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The weekend in Trump-Ukraine-impeachment news, explained

From House subpoenas to a lot of Trump tweets.

President Donald Trump standing at the base of a flight of steps outside the White House and making a fist gesture.
President Donald Trump on September 26, 2019.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The Trump-Ukraine story developed rapidly last week: An impeachment inquiry launched on Tuesday, the transcript of President Donald Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president was released on Wednesday, and the formal whistleblower complaint that started it all was published Thursday.

The major stakes haven’t really shifted since then: Trump asked Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter, in a July 25 phone call. The whistleblower alleges this was part of a pattern of misbehavior that also includes attempts by the White House to cover up this conversation with the Ukrainian president and potentially other damaging interactions with world leaders.

But news around those major revelations continues to trickle out, from the resignation of the US envoy to Ukraine to the House’s efforts to subpoena information for their expanding inquiry to all of the angry Trump tweets.

If you decided to take a break from the news and enjoy your weekend, we don’t blame you. We’re here to catch you up on everything you missed in the Trump-Ukraine-impeachment scandal over the weekend.

The House moves forward with subpoenas and critical testimony

House Democrats escalated their impeachment inquiry into Trump late Friday, subpoenaing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for documents related to Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and anything related to Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s outreach to the Ukrainian government.

Democrats had requested Pompeo voluntarily turn over these documents earlier in September, but since the State Department hasn’t complied, they’re now demanding them by October 4.

House Democrats also notified Pompeo that they have scheduled five depositions of State Department officials in the next two weeks regarding the Ukraine affair. That includes former US envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker (who resigned later on Friday) and US ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, both of whom were mentioned in the whistleblower complaint.

The House is clearly pushing ahead with its impeachment proceedings and there will likely be more to come. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) also said Sunday on 60 Minutes that he’s planning to subpoena Giuliani himself for documents this week — and he followed through on Monday. The drama over the next two weeks will likely revolve around whether the Trump administration (and Trump’s personal attorney) will comply with these document demands or attempt to stonewall.

But House Democrats aren’t wasting any time. Schiff also said Sunday that his committee has reached an agreement with the whistleblower himself to testify. It will almost certainly be behind closed doors but Schiff suggests it’ll happen “very soon.”

Kurt Volker: the first casualty of the Ukraine scandal

Arizona State University’s student paper had the scoop Friday night that Volker, the US special envoy to Ukraine, was stepping down. His abrupt departure came shortly after he’d been implicated in the burgeoning Ukraine story, though as Vox’s Andrew Prokop pointed out, his actual role in the scandal is far from clear.

The whistleblower complaint mentions Volker, and he’s cast in dual roles: first as trying to help the Ukrainian government navigate Trump’s demands after the July 25 phone call, and later as someone who’s concerned about the national security implications of Giuliani’s meddling.

But it didn’t help that Giuliani went on television last week to reveal text messages between him and Volker, dated July 19, in which Volker appears to set up a meeting for Giuliani “with Andrey Yermak, who is close to President Zelensky.” The very big text messages, literally, appear to show the State Department’s involvement in Giuliani’s efforts, though right now Trump’s attorney has only given his side of the story.

Putin’s name pops up, because of course

The whistleblower alleges in his complaint that White House officials classified Trump’s July 25 conversation with Zelensky as highly sensitive intelligence in an attempt to conceal the disturbing nature of the call. The whistleblower also says that that wasn’t the first time White House aides have done that with Trump’s calls with foreign leaders.

And wouldn’t you know, Trump’s conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin might have been among the transcripts treated in this manner. According to a report in the New York Times, White House officials placed some transcripts of the president’s calls with Putin and with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in “a highly classified computer system” to guard against embarrassing leaks.

This looks even worse given the Washington Post’s scoop this weekend that Trump told Russian officials in that infamous May 2017 Oval Office meeting that he was unconcerned with Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. (It’s unclear if that was before or after Trump spilled some top-secret intel to the Russians or called former FBI director James Comey a “nut job.” It was evidently one hell of a meeting.)

According to the Post, a summary of the meeting was restricted to a select number of people, ostensibly to prevent more damaging leaks.

House Democrats are now interested in getting ahold of Trump’s phone calls with other foreign leaders, including Putin himself. (So far the Kremlin has said the US needs Russian permission to make anything public.)

This issue of how Trump’s calls and interactions were handled raises the very serious question of whether White House officials were abusing the classification system to conceal information that could have damaged Trump politically but didn’t contain anything of great importance to national security.

Some reporting also suggests that White House aids did this because of previous leaks of private phone calls with foreign leaders — such as those with the leaders of Mexico and Australia shortly after Trump’s inauguration — and were basically just trying to prevent fewer people from having access in order to guard against more embarrassing leaks.

It’s definitely a breach of protocol, which is serious. But the central question right now is whether this points to a larger deliberate cover-up or just an overly paranoid White House that made serious missteps.

Either way, it’s worth taking a step back and recognizing that, if the Post’s account is correct, Trump told the foreign minister of a country that attacked a democratic and fair US election that he didn’t care. At best, Trump is neglecting his duty to defend America and at worst he’s inviting the Russians to do it again in the US and elsewhere.

