Article II: Inside Impeachment
Behind Closed Doors
STEVE KORNACKI: Welcome to Article II: Inside Impeachment. We are a brand new podcast from NBC News all about the politics of impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki, and my official title is national political correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC. You might know me as the numbers guy over here. I'm usually standing in front of a big screen, some might say talking excitedly and gesturing wildly...
KORNACKI ON TV: Let's go to math class here and let's try to figure this one out together .... How many absentee ballots are left in the district of 847 is the margin ... We're sitting here. I've got the wrong one from a paltry 20 percent in 2014, up to 36 percent. OK. 847, ehhhhh, let's say .... 200, I -- ehh --- 200 votes. You've got to see a surprise there tomorrow for Democrats and then everything has to go their way after that.
KORNACKI: Yep, that's me. But here on this podcast, we're going to do something a little different because this is an extraordinary moment. The president may be impeached. Hearings are already underway in the House. Formal articles may be introduced soon. There could be a trial in the Senate to decide whether Donald Trump gets removed from office. Impeachment dramas are rare in American history, and this one comes with an added twist. The election, the one where Trump will be running for reelection if he's not removed is just a year away. It has been said before, and it is true, impeachment is ultimately a political process. Politicians in the House and the Senate casting votes on the president's fate.
So here on this podcast, we're going to focus like a laser on the politics of impeachment. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, maybe more often than that, if there's big enough news, we're going to be right here asking what matters most and why, and getting answers from some of the sharpest reporters around, the folks who are living and breathing this story every day. I hope you'll be right here with us. And with that, let's get to it. It's Friday, October 18th. And here's what's happening.
Since the impeachment inquiry launched at the end of last month, Americans have watched just one public hearing that was involving Joseph Maguire, the Acting Director of National Intelligence.
JOSEPH MAGUIRE: I want to make it clear that I have upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way in the matter that is before us today.
KORNACKI: But mostly we've seen a parade of witnesses head to Capitol Hill and then disappear behind closed doors.
NBC NEWS: Former State Department envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker is testifying behind closed doors on Capitol Hill ... You've got a key figure in the inquiry who is behind closed doors right now ... Showed up here about 20 minutes ago for his closed door testimony .... Still behind closed doors, offering her deposition.
GEOFF BENNETT: Did President Trump instructed to say that there was no quid pro quo here?
BENNETT: Excuse me, sir. As a respected attorney, I'm sure you understand how the how the free press works. Sir, thank you. Can you say definitively, sir, that there was no quid pro quo?
GORDON SONDLAND: I'm not giving any comment until my testimony. Thanks.
BENNETT: Why was it important for you to show up here today?
SONDLAND: It's always important to show up when Congress calls.
KORNACKI: That's my colleague Geoff Bennett at the end, they're talking to EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland before Sondland appeared for his closed door deposition. In this secrecy, all of these closed door hearings, it's outraged Republicans.
KEVIN MCCARTHY: There's absolutely no transparency right now.
JIM JORDAN: Why not release the transcripts so you can all see what Ambassador Volker told us. There is no wrongdoing,.
MARK MEADOWS: I's not a fair process. I can tell you.
MATT GAETZ: Why is Adam Schiff trying to run a kangaroo court? Why is he continuing to limit access to evidence?
MCCARTHY: He's taken this to a Soviet style inquiry.
KORNACKI: Democratic leaders, though, say this is key to their strategy.
ADAM SCHIFF: There is a profound investigative, not only interest, but need to make sure that one witness does not have an opportunity to read another witness's testimony and either hide the truth or color the truth or know just how much they can give and how much they can conceal. I'm sure the president would like nothing better than to have witnesses have the advantage of what others are saying.
KORNACKI: So today on Article II: Inside Impeachment, we ask why is so much of this process behind closed doors? And will there be political fallout?
Julia Ainsley is an NBC News correspondent covering the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, so she knows a thing or two about secrecy. Hi, Julia.
JULIA AINSLEY: Hi, Steve. How are you?
KORNACKI: I'm great. So help us understand this behind closed doors process. Let let me start with a really basic question here. But I actually don't know the answer, so maybe, maybe you can help. Who is actually interviewing these witnesses? Which is it? One committee. Is it a series of committees? Is it a a changing mix of committee members, who's actually getting to be in there interviewing these folks?
