3 days, 5 transcripts: What we’ve learned from recently released impeachment depositions

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Listen to this episode of Today, Explained for a breakdown of the latest impeachment deposition transcripts.

Starting next week, the impeachment inquiry into President Trump will go live on television. But this week has been the week of transcripts. House Democrats released transcripts from closed-door impeachment depositions of current and former administration officials.

On Monday, transcripts of depositions by Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, and Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to the secretary of state, were released. On Tuesday, transcripts from Kurt Volker, the former US special representative to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, were made public. And on Wednesday, we got one from Bill Taylor, who is the current top US diplomat in Ukraine.

Vox’s Andrew Prokop pored through them for revelations and shared what he’s learned on this episode of Today, Explained. Marie Yovanovitch, the subject of the first transcript, was no longer the ambassador when the main events of the Ukraine affair happened, Prokop explains.

“[Yovanovitch’s] story is kind of interesting mainly as a prologue to this whole saga. She said ‘I couldn’t imagine all of the things that have happened.’ She describes what is basically a smear campaign against her with the participation of some Ukrainian officials, from Rudy Giuliani.”

Prokop also breaks down the big admission of Sondland’s updated testimony, how Bill Taylor’s testimony basically debunked Sondland’s version of events, and how Republicans have been questioning these witnesses.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

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Sean Rameswaram

Whose transcripts were released after [Yovanovitch’s]? Any bombshells?

Andrew Prokop

[Gordon Sondland has] been widely viewed as the least credible witness to have testified in this entire saga so far. He was plagued by repeated failures of memory. “I don’t recall. I don’t recall. I don’t recall,” he kept saying.

What happened after he testified is that two other witnesses, Bill Taylor from the State Department and Tim Morrison from the National Security Council, testified at some length about various conversations with Sondland they were involved in, and described what Sondland was telling them … how he said that, in fact, the aid to Ukraine did hinge on whether they launched the investigations Trump wanted, that Sondland said that he was in contact with Trump on this, and that Trump kept saying, “There’s no quid pro quo, but I want the Ukrainian president to do these things, to commit to these investigations publicly.”

Sondland didn’t remember any of this, so he claims initially. And before his transcript was released on Tuesday, he and his lawyer submitted an addendum to his original sworn testimony saying that the testimony of Taylor and Morrison has “refreshed my recollection” about certain conversations in early September 2019.

He says that he now recalls telling a senior adviser to Ukraine’s president that the hundreds of millions of dollars in withheld military aid probably hinged on whether they launched those investigations into the company tied to Joe Biden’s son and into the 2016 election … supposedly Ukrainian interference. It may seem hard to believe that you would forget telling the Ukrainians this, but that is what Sondland is claiming.

Sean Rameswaram

And what kind of example is that setting for the children, Andrew?

Andrew Prokop

It’s possible that he just is really suffering from some memory problems, but maybe he shouldn’t really be in this post if his memory of things that happened just a couple months ago are so poor. And his memory is continuing to be quite flawed. He is not remembering conversations he was telling others that he had with Donald Trump about this, and he is notably vague in the new statement on how he learned that the military aid was being tied to the investigations. He says that he simply presumed this. So even the updated testimony is a little hard to believe.

Sean Rameswaram

But Sondland still isn’t saying the president ordered some sort of quid pro quo?

Andrew Prokop

The big admission of Sondland’s updated testimony was the acknowledgment of what other witnesses have said, that in fact, the quid pro quo — military aid for investigations — was communicated to the Ukrainians. He had been saying he didn’t remember doing this. Now, he admits it. He’s still not admitting that it came from President Trump. However, other witnesses have said that at the time, Sondland told them he talked to President Trump multiple times and that this is, in fact, what President Trump wanted.

Sean Rameswaram

Who is he throwing under the bus, if not President Trump?

Andrew Prokop

He’s trying to pin as much on Rudy Giuliani as possible. He keeps saying that this whole idea of the investigations came from Rudy.

Sean Rameswaram

What’s up with Bill Taylor? What’s in his transcript?

Andrew Prokop

He basically really debunked Sondland’s version of events by making clear how explicit the quid pro quo was. What I thought was most interesting from Taylor’s testimony was a bit of a plaintive note. He was describing how the Ukrainians reacted when they found out that this hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid that they were relying on for use in their military conflict with Russia was being held up. Taylor says that they were just desperate. He said “they thought there must be some rational reason for this being held up. And maybe in Washington they didn’t understand how important this assistance was to their fight and to their armed forces.”

It’s a reminder that Trump was trying to play this game, his political machinations, and pressure the Ukrainian government to do this. But they’re embroiled in a serious war. And there are real consequences to what Trump was trying to do here.

Sean Rameswaram

Some of the details here are new, some of this stuff we already had a sense of. But one thing that should be coming out of these transcripts is how Republicans have been questioning these witnesses, right? From what you’ve read, I know there’s a lot of pages here. Have you seen Republicans honestly trying to get to the bottom of this controversy and figure out what happened?

Andrew Prokop

I’ve seen them trying to get to the bottom of figuring out who the anonymous whistleblower is.

Sean Rameswaram

Oh! Have they figured it out?

Andrew Prokop

They seem to be pretty confident in their assessment of who it is at this point. They bring up this person’s name in the transcripts and say they ask various witnesses, Have you ever talked to this person about what happened in Ukraine? And when asked to defend that, they generally characterize it as just trying to get some facts, but in context, it sure looks like a way to try to get this person’s identity out.

Sean Rameswaram

Does everyone now know who the whistleblower is?

Andrew Prokop

The name has been written by some conservative media outlets, been tweeted out by one of the president of the United States’ children. But major media outlets like, for instance, Vox, have been hesitant to repeat this whistleblower’s supposed name, questioning the news value of this. It seems more of an effort at retaliation rather than a good faith effort to check their information, because the person’s information has already been completely confirmed at this point by all the documents and testimony from other witnesses that have come out.

The whistleblower’s identity seems pretty irrelevant at this point, but Trump really wants a villain and he is trying to put a face on this whistleblower to have a new hate figure for conservative media to fulminate about deep state conspiracies against the president. Fox News apparently told its hosts that they are not permitted to repeat the alleged whistleblower name on air. That means you, Sean Hannity.


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