/Top Lawyer Declines to Testify in Impeachment Inquiry
Top Lawyer Declines to Testify in Impeachment Inquiry

Top Lawyer Declines to Testify in Impeachment Inquiry

House impeachment investigators released the first transcripts of their private interviews, revealing crucial details as the inquiry enters its public phase.

Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Nicholas FandosMichael S. Schmidt

WASHINGTON — The former United States ambassador to Ukraine told impeachment investigators last month that she felt “threatened” by President Trump after it emerged that he told the Ukrainian president she would “go through some things,” adding that she still feared retaliation.

That was just one detail that emerged Monday as the House released hundreds of pages of testimony from Marie L. Yovanovitch, who was abruptly recalled in May and remains a State Department employee, and Michael McKinley, a top diplomat who advised Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and has since retired.

The transcripts also revealed multiple attempts by Mr. McKinley — all unsuccessful — to get Mr. Pompeo to come to Ms. Yovanovitch’s defense in a public statement as she was being publicly discredited by Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, and other Republicans. That testimony contradicted Mr. Pompeo himself, who has publicly denied having heard any concerns from Mr. McKinley about the treatment of Ms. Yovanovitch.

“From the time that Ambassador Yovanovitch departed Ukraine until the time that he came to tell me that he was departing, I never heard him say a single thing about his concerns with respect to the decision that was made,” Mr. Pompeo told ABC in an interview last month.

The disclosures came on a day when Democrats were also confronting the limits of their investigative powers, as a new batch of witnesses — including the top National Security Council lawyer — refused to appear for scheduled depositions. The lawyer, John A. Eisenberg, played a central role in dealing with the fallout at the White House from a July 25 call between Mr. Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in which Mr. Trump asked the Ukrainians to conduct investigations that could benefit him politically.

Mr. Eisenberg said through his lawyer on Monday that he would wait until a federal judge ruled on whether Mr. Trump’s closest advisers must answer questions from congressional investigators.

Ms. Yovanovitch, though, was explicit with the inquiry about her reaction to the July call, in which Mr. Trump told Mr. Zelensky that she was “bad news” and would “go through some things.”

Questioned about what she thought when she saw a summary transcript of the call that was released in September, Ms. Yovanovitch said she was “shocked” — a word she used a half-dozen times during her interview to describe her reaction to Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

“I didn’t know what it meant,” she said of the president’s comment. “I was very concerned. I still am.”

Asked whether she felt threatened reading the passage, Ms. Yovanovitch replied, “Yes.” And pressed on whether she felt she might be retaliated against, she said, “I just simply don’t know what this could mean, but it does not leave me in a comfortable position.”

At the White House, Mr. Trump defended his treatment of the former ambassador even as he tried to deflect blame.

“I really don’t know her,” he told reporters of Ms. Yovanovitch. “But if you look at the transcripts, the president of Ukraine was not a fan of hers either.”

Ms. Yovanovitch told Democrats and Republicans last month during her deposition that she believed she was the victim of a conservative smear campaign “by people with clearly questionable motives” who sought, under false pretenses, to get rid of her. The newly released transcript showed that she also detailed for impeachment investigators what she knew of attempts by Mr. Giuliani and his allies to work with the former Ukrainian prosecutor general to “do things, including to me.”

In an October interview with Democrats and Republicans, Ms. Yovanovitch testified that she first learned from Ukrainian, not American, officials late last year of Mr. Giuliani’s efforts. The men, she came to realize, shared an interest in investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden, as well as other Democrats, and believed the ambassador stood in the way.

Mr. McKinley told investigators in his own interview about how he pressed top State Department officials, including Mr. Pompeo, to issue a statement publicly supporting Ms. Yovanovitch as she was being publicly disparaged by Republicans this fall. They did not take action.

And Ms. Yovanovitch recounted how colleagues sought to insulate her in ways that would appeal to the president’s unique proclivities, once telling her that Mr. Pompeo or someone around him planned to call Sean Hannity, the Fox News anchor with whom the president is exceedingly close, to ask him to stop bashing her on his broadcast. On another occasion, Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, advised Ms. Yovanovitch to “go big or go home,” and to tweet something flattering about Mr. Trump to get back in his good graces.

The hundreds of pages of testimony offer the first glimpse of the so-far secret proceedings that have unfolded in the bowels of the Capitol complex as witness after witness has appeared to testify in the impeachment inquiry. What emerge are dry exchanges on mind-numbingly detailed questions of meetings and memos, punctuated by occasional moments of emotion from witnesses and lawmakers slogging through the details of the Ukraine saga.