AINSLEY: So Democrats who control the House are running, who is subpoenaed, and there are certain leadership who is in charge of kind of who is subpoenaed and who they talk to. But in general, it's the House Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Adam Schiff, that's really driving these interviews. But it's actually not the members of Congress themselves that's doing most of these interviews. A lot of times it's their staff, it's their legal counsel who know the ins and outs of what kind of evidence that they're going to be looking for in order to form what they'll call articles of impeachment, which is essentially the evidence that they would bring forward to show why the president should no longer be in office.
KORNACKI: Another basic question here. But how many witnesses so far have actually testified in the impeachment inquiry, and how many of them have done it behind closed doors?
AINSLEY: So seven have testified so far and only one of those has been out in the open. So the first went out in the open was Joseph Maguire. He's the Director of National Intelligence. After that, they were all behind closed doors that includes Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Fiona Hill, who was a Ukraine and Russia expert at the White House. There was George Kent, who is former State Department, Michael McKinley, a former aide of Mike Pompeo at the State Department, Kurt Volker, the special representative to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, who is the EU envoy for the U.S.
KORNACKI: You mentioned Maguire, the Director of National Intelligence. And I think folks will remember he testified publicly. He was the one who made that decision not to automatically forward the initial whistleblower complaint to Congress. We remember those hearings. There were tense in some moments. Why was his public? And none of these others you're mentioning were public, why was his?
AINSLEY: I think it could have been a decision he made. But at that point, so he was the first to go. And there were a lot of questions about the authenticity of the complaint. This was right after we in the public had gotten the full transparency of being able to see the notes, the memos that the White House took on that call. We're able to see the Justice Department's decision not to disclose this information. And then Maguire said, you know what, I am going to disclose this information and I'm going to go to the Hill and explain why I made this decision that this should become public and why I wanted to forward this information to the Justice Department. So in a way, he was saving his own agency and trying to justify his own decisions, so he had his own motives there. Whereas a lot of these people don't really have a motive other than the fact that they've been subpoenaed and have decided that this is in their best interests.
KORNACKI: So I want to get to the objection that's out there a lot of Republicans are expressing to having so many of these, just about all of these so far behind closed doors. The argument you hear is this is an impeachment inquiry. Ultimately, what's being decided here is whether the president, United States should be charged with high crimes and misdemeanors. And then ultimately the Senate removed from office with something of that gravity, that weight being decided, at least in this phase, by the people's house. Shouldn't every hearing they hold be open to the people?
AINSLEY: I mean, Steve, I feel like if I were on a high school debate team, I could debate this from both sides. So let's just walk through what everybody's saying here. So on one side, you could say, yes, we should be open. We were able to see testimony during the Clinton impeachment, during Nixon. All of that was televised and open. But technically, they do not have to. The Congressional Research Service put out a report in August that said that House members could approve an impeachment resolution on the floor, but they can always do a closed conduct investigation first. That's their choice. And the House has the ultimate choice to start an impeachment inquiry. It starts in the House. And then you go to what was a trial for a conviction before the Senate.
So that brings me to the other side of this, which is House members led by Democrats have decided that they want to be able to kind of get to the bottom of this, do really what would have been an old fashioned investigation if the Justice Department had decided to take this up, which they did it. And they want to be able to get much evidence as they can before they come up with the articles of impeachment and before voting.
If you think about it, that's a little more politically palpable for a lot of people who might not be sure if they want to sign on to an impeachment inquiry. They want to make sure there's enough there to hang their hat on. This is a caucus that just came off of the Mueller Pro where they were expecting a smoking gun in the Mueller report that wasn't there. And they don't want to go back to their districts, particularly if they are maybe from a Democrat. But from what used to be a red district or from a state that voted for Donald Trump and explained that they voted for impeachment before they had all of the information. So they want to go through all of that information now.
KORNACKI: What you said there with the historical context, I think is really interesting in that if you think back to Bill Clinton, Ken Starr, independent counsel, he's doing his own investigation. He throws this massive report at Congress. Congress decides to impeach over it. They didn't need to do much investigating Nixon, 1974, special counsel. Again, a lot of material thrown at Congress. So you're saying that rather than having somebody since nobody is in that position for this right now, there is no special counsel. Congress behind closed doors is trying to get the information that could be the basis in the way those those past reports were. The flip side, though, I want to ask you about is what we're seeing right now in that is these hearings are taking place behind closed doors. Presumably these members are getting something of value from it, but leaks are coming out through the press, into the public. Leaks can be very accurate. They can be misleading. They can distort things. Are there concerns that given again, this is a political process, the fact that these closed door meetings are resulting in leaks that are driving the news coverage of it, that that is affecting this process in any way?
