testimony was a crucial piece of a puzzle that had already been partly assembled through other testimony, including from former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovich and Fiona Hill, who had been Trump’s top Russia and Europe adviser.

Taylor’s chronology, based on firsthand conversations and contemporaneous notes, helps fill in a picture of the president using congressionally allocated foreign aid and an Oval Office visit to pressure Ukraine for a political favor.

The defense mounted by the president and his Republican allies so far mainly has focused on criticizing Democrats for keeping testimony private and selectively leaking the most damaging aspects -- and denying there was any quid pro quo sought by Trump in a July conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. To make their point, about two dozen GOP House members on Wednesday stormed into the secure hearing room, holding up questioning of a Pentagon official for more than five hours.

“We have a right as members of Congress to know what’s going on in there,” said Representative David Rouzer, a North Carolina Republican. “None of this is classified information whatsoever.”

Several Democrats who are taking part in the impeachment inquiry led by three House committees -- which include Republican lawmakers -- said they expect the closed-door interviews of witnesses to conclude in about two weeks. That would be followed by public hearings.

Such hearings would blunt the Republican criticism of the closed-door proceedings so far -- Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a member of leadership, labeled it “a Soviet-style process” -- and give Democrats an opening to build public support, which polls show is already moving in favor of impeachment.

“A week or two of depositions, and then hearings,” said Representative Jackie Speier of California, a member of both the Intelligence and Oversight and Reform committees.

Another Democrat on the Oversight panel, Lacy Clay of Missouri, said that while Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff or other panel leaders haven’t given specific dates, he expects the investigation might be wrapped up near Thanksgiving. That time frame that would put a vote on impeachment articles into December.

There are concerns among some Democrats that extending the probe too far into December, or beyond into the 2020 election year, would open them up to Republican assertions that the effort is more about the election than the Constitution.

‘Appropriate Time’

A Schiff spokesman didn’t respond to requests for comment on the timetable. The California Democrat told his colleagues in a letter earlier this month that witness testimony would be given in public “at an appropriate time.” He’s argued that the initial interviews needed to be conducted privately so that witnesses couldn’t coordinate testimony.

Public hearings likely would include some of the same witnesses who’ve testified over the past two weeks about their concern about a shadow, parallel diplomacy with Ukraine being led by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. That could include Taylor, whose testimony has even given some Republicans pause.

“The picture coming out of it based on the reporting that we’ve seen, is, yeah, I would say not a good one,” South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune told reporters. “But I would say also that, again, until we have a process that allows for everybody to see this in full transparency, it’s pretty hard to draw any hard, fast conclusions.”

Still, there’s been no significant break in support for Trump among Republicans in Congress.

Whistle-Blower

One witness who may not testify is the anonymous whistle-blower from the intelligence community who spurred the Democrats to focus on Ukraine. The three top Republicans on the Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs committees -- Devin Nunes of California, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Michael McCaul of Texas -- released a letter Wednesday night expressing surprise that the whistle-blower isn’t going to be called. Schiff spokesman Patrick Boland declined to comment.

Trump has been encouraging Republicans to be more aggressive in countering the Democrats on impeachment and has questioned the credibility of witnesses and, especially, the whistle-blower. The president met with a group of GOP lawmakers at the White House on Tuesday and gave his support for Wednesday’s protest, according to people familiar with the matter.

Once the public hearings get under way, Democrats will come to a decision about whether more investigative work is needed before putting together articles of impeachment, a step that many lawmakers in both parties view as inevitable.

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made it clear the House will move carefully.

“We’re going to build a case,” he said, “and if there is a case we will move forward.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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