Report

Senate Democrats Urge More Probes Into Unfolding Impeachment Saga

Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee urge Republican leadership to investigate the Ukraine affair that triggered the House impeachment inquiry.

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee speak after a hearing.
U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson (from left), Bob Menendez, and Ben Cardin speak during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting in Washington on April 23, 2018. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Democrats are pushing to expand their role in the widening House-led impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump.

All 10 Democrats on the 22-member Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter this week to the chairman of the committee, Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch, urging him to immediately begin hearings into the president’s interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that precipitated the impeachment inquiry. Senate Democrats urged Risch to call Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other “key Department officials” involved in Ukraine policy.

But it seems unlikely that Risch will heed their demands for the committee to take on a bigger role, setting up another political showdown in a committee that has traditionally been known for its bipartisan spirit.

The push by committee Democrats is one of the first efforts by lawmakers in the Senate to play a part in the impeachment inquiry that has rapidly gained momentum since it began on Sept. 24. The House intelligence, foreign affairs, and oversight committees have led the probe, which involves a raft of subpoenas for Trump administration officials and associates.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has also invited Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on his efforts to convince the Ukrainian government to dig into former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential Democratic rival of Trump’s in the 2020 presidential election. Graham has sharply criticized the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. 

Risch, a staunch if quiet Trump ally, appears reluctant to involve his committee in the impeachment probe. 

“We are in a very partisan and volatile time in American politics, and the House’s impeachment inquiry has clearly inflamed these ongoing tensions,” a spokesman for Risch said in an email to Foreign Policy. 

“It’s unproductive to weigh in on each and every development. Rather than commenting on every new piece of information, the senator is monitoring these issues and will comment if and when impeachment proceedings move to the Senate and he has cast his official vote as a juror in those impeachment proceedings.”

Under the impeachment process, the House votes on articles of impeachment, and if it passes then the Senate takes action by holding a trial overseen by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The Democrats control the House, and the Republicans retain a majority in the Senate.

Led by New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, the Democrats said in their letter that the committee has “an obligation to examine the serious questions raised by” Trump’s alleged withholding of foreign aid to Ukraine.

“[W]e call on you to promptly convene hearings and use all available Committee tools to fully examine these matters,” they wrote. “At a minimum, this must include hearings with the Secretary of State as well as key Department officials who were involved in Ukraine policy or had interactions with or related to Ukrainian officials.”

Zelensky insisted to reporters on Thursday that there was “no blackmail” on the part of the U.S. president, and Trump has said he put “no pressure” on Ukraine to investigate Biden. But text messages between senior U.S. diplomats released by the House Foreign Affairs Committee suggest there was plenty of concern about just that.

“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Bill Taylor, a veteran career diplomat who serves as the interim chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, texted to Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland.

The State Department blocked Sondland from giving a deposition to the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week, but Sondland is now expected to defy State Department orders and testify next week. Other State Department officials, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and State Department counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl, are scheduled to testify before the House next week, alongside Fiona Hill, a top former National Security Council aide on Russia.

Congressional aides say some of the questioning will center on the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed from her post ahead of schedule in May and is testifying on Friday. Yovanovitch remains with the State Department, in a role as a temporary fellow at Georgetown University.

Two associates of Giuliani, who were arrested Wednesday over campaign finance law violations, were engaged in a campaign to unseat Yovanovitch from her post, according to a federal indictment unsealed Thursday.

While all the impeachment action is currently in the House, some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee aren’t waiting on the committee to get involved as new developments in the saga emerge.

“The fact that a U.S. Ambassador was fired after a pressure campaign based on illegal campaign contributions is a major new element of an already extraordinary story of corruption,” said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy in a statement. “In the coming days, I will be writing to the Department of State to demand answers.”

Mounting tensions between Senate Republicans and Democrats over what role, if any, they should play in the impeachment will serve as a key test for the Foreign Relations Committee. The committee, which conducts oversight of the State Department and other aspects of U.S. foreign relations, has traditionally been a haven of bipartisan cooperation, though that has changed in recent months amid tensions between Risch and Menendez

The Democrats on the committee publicly released the letter they sent to Risch “without going to the chairman and having a conversation with him during this recess,” a Republican Senate aide told Foreign Policy.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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