Giuliani is all over the place (and other Trump allies are, too)

Giuliani may be implicated in the biggest presidential scandal of the Trump administration (and that’s saying something), but that’s not stopping the man from appearing everywhere on cable.

Most of Giuliani’s TV appearances are making things worse, not better, for the president. But the larger takeaway from his frequent cable spots is that he’s not really denying that he tried to meet with Ukrainian officials to get them to investigate Joe Biden’s son.

Giuliani also seems very intent on dragging the State Department down with him, broadcasting those Volker texts and telling CBS’s Face the Nation that Pompeo was “aware” of Giuliani’s outreach to Ukraine. Giuliani also had a lot of trouble answering the question of why US law enforcement agencies weren’t investigating the Bidens if the allegations were credible.

Trump’s other defenders tried their best, too, this weekend. The main arguments seem to be that the whistleblower’s account was gathered from secondhand sources. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called it “heresay” on Face the Nation.

The problem with this argument is that the whistleblower’s key allegation — that Trump asked for Ukraine to investigate his 2020 rival on a July 25 phone call — has been verified by the White House’s own readout of the call. (Plus, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson designated the complaint both “urgent” and “credible.”)

This has been the Trump defenders’ go-to strategy: attacking the whistleblower rather than defending the substance of the complaint. But that strategy has its limitations, especially if the other allegations match up. And it’s clear is that few Republicans are willing to actually defend the president’s conduct.

Trump remains the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief

Trump, on his call with Zelensky, asked that the Ukrainian president look into Joe Biden’s son over unsubstantiated claims of corruption. But he also asked Zelensky to look into another issue involving a right-wing conspiracy theory that basically says Ukraine and the Democrats worked together to frame Russia for hacking in 2016 and so set the stage for the “phony Russia witch hunt.”

Russia’s hacking (and meddling) in the 2016 election has been backed up by US intelligence agencies, confirmed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, and reiterated by Trump appointees, who continue to warn of Russian malfeasance in 2020.

But Trump’s disbelief of this reality — or at least his obsession with the Mueller investigation — is at least part of the reason he’s facing impeachment.

Tim Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, said Sunday that he and others told Trump there was no basis to the theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to help the Democrats. Other former aides told the New York Times the same: that no matter how many times Trump was told this theory didn’t make sense, that there was no evidence to support it, he still continued to believe it.

This is remarkable: a paranoid president who disbelieves basic facts and the advice of his closest aides and instead clings to a narrative, no matter how wild, that fits his worldview. That would be bad enough on its own, but as the whistleblower alleges, Trump appeared willing to use the powers of his office — of the United States of America — to pursue his pet theories.

And if you don’t believe Trump’s former aides, just look at his Twitter feed

Trump was extremely online this weekend and Monday morning. Going on the offensive is often his wont when he’s under pressure, so this really isn’t a surprise.

But even in a world of relentless Trump “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT” tweets, some of his content edged into somewhat disturbing and particularly dishonest territory. (Also, the president retweeted a parody account that puts the word “shark” in Trump’s tweets, so everything is definitely cool and normal here.)

In one tweet, Trump cited a Trump-supporting pastor who spoke of “civil war-like fracture” if Trump is impeached. While this spawned a lot of Twitter jokes, alluding to a violent conflict over a political process the president doesn’t like is not exactly a reassuring state of affairs. And, as some have pointed out, extremist groups have seized on Trump’s tweet.

Another one of Trump’s tweets — being repeated and spread over right-wing media and by GOP politicians — is this allegation that the whistleblower rules were changed before the Ukraine whistleblower submitted his report in order to specifically allow for secondhand reports.

This insinuation came from conservative outlet the Federalist and is just simply not true, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote:

It is true that the whistleblower form was changed in August shortly before the submission of the Ukraine report, but the earlier version of the form contained no prohibition on the use of second-hand information. That the Federalist article is incorrect has not prevented the claim from being widely rebroadcast by everyone from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to the president’s attorneys Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani. It is, however, completely false.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that the central claim in the whistleblower report — that Trump pushed the Ukrainian president to investigate his 2020 rivals — is proven by the White House’s own memo of the call.

And then there are Trump’s attacks on Democrats, most notably Schiff, who’s spearheading the investigation on the House Intelligence Committee. Trump mused on Twitter that Schiff should maybe be investigated for treason.

Trump’s complaint stems from Schiff’s ill-conceived attempt at dramatizing Trump’s pressure campaign on foreign leaders during a Congressional hearing Thursday, using hyperbolic language to paint a narrative of corruption. Critics seized on this as Schiff making up quotes wholesale.

That being said, Schiff didn’t do anything treasonous, but as Vox’s Sean Collins pointed out, it’s what’s behind the allegation that’s most troublesome: Trump’s desire to paint those trying to investigate him as political enemies who are betraying the country.

Trump probably definitely won’t stay off Twitter, especially as this investigation continues. And it’s clear from his early rhetoric what kind of talking points he’s trying to amplify — and just how ugly this impeachment battle could get.