Senior White House Official Testifies Privately in Trump Impeachment Probe
A senior White House budget official arrived on Capitol Hill Saturday to testify behind closed doors before congressional investigators who are conducting an impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump.
Mark Sandy, a longtime career official with the Office of Management and Budget, is the first agency employee to be deposed in the inquiry after three employees appointed by Trump defied congressional subpoenas to testify. It remains unclear if a subpoena had been issued to Sandy.
Sandy could provide valuable information about the U.S. delay of nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine last summer, allegedly in exchange for the newly-elected Ukrainian president to launch investigations into 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son at Trump’s request. Investigators are also exploring debunked claims promoted by Trump and allies that Ukraine, and not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Sandy was among the career employees who questioned the holdup, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
His signature is on at least one document that prevented the provision of the aid to Ukraine, according to copies of documents investigators discussed during an earlier deposition. A transcript of the discussion has been publicly disclosed.
Sandy appears before the House foreign affairs, intelligence, and oversight and reform committees.
In a statement, the three Democratic-led committees said they are investigating “the extent to which President Trump jeopardized national security by pressing Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election and by withholding security assistance provided by Congress to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression, as well as any efforts to cover up these matters.”
Sandy’s deposition comes one day after the ousted former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, testified at the congressional impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump that she was “shocked and devastated” over remarks Trump made about her during a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“I didn’t know what to think, but I was very concerned,” she told the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. “It felt like a threat.”
Her testimony was consistent with her closed-door testimony last month when she said she felt “threatened” and worried about her safety after Trump said “she’s going to go through some things.”
A career diplomat, Yovanovitch was unceremoniously recalled to Washington after Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, and his allies waged what her colleagues and Democrats have described as a smear campaign against her. Two Giuliani associates recently arrested for campaign finance violations are accused of lobbying former Republican House member Pete Sessions of Texas for her ouster.
Yovanovitch was mentioned in Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy that triggered the impeachment probe after a whistleblower filed a complaint. According to the White House summary of the call, Trump said Yovanovitch was “bad news.”
An unusual exchange occurred during the hearing that began when Trump took to Twitter to again criticize Yovanovitch. He tweeted, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.”
Democratic committee chairman Adam Schiff interrupted the proceedings to read the tweet and asked her to respond. Yovanovitch paused before saying, “It’s very intimidating” and added: “I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do, but the effect is to be intimidating.”
Schiff responded that, “Some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.”
Trump’s Twitter attack drew the ire of Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the third highest-ranking Republican in the House.
She said Trump “was wrong” and that Yovanovitch “clearly is somebody who’s been a public servant to the United States for decades, and I don’t think the president should have done that.”
The White House later issued a statement denying accusations of intimidation.
“The tweet was not witness intimidation, it was simply the President’s opinion, which he is entitled to,” the statement said. “This is not a trial, it is a partisan political process—or to put it more accurately, a totally illegitimate, charade stacked against the President. There is less due process in this hearing than any such event in the history of our country. It’s a true disgrace.”
Yovanovitch also told lawmakers that she was the target of a “campaign of disinformation” during which “unofficial back channels” were used to oust her.
Yovanovitch said repeated attacks from “corrupt interests” have created a “crisis in the State Department,” which she said “is being hallowed out within a competitive and complex time on the world stage.”
The veteran diplomat said that senior officials at the State Department, right up to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, failed to defend her from attacks from Trump and his allies, including Guiliani.
Yovanovitch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from July 2016 to May 2019, also testified last month that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had recommended she praise Trump on Twitter if she wanted to save her job.
During opening remarks, Schiff said Yovanovitch was “smeared and cast aside” by Trump because she was viewed as an obstacle to Trump’s political and personal agenda.
Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, described the hearings as nothing more than “spectacles” for Democrats to “advance their operation to topple a duly elected president.”
Republicans, led by Nunes and their lead counsel, Steve Castor, tried to portray Yovanovitch as immaterial to the impeachment inquiry.
Nunes suggested that Yovanovitch’s complaints are a personnel matter that is “more appropriate for the Subcommittee on Human Resources on Foreign Affairs” and declared she is “not a material fact witness.”
Castor peppered Yovanovitch with questions aimed at proving her irrelevance, including whether she was involved in preparations for the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy or plans for a White House meeting between the two leaders. She answered in the negative to all the questions.
Nunes also read a rough transcript of an April call Trump had with newly elected Zelenskiy that shows Zelenskiy was eager to have Trump attend his inauguration in Ukraine. The White House released the transcript just minutes after the hearing began, apparently an attempt to dispel any notions of wrongdoing by the president.
“I know how busy you are, but if it’s possible for you to come to the inauguration ceremony, that would be a great, great thing for you to do to be with us on that day.”
Trump vowed to have a “great representative” attend the event if he was unable to.
The U.S. delegation to inauguration was led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry after Vice President Mike Pence canceled the trip.
Yovanovitch’s removal sent shockwaves through the foreign service, with more than 50 former female U.S. ambassadors writing a letter to Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to protect foreign service officers from political retaliation.
William Taylor, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of U.S. policy toward Ukraine, testified on Wednesday during the first day of the historic televised hearings that could lead to a House vote on articles of impeachment before the end of the year.
All three diplomats have previously testified behind closed doors about Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter, and to probe a discredited conspiracy theory regarding the 2016 president election.
Democrats say the open hearings will allow the public to assess the credibility of the witnesses and their testimonies. Republicans hope to discredit the impeachment proceedings and poke holes in the witnesses’ testimony.
Also Friday, David Holmes, a staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, appeared before House investigators for closed-door testimony. Holmes testified he overheard Trump ask Sondland about the status of “investigations” during a phone call after Trump’s July 25 conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart.
Sondland later explained the probes pertained to Biden, a former U.S. vice president, and his son, Hunter, according to Holmes. No wrongdoing by either Biden has been substantiated.
Holmes’ testimony was one of the first direct accounts of Trump pursuing investigations of a political rival.
Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry to determine if Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine unless President Zelenskiy publicly committed himself to investigating 2020 Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden for corruption.
Trump also has repeated an unfounded claim that Ukraine, and not Russia, meddled in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Democrats and their candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Republicans have contended that Trump did not improperly pressure Ukraine to investigate political rivals for political advantage.
Under pressure from Trump, Republican lawmakers have waged a vigorous defense of the president’s actions in dealing with Ukraine over a several-month period, and they have asserted that the Democrats’ case for impeachment against Trump is non-existent.
Next week, the House panel will hold public hearings again. The schedule for testimony includes:
Tuesday: Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence; Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, former director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, Ambassador Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine; and Tim Morrison, a White House aide with the National Security Council focusing on Europe and Russia policy.
Wednesday: Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union; Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs; and David Hale, under secretary of state for political affairs.
Thursday: Fiona Hill, former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia.