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Impeachment Today Podcast: A$AP Rocky, Welcome To The Impeachment Saga

In today's episode: we go deep on the story behind a 2017 news article that's still driving the impeachment conversation in pro-Trump circles.

Posted on November 18, 2019, at 6:24 p.m. ET

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It's Monday, November 18th, 2019, 55 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

In today's episode: Tim Morrison, a White House NSC official, testifies that he thinks nothing inappropriate or illegal happened on that now-famous phone call between the US and Ukrainian presidents, and a new character enters the impeachment saga: A$AP Rocky. And we've got politics reporter Miriam Elder here to talk about a 2017 news article that has been driving the conversation in pro-Trump circles.

You can listen to today's episode below, or check it out on on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

It's Monday, November 18th, 2019, 55 days since the House began its impeachment inquiry, and this is Impeachment Today. Good morning, I'm Hayes Brown, reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News. I hope you're ready for this week, because we have three, count them three, days of hearings on deck. Okay. Today we're talking to our good friend and BuzzFeed News politics reporter Miriam Elder about a news article that's playing a big role in these hearings, a 2017 story from Politico that some Republicans are pretty sure is proof that Trump is right about Ukraine being, and I'm paraphrasing here, a bag of dicks whose election meddling was worse than Russia's, but before we get to all of that, let's catch up on what happened over the weekend.

Okay, a lot happened, so bear with me. House Democrats released two more testimonies on Saturday. Yes, Saturday. We now know what Congress learned from Tim Morrison, a White House National Security Council official and Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy staffer detailed to Vice President Mike Pence. Highlights, Williams listened in on the July 25th phone call between Trump and Ukraine's President Zelensky, and said she found it unusual and inappropriate. Williams also says according to her notes, the president specifically mentioned Burisma during the call. That's the company that employed Joe Biden's son Hunter until earlier this year. But the word Burisma does not appear in the transcript-ish of the call that the White House released.

Morrison's testimony had a bit more in it to bolster the White House's defense. He said that in his view, nothing inappropriate or illegal happened in the July call. He also defended a decision to lock down the contents of the call to keep it from leaking. But Morrison also confirmed a key piece of testimony implicating the president that was delivered in last week's hearings. Morrison said that in early September, he saw the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, speaking with a top tier Zelensky staffer. Sondland then walked over and told Morrison what he told the staffer, that military aid to Ukraine would likely be released once Ukraine announced a pair of investigations that would help Trump politically.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that Sondland was keeping the White House very closely informed about his progress. That included emailing Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to say that Zelensky was ready to get on board with Trump's demands. Mulvaney has already been named as the official who ordered a hold on millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine this summer. He reportedly did so at the order of the president. Congress is investigating whether that aid freeze was connected to the demand for investigations. Because when it rains, it pours, an associate of Rudy Giuliani's has told acquaintances that he had a secret mission from President Trump. Lev Parnas helped connect Rudy Giuliani with Ukrainian officials as the former mayor sought political dirt for Trump. CNN spoke with two people who say that Parnas told them that during a private meeting Trump and Giuliani had with him at the White House Hanukkah party last year, he and his partner were given the task of digging into the Bidens. Oy vey. Parnas was arrested for alleged campaign finance violations in September. He's also told prosecutors he's willing to dish on the president, but as of right now, his story has not been corroborated.

And finally, a new character has entered into the saga, NYC rapper and Sweden's public enemy number one, ASAP Rocky. Yes, I'm serious. David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, testified behind closed doors on Friday. He said that he and several others could hear Trump on the other end of a call Sondland placed during their lunch with the ambassador this summer. Holmes said he heard the president say, "So he's going to do the investigation?" after an update from Sondland on a meeting with Zelensky. Holmes then told Congress the following, "He recommended the president should let him get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker tape parade when he comes home. Ambassador Sondland further told the president that Sweden should have released him on your word, but that you can tell the Kardashians you tried." What? And that's after we've already had a reminder that Trump wanted to buy Greenland during this process. It's like the writers who spun up this stupid timeline want to throw in as many callbacks as possible.

And now, to quantify the essence of WTF, we have today's reading from our Nixometer. On our scale of zero is a normal day in a normal White House and 10 is President Richard Nixon resigning and flying away in Marine One, this morning we are at a 7.1. This weekend did nothing to ease off the gas after last week's hearings. Instead, we're still learning more new information with several officials who listened to Trump's call with Zelensky, and at least one who had a conversation with Trump himself. It's going to be hard for Republicans to use the same arguments they did in the first hearings. And meanwhile, Democrats somehow have to keep the momentum going and the public's attention focused.

Okay, after the break we talk to Miriam Elder about the new story some Republicans think is their best defense of the president. Be right back with you.

All right, time for this fucking thing. And while it's a bit unusual today, that thing is a news article from 2017 that's been referenced repeatedly by Republicans in Congress and has helped shape their defense of the president. Joining me by phone from literally just outside the impeachment hearing room is Buzzfeed News political reporter Miriam Elder. Hi, Miriam.

Miriam Elder:

Hey, Hayes.

HB:

Thank you for doing this on a very busy day. So this story, it was published in Politico on January 11, 2017. If you're listening at home and you want to go read it, we're going to put a link to it in our show notes. So this is a little over a week before Trump's inauguration. Let's start with the headline, Ukrainian Efforts to Sabotage Trump Backfire. Right away, that's a bit of an eyebrow raiser. Can you give us a gist, like what does this story say?

ME:

So this story tries to present a case that there was a concerted effort on the part of the Ukrainian government, essentially, to boost the campaign of Hillary Clinton and to undermine Donald Trump. And that's deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons. I could talk about this story forever, but the gist of it is that the examples that they give are completely taken out of context. There's a certain case that they hone in on in particular, which is the case of Paul Manafort, who was Donald Trump's campaign manager, and they're trying to say that Ukrainians were amplifying his corruption in order to bring Trump down. The thing is, what Manafort was up to in Ukraine, which was advising a pro-Russian president for enormous amounts of money, was an open secret in Kiev. It was not a thing that kind of came together just to affect the U.S. election.

HB:

So this sort of like equivalency between what Ukraine did according to this story and what Russia definitely did in terms of interfering with the U.S. election, that equivalency just isn't actually there, right?

ME:

Right, and it's also a Russian talking point. So you have to remember the moment when the story was published. Everybody in the world had woken up to this fact that the Russians had meddled in the U.S. election in a variety of ways and that that effort was personally directed by Vladimir Putin. So it's enormously in his interest and in the interest of, you know, the propaganda machine that he controls, to push out this alternate narrative and say, wait, wait, wait, you guys think it was us? But look over here. Ukraine did the exact same thing, when in fact they didn't.

HB:

That's really interesting. So including the Russians, what was the reaction like, do you remember, when this story first came out?

ME:

Yeah, there was just among people who, you know, follow Russia and follow Ukraine very closely, sort of separate from the U.S. context, immediately we were all like, what on earth is going on? The sources that are described in the story are not super credible sources and everybody was just really confused. I remember talking not too long ago with Chris Miller, who is a correspondent based in Kiev and who's been doing some great reporting for Buzzfeed, and he reminded me how he'd been talking to Ukrainian officials at the time, and even when they saw the story, they were like, what the hell is going on? This doesn't make any sense.

HB:

And you would know, Miriam, since before you came to Buzzfeed, you were the Moscow reporter for The Guardian. So Miriam, who was the author of this piece then?

ME:

So the author is, it's actually two authors. There's Kenneth Vogel, who wrote the story for Politico, and David Stern, who's a longtime Kiev correspondent and I think a freelancer for them.

HB:

So Ken Vogel, that name sounds familiar. He's moved to the New York Times now, right? And he's written other stories about Ukraine since then.

ME:

He has, and he's a very dogged reporter. He's the one who also exposed Rudy Giuliani's efforts in Ukraine, and that kind of all got this ball rolling. And you know, I don't think the issue is in terms of the reporting that he does, it's really the framing and the kind of knowledge that you need to present these kinds of stories, particularly in an environment where conspiracy theories are lurking around every corner.

HB:

It feels like a lot of conspiracy theories have been built out of this one story and just kind of got the ball rolling on that. Republicans just really seem to really just effing love this story in Congress. It's come up several times in the course of the first hearing, so why do you think are they so enamored with it?

ME:

It presents a case that's attractive to them, which is kind of demonizing Ukraine as a country, and secondly, I think what really matters for them is that this is not a story that appeared in Breitbart. It's not a story that appeared on Fox News. It's a story that appeared in an incredibly credible mainstream outlet, Politico.

HB:

To the point that during the first hearings, they actually entered it into the congressional record, so it just lives there forever now. Now, I remember one name that was in that story was Alexandra Chalupa, and I saw that name on the list of potential witnesses that Republicans wanted to call to testify. Should we be paying attention to who she is?

