U.S. congressional committees conducting an impeachment probe of President Donald Trump met Thursday for the first time with an adviser to Vice-President Mike Pence, but former national security adviser John Bolton failed to heed a request to appear.
Jennifer Williams, a career foreign service officer and special adviser to Pence for Europe and Russia, was testifying in a closed-door hearing in front of members of the foreign affairs, intelligence and oversight committees of the House after receiving a subpoena.
Lawmakers are seeking information from Williams about how much Pence knew about efforts by Trump and those around him to pressure Ukraine to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as look into possible Ukraine interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Bolton, who was fired by Trump in September, was called to appear on Thursday, but Bolton’s attorney said he would not testify voluntarily, and he has not yet been subpoenaed.
The Washington Post, citing people familiar with Bolton’s views, said he is willing to testify but wants to see how a court battle between Congress and the White House over the constitutionality of the subpoenas shakes out first.
The battle could go to the Supreme Court and spill into next year.
Members of the committees conducting the inquiry have said they want to see if Bolton will corroborate previous witnesses’s testimony that he was alarmed at Trump asking a foreign government to get involved in domestic politics.
Dates set for 1st public hearings
The House investigation is focused on a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, a leading Democratic rival at the November 2020 presidential election. Williams was one of a handful of U.S. officials who listened in on the call.
They are trying to determine whether Trump froze $391 million US in security assistance for Ukraine to put pressure on Zelensky to conduct the investigation, misusing U.S. foreign policy for his personal gain.
Democrats have been releasing transcripts of previous closed-door interviews this week as they prepare the first public impeachment hearings next week.
Three U.S. diplomats who expressed alarm about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and have already testified in private will serve as star witnesses.
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, another career diplomat with experience in the country, will testify on Nov. 13. Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly pulled from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May, will testify on Nov. 15.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House intelligence panel, has asked Republicans to submit witness requests by Saturday ahead of next week’s public hearings.
Schiff, in a statement released Thursday, said Democrats do not intend to request public testimony from every witness who has provided depositions in closed-door sessions with lawmakers.
If the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate would then hold a trial on whether to remove him from office.
Senate Republicans have so far shown little appetite for ousting the president. Republicans in both Houses have variously blasted what they’ve deemed a partisan process, denied there as a quid pro quo attached to the disbursements of aid or suggested that such tradeoffs are typically part of international diplomacy.
Democrats have countered that any quid pro quos are usually in furtherance of American interests abroad, not the personal interests of a president looking to damage a potential 2020 election rival.
A potential complication to the timeline is looming on Nov. 21, a date on which additional funding is needed to avoid a partial government shutdown.
Trump angered by report
Meanwhile, Trump on Thursday angrily denied a previous day’s report that he wanted Attorney General William Barr to hold a news conference to declare he broke no laws during the call with Zelensky.
Trump tweeted just after midnight that the story, first reported by the Washington Post, “is totally untrue and just another FAKE NEWS story with anonymous sources that don’t exist.”
The Post reported that Barr rebuffed the request, which came in September around the time the White House released a rough transcript of the call. The paper, citing unidentified people familiar with the effort, said the request was relayed from the president to White House officials, and then to the Justice Department.
Trump insists he did nothing wrong.
“Just read the Transcript,” he wrote Thursday. “The Justice Department already ruled that the call was good.”
That appears to be a reference to a statement from the Justice Department in September announcing that the department’s Criminal Division “reviewed the official record of the call and determined, based on the facts and applicable law, that there was no campaign finance violation and that no further action was warranted.”
Barr famously held a news conference ahead of the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian election meddling. Barr painted what many saw as an overly flattering picture as it related to Trump and repeatedly declared investigators had found “no collision” between the Trump campaign and Russia — a point Trump had seized on to try to claim vindication.
While the appearance drew praise from Trump, it also raised alarms from critics already wary of his independence after Barr released a letter summarizing the reports’s conclusions, which Mueller later complained “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance” of the full report and led to “public confusion about critical aspects of the results of” the investigation.
Trump on Twitter assailed the “three lowlife reporters,” who were bylined on the Post report, but the executive editor of the newspaper said they stand by the report.
“Despite his repugnant attempt to intimidate and harass the Post and its staff, we will continue to do the work that democracy demands of a free and independent press,” said Marty Baron.