AINSLEY: Sure. I don't think anyone is more upset about that than Republicans. If this was televised, we would be able to see someone question these witnesses from the other side. So obviously, you cherry pick what is best for your case. So that this starts to look very damaging for the White House. Now, you know, we're hitting on something here, which is that there is no jury in this. There are no prosecutors. There's no grand jury. There's no process where you would have where witnesses are interviewed behind closed doors before they're interviewed in front of a jury because the Justice Department simply decided not to take this up.
KORNACKI: So another thing you've been hearing from Adam Schiff and from Democrats is a reason they want these behind closed doors is because they're afraid witnesses will coordinate otherwise. What are they trying to say there?
AINSLEY: Well, what they're worried about is that the Trump administration may get to these witnesses, particularly people who they have a close relationship with because they recently left and try to get everyone on the same page to give the same narrative that could be false.
And so oftentimes investigators will keep witnesses from talking to each other so that they don't all come up with the same false story that then cannot be proven false because they're all telling you the same thing. It's just a way for them to kind of fact check and make sure everyone's telling the truth, by keeping these witnesses separate and by not letting future witnesses know what the past witnesses have said in their testimony.
KORNACKI: Broadly speaking, what are Democrats committing to here just in terms of more transparency in the future, anything?
AINSLEY: So we know that Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has committed to releasing transcripts of these closed door hearings. But we don't know yet if he will ever make any televised testimony. We can imagine at least a piece of this will have to be televised, especially as they move to the Senate and they present all of their evidence as part of a trial. But at this point, we don't know if there are any witnesses that they plan to bring before television cameras. That's just simply not known yet.
KORNACKI: What is - I'm curious what your sense is from Republicans in the House and even the Senate floor, for that matter, where this ultimately lands - are their objections to the process, to the closed door nature? Are they strong enough that you could see them basing opposition to impeachment on that? Basically just saying this was an unfair process because of this?
AINSLEY: Well the White House is certainly basing their decision not to comply with Democratic subpoenas based on the process. I do wonder, though, if Republicans will be able to use that same talking point once Democrats decide to make this public. If there is enough mounting evidence, it could be that there's a shift. I mean, we're already seeing a shift in Americans who have decided that this is a legitimate impeachment inquiry and a shift in the number who say that the president should be out of office. And so there could be that shift that would make Republicans think differently.
KORNACKI: So, Julia, just given that the intense public interest in this, obviously, and the fact that this isn't taking place in public and it's only coming out in little bits in terms of what gets leaked, is there a risk there for Democrats in terms of the public either thinking it deserves to know more and it isn't getting it or or or gets potentially even misleading information?
AINSLEY: Yeah, there's a risk on both sides. I mean, think about the way Republicans attacked Robert Mueller's investigation, that this was all coordinated by the deep state and people who wanted to see Trump out of office. And that was career law enforcement officials. Now we're talking about people who were voted to be part of the Democratic Party. But they also run the risk on the other side If they do make a lot of this public and they get witnesses that aren't credible or who don't back up the theory that they are building in the narrative that they're building. They also risk having scrutiny and having their investigation torn apart before it can really get off the ground.
AINSLEY: And any investigator would tell you they need to first be able to question a witness by themselves before they bring them in front of a jury. The difference with this impeachment inquiry is that they don't have investigators, they don't have the judicial branch of government doing this in tandem with them. So the evidence collection phase has to be all on their shoulders.
KORNACKI: All right. Julia Ainsley, thank you for being our first ever guest on Article II. You set a very high bar for future guests.
AINSLEY: Oh, what an honor. Thanks for having me.
KORNACKI: So despite all those risks, Democrats are pushing ahead with this strategy. Closed door sessions are scheduled for six more administration officials next week. We'll be following those depositions.
KORNACKI: And we know the impeachment inquiry can get really complicated. So let's talk about it. You have questions about the process or about anything that's going on. We're going to ask our reporters and correspondents and their answers to your questions could become part of one of our episodes. So if you get any questions at all, feel free to e-mail them. We've got a special address set up just for you. It is Article2@nbcuni.com. Let me say that once again, it's article 2, the number two, don't spell out two, article two, the number two at N-B-C-U-N-I dot com.
KORNACKI: Get those questions in, we can't wait to see what you come up with. And I know we just got started today. But guess what? It's time for my first vacation. I'm out on Monday. And that means my fantastic colleague, Carrie Dann is gonna be filling in for me from Washington. Might be the record for the fastest guest host on a podcast ever. There might be some stats somewhere, maybe I can look them up over the weekend. If I find anything, I'll let you know.
Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angell, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Monday.