ME:

I mean, it depends on what you're interested in. She's a Ukrainian American, and she is somebody who has closely followed politics in Ukraine for a really long time and who is also incredibly concerned about Russian influence in the country. But the way that the Politico article spun it and the way that what Republicans have picked up on, is that she was this sort of shady operative trying to bring down Paul Manafort. And again, the Manafort thing was just such an open secret in Ukraine, and it was something that people had been worried about for a really long time before he was in any way connected even with the Trump campaign. So I think she saw it as sort of an opportunity to expose his corruption. And of course he's now in jail.

HB:

Right, I was just about to remind listeners that yes, he is currently in jail for not paying his taxes, basically, and lying to the government about his work in Ukraine. So Miriam, before you have to run back into the hearing room, what should we be taking away from this whole affair with this article, especially when we think about how the press interacts with Rudy Giuliani, who has been laid out in testimony, has gotten pretty good about pushing certain narratives.

ME:

He has, and you know, I'm here at the hearing of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, who was the subject of an enormous pressure campaign based on conspiracy theories that eventually got into the president's head and eventually led him to recall her. And so what I really take away from all of this is that I think it's really important for the average witness to these hearings, and particularly for reporters, to be really aware of the conspiracy theories that are being pushed. Because if you're not aware of them, it's really easy to become susceptible to them. But if you understand what's credible and what's not, you can go in with a really informed perspective.

HB:

All right, Miriam, I'm going to let you go back to getting your reporting on. So thank you so much for taking the time today to break down what this article is and what it isn't. Thank you so much.

Okay, it's time to testify. We've got a long week ahead of us, and it kicks off with four people testifying before Congress tomorrow. Tuesday sessions will be broken into two parts. In the morning, we'll hear from Jennifer Williams, a State Department official and aide to Vice President Mike Pence. At the table next to her will be Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who is a staffer with the White House National Security Council. He focuses on Russia and Ukraine policy, and was actually listening in on the phone call between Trump and Ukraine's President Zelensky. It's the first time someone who was on the call will be testifying. Then in the afternoon, we have Kurt Volker, the former U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine and one of the key people who pushed Ukraine to announce the investigations that Trump wanted. He'll testify alongside Tim Morrison, another National Security Council staffer focusing on Europe and Russia. Republicans have been looking forward to hearing from Morrison after he testified behind closed doors that he did not necessarily see anything illegal in the president's actions.

And that's just the first day of what's going to be a week of staring raptly at people behind a desk answering, "Yes, that is correct." But before we get to that, we asked you last week to share how you were watching the impeachment hearings and your reactions to them. Diane S. DMed me on Tuesday to say, "My husband is working from home and undoubtedly would not appreciate having the TV on. I may try the NPR channel on Sirius with my earbuds in, or I might keep an eye on Twitter. Depends a lot on the fragility of my sanity and my anxiety level." Diane, super relatable. And Bill N. messaged me with this note. "That's a great question regarding how I plan on following this horror show. On the one hand, my office has TVs in it, so I could follow along in real time, but I feel like I would literally get nothing done. I imagine I'll mostly follow along from updates pushed to my phone and if something really insane happens, basically smoking gun or Trump is about to resign, I will head over to a TV, along with a good portion of the office, I'd imagine." Bill, you have no idea how many TVs are on in our newsroom all the time, so I feel you on that one. And we really appreciated this voice memo we got from Ben K.

Ben K.:

Hello Hayes, this is Ben in Illinois. I really don't see myself having the time at all to keep up with the live coverage of the hearings. I have work and everything else. It's a lot. So I will be relying on summaries, recaps, highlights, first among which is your show. So that's quite a responsibility you have. Good job so far. Keep it up.

HB:

Thank you. And thanks to everyone who took the time to respond, and we're looking forward to hearing more from you about how you're experiencing this moment in history.

Okay, that's it for today. Tomorrow, we'll have more madness for you, as we will until the day this all wraps up, or we all perish in the flames of the meteor that comes crashing into us, extinguishing all life on the planet, whichever. But before we go, as always, we want to hear from you. After one week of hearings, what things are you still confused by? Open the voice memo app on your phone, record your message, and send it to us at impeachment@buzzfeed.com, or just send me a direct message on Twitter. I'm @HayesBrown and my DMs are always open. Be sure to subscribe to Impeachment Today on the the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows - and maybe leave a rating and a review, please? Also, tell your friends about the show and if you really want to show us some love, go to support.buzzfeednews.com, and toss us a few bucks, please and thanks. Talk to you all tomorrow. Bye.

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