At one point while discussing the day she was told she was being recalled because Mr. Trump had lost confidence in her, Ms. Yovanovitch apparently choked up and was asked if she needed a moment to compose herself, which she accepted. At other points, Republicans — who the transcripts show have aggressively availed themselves of equal time to question witnesses — railed against the impeachment process.

The House voted last week on a resolution that directed the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform Committees to release the transcripts with necessary redactions and begin to move other findings into public view.

Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman who is leading the inquiry, told reporters on Monday afternoon that the committee would release transcripts on Tuesday of interviews with two more central figures in the inquiry: Kurt D. Volker, who served as special envoy to Ukraine, and Mr. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union.

Republicans involved in the inquiry did not immediately comment. Before the transcripts’ release, Mr. Trump sought to undermine them by charging, without evidence, that Mr. Schiff would “change the words that were said to suit the Dems purposes.” The transcripts were reviewed by Republicans in the House and by the witnesses themselves, and there was no evidence that they were fabricated or doctored.

They emerged as Democrats rushed to escalate their requests to speak with crucial witnesses before they shifted into a phase of public hearings. The committee subpoenaed Mr. Eisenberg, but the White House told Mr. Eisenberg’s lawyer on Sunday that Mr. Trump was directing him not to testify. The White House invoked absolute immunity, a sweeping and contested form of executive privilege that holds that the president’s closest advisers are not obligated to cooperate with Congress.

“Under these circumstances, Mr. Eisenberg has no other option that is consistent with his legal and ethical obligations except to follow the direction of his client and employer, the president of the United States,” William A. Burck, a lawyer for Mr. Eisenberg, wrote to House leaders on Monday morning. “Accordingly, Mr. Eisenberg will not be appearing for a deposition at this time.”

Other witnesses defied House investigators, as well. Robert Blair, the national security adviser to the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney; Michael Ellis, Mr. Eisenberg’s deputy; and Brian McCormack, the former chief of staff to Rick Perry, the energy secretary, were all expected to skip scheduled depositions, despite receiving subpoenas.

The objections were not unexpected, but nonetheless showed the limits House Democrats face as their fact-finding edges closer into Mr. Trump’s inner circle. Additional witnesses scheduled to testify this week were likely to follow suit, either out of loyalty to Mr. Trump or because of complicated legal issues posed by their proximity to the president.

With their inquiry moving rapidly, Democrats have made clear they do not intend to wait for the courts to settle the legal issues raised by Mr. Eisenberg and others to secure their testimony.

“We are not going to delay our work,” Mr. Schiff said. “That would merely allow these witnesses and the White House to succeed in their goals, which are delay, deny and obstruct.”

Mr. Schiff indicated he was cataloging defiance of subpoenas as further evidence of Mr. Trump’s obstructing Congress, an offense they view as potentially impeachable itself. And they plan to assume that any witness the White House blocks would have confirmed details of the emerging case against Mr. Trump.

Mr. Eisenberg’s decision heightens the importance of an unusual lawsuit filed by Mr. Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, Charles M. Kupperman, who faced the same situation as Mr. Eisenberg: a subpoena from the House and an instruction from Mr. Trump not to comply with it. Last month, Mr. Kupperman sued, asking a judge to determine if he had to testify. Oral arguments could be heard in that case on Dec. 10.

The suit will have implications that go beyond Mr. Kupperman and Mr. Eisenberg. Mr. Kupperman’s lawyer, Charles J. Cooper, also represents another highly sought-after witness, the former national security adviser John R. Bolton. If House investigators subpoena Mr. Bolton, Mr. Cooper is likely to also ask a judge to determine whether he has to testify.

Mr. Blair, who listened in on the July 25 call, is likely to have been privy to key details about the president’s direction to Mr. Mulvaney to freeze $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine this summer. Mr. Blair’s lawyer indicated over the weekend that he would not cooperate.

Mr. Ellis could offer a direct account of the decision to lock down a reconstructed transcript of the call, and possibly of how the White House legal team handled reports made by national security officials alarmed by what they saw transpiring with Ukraine. A lawyer for Mr. Ellis said Monday morning that he had been directed by the White House not to cooperate and would not appear for an afternoon deposition.

And as Mr. Perry’s chief of staff, Mr. McCormack is said to have been involved in key events under scrutiny. He is now working at the Office of Management and Budget. An administration official indicated on Monday that neither he, nor other White House budget office appointees, would speak with investigators this week.

Eileen Sullivan, Michael D. Shear and Charlie Savage contributed reporting.

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