House Republicans on Thursday plotted to put the government whistleblower on trial in the impeachment probe he launched, as Democrats piled up more testimony against President Trump and eyed a climactic vote the week before Christmas.
Sources in Republican leadership said they are devising a strategy aimed at highlighting the unfairness of the whistleblower remaining in the shadows as the inquiry picks up steam.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio told reporters Thursday that Republicans plan to request the individual for the first public hearing next week, even as Democrats push back on efforts to reveal the whistleblower’s identity.
“Republicans have until Saturday to submit a witness list to the Democrats for the public hearings, and that list will include the ‘whistleblower,’” one Republican aide confirmed to The Washington Times.
But Republicans acknowledge that the impeachment rules devised by majority Democrats leave the decision on the whistleblower in the hands of Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who is leading the probe.
The CIA employee who filed a complaint against the president over his phone call with Ukraine’s president in July has yet to testify, even as part of the Democrats’ closed-door inquiry, which will shift to public hearings Wednesday.
Democrats released the sixth closed-door transcript of their impeachment investigation Thursday, this time from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent. He will be one of the first witnesses to testify in public next week, with former Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor.
Former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, whose ouster has become a large part of the inquiry, will testify on Nov. 15.
While Democratic leadership has mostly tamped down a deadline for the impeachment inquiry, many lawmakers are eyeing an end-of-year vote, meaning before the Christmas break.
Former White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton did not appear for his scheduled closed-door deposition Thursday, although he reportedly said he would comply if ordered to do so by a court. Other witnesses have testified that Mr. Bolton, who was ousted from his White House post in September, was furious about the role of Mr. Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani in Ukraine policy.
In his October testimony, Mr. Kent told lawmakers that he was bothered by Mr. Giuliani’s actions involving Ukraine and a smear campaign that targeted Ms. Yovanovitch, both on social media and within the State Department.
In addition to his concerns about Ms. Yovanovitch, Mr. Kent has said he raised red flags about Hunter Biden’s seat on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings in 2015, but was rebuffed in a phone call by a staffer of then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
“I raised my concerns that I had heard that Hunter Biden was on the board of a company owned by somebody that the U.S. government had spent money trying to get tens of millions of dollars back and that could create the perception of a conflict of interest,” Mr. Kent said.
“What did the person on the other end of the line tell you?” he was asked in the deposition.
“The message that I recall hearing back was that the vice president’s son Beau was dying of cancer and that there was no further bandwidth to deal with family-related issues at that time,” Mr. Kent said.
But he did note that he and other State Department officials never thought to try to get Hunter Biden off the board or to shift the vice president’s responsibilities in Ukraine.
Still, Mr. Kent said he was alarmed by the Trump-Giuliani effort to get Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden and his son and suspected interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s my belief that it is inappropriate for us to ask another country to open up an investigation against political opponents, whether it is political opponents domestically in the U.S. context or, in the case of countries like Ukraine or Georgia, opening up selective prosecutions against perceived opponents of those in power,” he said.
But Mr. Kent also testified several times that he was told there wasn’t a “quid pro quo” transaction of U.S. military aid for those requested investigations. The quid pro quo is at the heart of the impeachment allegations that Mr. Trump abused his Oval Office power for personal political gain.
Much of Mr. Kent’s testimony illustrates the White House’s complaint that the Democrats’ investigation is based on hearsay and secondhand stories among several key witnesses. He told lawmakers that Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, told White House official Tim Morrison, who told Mr. Taylor, that Mr. Sondland had spoken with Mr. Trump about the Ukraine investigations.
“POTUS wanted nothing less than President [Volodymyr] Zelensky to go to [the] microphone and say investigations, Biden, and Clinton,” Mr. Kent said.
“And in return for what?” a lawmaker asked Mr. Kent.
“That was not clear to me. I wasn’t part of this exchange,” Mr. Kent replied.
Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway said Thursday that congressional Democrats “seem to think [the whistleblower] is irrelevant.”
“The Democrats seem to say they’re way past the whistleblower,” she told reporters, noting that lawmakers haven’t taken testimony from the anonymous government employee.
She criticized the Democrats for initially relying on the whistleblower’s complaint about Mr. Trump’s July 25 call with Mr. Zelensky.
“The whistleblower wasn’t on the call, [he] read the transcript when the whole rest of the world read the transcript,” Mrs. Conway said. “As far as I can tell, the only firsthand interaction the whistleblower had with anyone of note was with Chairman Schiff’s staff, colluding with the intel staff.”
The whistleblower had contact with Mr. Schiff’s committee staff before filing his complaint.
Mrs. Conway also said it’s “relevant” for the public to consider the motives of the whistleblower’s attorney, Mr. Zaid, in light of tweets Mr. Zaid posted in January 2017 saying that a “coup has started” and that “impeachment will follow ultimately.”
In July 2017, Mr. Zaid tweeted, “I predict @CNN will play a key role in @realDonaldTrump not finishing out his full term as president.” The lawyer also said, “We will get rid of him, and this country is strong enough to survive even him and his supporters.”
Said Mrs. Conway, “I think that is relevant. I think any claim of bias or any hint of bias does have some relevance. The president’s just trying to bring some attention to that.”
The president blasted Mr. Zaid during a rally in Louisiana, calling the lawyer “disgraceful.”
Mr. Zaid said his social media posts were written in the belief that the president would likely be “stepping over the line” at some point in office.
“Those tweets were reflective and repeated the sentiments of millions of people,” Mr. Zaid said in a statement. “I was referring to a completely lawful process of what President Trump would likely face as a result of stepping over the line, and that particularly whatever would happen would come about as a result of lawyers. The coup comment referred to those working inside the administration who were already, just a week into office, standing up to him to enforce recognized rules of law.”
Democrats dismissed Republican complaints about the whistleblower as a smokescreen. The Democratic chairmen of the three committees conducting the impeachment inquiry said Mr. Kent’s testimony “strongly corroborates” the stories of other witnesses who were unnerved by Mr. Trump’s efforts in Ukraine.
“Mr. Kent affirms that he and his colleagues recognized the impropriety of pressuring Ukrainian officials to undertake politically motivated investigations to help President Trump’s reelection prospects in 2020,” they said in a joint statement accompanying the interview transcript.
The administration has refused to hand over documents to the inquiry, which Mr. Trump has dismissed as a “kangaroo court.”
The chairmen characterized it as obstruction.
“These actions demonstrate the president’s clear obstruction of Congress and support the inference that these documents further corroborate the testimony of presidential misconduct that we have received,” they wrote. “We look forward to Mr. Kent’s public testimony.”
As both sides prepare for the investigation to move to televised hearings, the White House confirmed that it is hiring former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former State Department spokesman Tony Sayegh to work temporarily on impeachment-related matters.
Ms. Bondi said Thursday on “Fox & Friends” that she is “thrilled” to be joining the White House.
“The president, frankly, is his best spokesperson,” she said. “This is just helping with a huge team and doing a lot of other special projects.”
⦁ S.A. Miller contributed to this report.
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