The Republicans have refrained during hearings from explicitly accusing the individual of filing the explosive complaint with the U.S. intelligence community’s inspector general two months ago, officials said.
But the questions have been interpreted as an attempt “to unmask the whistleblower,” whose identity is shielded under federal law, said several officials with direct knowledge of the depositions. Republicans appear to be seeking ways to discredit the whistleblower as well as other witnesses “by trying to dredge up any information they can,” one official said.
The effort comes as Trump continues to lash out publicly against the whistleblower in ways that seem designed to goad Republican allies into naming the person. Trump has attacked the whistleblower at least 40 times on his Twitter account since the Ukraine scandal broke, including on Friday, when he asked, “Where is the whistleblower and why did he or she write such a fictitious and incorrect account of my phone call with the Ukrainian president?”
The GOP line of questioning provides the most direct insight to date into the strategy of the president’s defenders in closed-door hearings that have produced powerful testimony about the administration’s attempt to coerce Ukraine into conducting investigations that Trump hoped would yield damaging information on Democrats, including former vice president Joe Biden. Biden is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The accounts, based on interviews with 10 people involved in the depositions, also underscore the extent to which senior Republicans are directly involved in the impeachment inquiry even as party leaders claim they are being excluded from it, depicting it as a secretive — and therefore suspect — attack on the president.
In reality, Republican lawmakers and staffers have played a substantial — if subordinate — role since the impeachment inquiry began last month, officials said. Among those chiefly involved are Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), one of Trump’s most fervent defenders and the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee.
A Republican staffer disputed assertions that Trump allies are seeking to unmask the whistleblower, arguing that those involved in the impeachment inquiry do not know the person’s identity but have suspicions. A separate senior GOP aide argued that exploring the political leanings of the whistleblower and others testifying before impeachment investigators is a legitimate line of questioning, as their political preferences could taint testimony and findings.
“This is an utterly unfair characterization of how Republicans are using their time in the depositions and advances erroneous facts to benefit Adam Schiff’s partisan effort,” the senior GOP official said in a statement, referring to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff
(D-Calif.). “Our questions have resulted in the unearthing of material that Democrats want to ignore because they run counter to their impeachment quest.”
The first Republican official also argued that Democrats have been asking leading questions and that GOP members feel it is important to highlight facts they believe will be exculpatory for Trump — particularly regarding suggestions that Trump used U.S. aid to Ukraine as an enticement to obtain a political favor.
As a result, Democrats contend that Republicans are not using the inquiry to uncover facts about the administration’s interactions with Ukraine. “There’s been zero interest [among the GOP] in actually getting to the conduct of the president,” a Democratic lawmaker said. “It’s not the subject of their questioning at all.”
That lawmaker and other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the secrecy of the impeachment inquiry.
Nunes has used the depositions to try to link those appearing as part of the impeachment inquiry to other individuals who figured prominently in GOP efforts to discredit previous investigations of Trump’s ties with Russia in 2016, officials said.
Witnesses including former top White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill have been asked whether they had any interactions with Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who compiled a dossier of allegations about Trump’s Russia ties, work that was initially funded by Republicans but was later underwritten by Democrats.
Republicans have also asked witnesses whether they had contact with Bruce Ohr, a former Justice Department official whose wife was affiliated with Fusion GPS, the investigative firm that hired Steele.
Hill testified that she knew Steele when both were intelligence officials focused on Russia for their respective governments, but had no connection to Steele’s work, after he left the British intelligence service, on a dossier about alleged ties between Donald Trump and Russia, according to officials familiar with her testimony. She declined to comment for this story through her attorney, Lee Wolosky.
Nunes has generally taken part in the early rounds of testimony, officials said, before leaving the briefing room and designating Jordan, other GOP members and a senior Republican aide to handle subsequent questioning of witnesses.
The questions about the whistleblower have caught the attention of Democrats who initially explored ways to have the CIA employee testify while shielding the person’s identity, and more recently have indicated that it may not be necessary for the person to testify.
Attorneys for the whistleblower said any efforts by lawmakers to unmask the individual would be improper. “Members of Congress have a duty to protect those who lawfully expose suspected government wrongdoing,” the attorneys, Andrew Bakaj and Mark Zaid, said in a statement.
The complaint filed by the CIA employee on Aug. 12 described deep concerns among senior administration officials about a July 25 call on which President Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pursue investigations that could be damaging to Biden.
The White House released a rough transcript of the call confirming the whistleblower’s account. Other elements of the person’s complaint have been corroborated by witnesses appearing before the impeachment inquiry in recent weeks, including former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr.
A second possible whistleblower has also come forward to bolster the initial complaint. That person’s name has also been raised in depositions on Capitol Hill, officials said.
The development has created a potential complication for the committee’s plans to release transcripts of deposition testimony. Two officials said the committee probably will have to remove “personally identifiable information” about individuals named by members of Congress and witnesses in those sessions to protect those not appearing before the committee from retaliation or exposure.
One former official said that Republicans “didn’t press much beyond” preliminary questions about contacts between witnesses and the suspected whistleblowers. A second official said, however, that “it’s more nefarious than that,” and that the Republican inquiries are persistent and seen as a “bid to out” those individuals.
In her Oct. 14 testimony, Hill was also asked about the activities and loyalties of a longer list of current or former employees of the National Security Council, including former national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Republicans seemed to be trying to “tie him” to suspected efforts to undermine Trump by former Obama administration officials who remained in their White House assignments during Trump’s early months in office, officials said.
The questions appeared driven at least in part by Derek Harvey, a senior adviser to Nunes who worked on the National Security Council early in the Trump presidency before being removed by McMaster amid allegations that Harvey was compiling lists of suspected disloyal colleagues.
Harvey, a former U.S. Army officer and Middle East expert, “was passing notes the entire time” Hill was being questioned, feeding questions to Republicans, a former official said.
Nunes’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The committee has divided rounds of questioning into 30- or 45-minute blocks, officials said, in which Democrats and Republicans take turns. Loyalty to Trump has been a focus of the GOP segments, officials said.
Yovanovitch was asked point-blank whether she had ever spoken disparagingly about Trump while serving in Kyiv or had sought to undermine his policies — a veiled charge that she vehemently denied, officials said.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, has said in interviews that he lobbied Trump to have Yovanovitch removed because she was acting against the president.
At the time, Yovanovitch was seeking to contain efforts by Giuliani to bypass normal diplomatic channels in his efforts to persuade government officials in Ukraine to revive corruption investigations into an energy company that had employed Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, as a board member.
Republicans have also spent substantial time in depositions seeking to advance Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine — and not Russia — interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
During several depositions, Republicans touted a Politico article from 2017 that indicated that Ukrainian officials worked with the Clinton campaign to expose the activities of Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chairman for several months in mid-2016.
Disclosures of secret cash payments to Manafort forced him to resign from the Trump campaign. Manafort is serving a seven-year prison sentence after being convicted last year of tax and bank fraud charges.
Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, was asked repeatedly during his testimony on Thursday about material in that Politico article. He indicated that he was not familiar with its contents, officials said, but stressed that he would consider any foreign interference in U.S. elections problematic.
Taylor’s testimony described a concerted campaign by Trump to pressure Ukraine — including the withholding of a promised White House meeting with Zelensky and the suspension nearly $400 million of security assistance — to coerce Ukraine into delivering information that could hurt Biden and validate Trump’s conspiracy theories about 2016 election interference.
Upon learning of the scheme while serving in Kyiv, Taylor texted other diplomats that he thought it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign” and threatened to resign.
Republicans appear to be trying to link their concerns about the Steele dossier to Ukraine, a country Trump has said, without evidence, interfered in the election. One Democratic official present for witness testimony said Republicans were asking witnesses things like, “Are you aware that part of the evidence in the Steele Dossier originated in Ukraine?”
“The witnesses are like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ which makes sense, because it’s totally made up,” an official said.
Republicans have also asked witnesses to affirm that the president has publicly stated there was no quid pro quo, officials said, and that it is appropriate for the U.S. government to withhold aid from foreign governments deemed to be corrupt.
Republicans have also used their time to go after Biden, including citing Trump’s unsubstantiated allegation that Biden used his position as vice president to pressure Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who had been investigating the energy company that had employed Biden’s son. During an interview with George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, GOP questioners repeatedly asked the diplomat whether the United States had led the effort to remove the Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin.
U.S. officials did press for Shokin’s removal amid concerns that he was allowing corruption to go unchecked in Ukraine, a position backed at the time by U.S. allies in Europe.
Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill as testifying she did not have a connection to former British intelligence official Christopher Steele. In fact, Hill testified that she knew Steele when both were intelligence officials focused on Russia for their respective governments, but had no connection to Steele’s work, after he left the British intelligence service, on a dossier about alleged ties between Donald Trump and Russia. The article has been updated.