Chat transcript: Could Mike Pence be further implicated in an impeachment inquiry?

Illustration by The Washington Post using photos from The Washington Post, AP, AFP, Getty Images, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Oct 04, 2019

This week, The Fix's Aaron Blake was joined by national security reporter Shane Harris, who helped break the story on the whistleblower complaint and its connections to Ukraine. Harris was also part of the reporting team that revealed Attorney General William Barr's personal involvement in asking foreign officials to assist in a Justice Department inquiry.

What do you want to know about impeachment, Ukraine, Rudy Giuliani, the whistleblower allegations, and the latest revelations? Submit your questions below.

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Happy Friday, and welcome to another special impeachment version of our Friday live chat. I'm very happy to be joined today by Shane Harris, who as you might have noticed has been instrumental in breaking many of the big stories we've been talking about over the last two-plus weeks.

Feel free to pitch political questions to me, and questions about the finer details to Shane, who is versed on intelligence and national security matters in a way few people in Washington are.

We wanted this chat to have something for everyone. So ask away!

Hi, everyone. I'm Shane Harris, and I cover national security at the Post. Happy to answer your questions about impeachment, the whistleblower, Ukraine. Fire away!

Do the texts released yesterday shed any light on whether the memo of the call in July is leaving out material information?

I don't think it sheds any light on whether the memo of the call isn't complete. (Although experts have raised questions separately about that. See here.) But we should point out a few things about what the texts do show us.

First, senior officials at the State Dept. coordinated with a top aide to Ukraine's president and Rudy Giuliani to leverage a potential summit between Trump and the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, on a promise from the Ukrainians to conduct investigations of Trump's political opponents. This is important, because Democrats will argue that this shows a quid pro quo. 

Second, the texts will provide a lot of fodder in the impeachment inquiry, and will likely give investigators new avenues to pursue. 

Which is correct... Kurt Volker encouraged the Ukrainians not to get involved in US politics (Washington Post) or Kurt Volker drafted a statement that committed the Ukrainians to an investigation of the Bidens (New York Times)

We need to see what he said in his deposition, but I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. It seems apparent from the texts that Volker was at the very least facilitating whatever arrangement existed between the White House and Ukraine.

On the other hand, it sounds like he was perhaps doing what he was told and was trying to get past a sticky situation. That doesn't absolve him of any possible wrongdoing, but plenty of people in these situations with Trump have done things intended to mollify him without totally committing to his desired course of action.

Should Mike Pence be further implicated in the Ukraine dollars for dirt shakedown, is it possible he, too, could be impeached, leaving Nancy Pelosi as the new Commander in Chief?

The vice president can be impeached. The Constitution states: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The Speaker of the House is the next in line to the presidency in the line of succession. So we might presume that, yes, Nancy Pelosi would become president if both Trump and Pence were removed from office. But if we're imagining a scenario in which Trump is removed and Pence becomes the new president, he would (I should think) want a new VP right away. There's a process for that--see Gerald Ford. So THAT person would become next in line for the presidency. Also see Gerald Ford. 

Is it possible that we could have impeachment proceedings for the President and Vice President with these phone calls? Or one impeachment at a time?

The Constitution doesn't say if there can be more than one impeachment at the same time. But the VP can be impeached. The Constitution actually says remarkably little about HOW the proceedings and the trial in the Senate shall be conducted, but the Congress has written rules about that. Lawmakers would also look to history as a guide--the impeachment of Bill Clinton being the most recent "playbook." 

Are there other people (such as other Democrats making a bid for the presidency, or perhaps those who have criticized Trump) who Trump has asked foreign leaders to "investigate"? Aren't all phone conversations recorded? If so, it seems members of Congress (who can declare war) should have unrestricted access to those calls.

So far, we're only aware that the president wanted investigations of Joe Biden and his son Hunter. However, the whistleblower has alleged, and the texts from State Dept. officials support, that Trump also wants Ukraine to investigate whether their officials coordinated with the Democratic National Committee to try to undermine Trump's presidential campaign. We have some background on that here, including why this investigation is also important to Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, who is now in prison and has been coordinating with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer. 

Will reporters attempt to find out exactly who is paying Giuliani and covering his expenses? Is it out of Trump’s personal funds, business funds, or the US government’s coffers? I am particularly interested in who paid his expenses every time he jetted off to Spain or wherever to meet with Ukrainians.

This is a very good question. If the government were somehow paying for it, that would further they idea that he has their blessing. But that seems doubtful.

The real question, to me, seems to be whether the Trump campaign will declare all these as campaign expenditures. Given Giuliani has said these efforts are geared toward helping "my client," that would seem to indicate he is doing campaign work.

All of that said, the Federal Election Committee hasn't exactly been in an enforcement mood for many years.

Giuliani has claimed that he's working for free. This has raised another interesting question, which is whether he can call himself the president's attorney if he's not being paid. That's important, because an attorney's communications with his client are protected by privilege. It will be interesting to see, should Congress compel Giuliani to testify, how he argues that he has attorney-client privilege with the president if he's not being paid to represent him. 

What would a reasonable timetable be if the Senate takes up impeachment and does not dismiss the charges?

There are no set rules for these things. The Clinton impeachment trial lasted a little bit more than a month, but it was run by the opposition party. In this case, the president's party is in control, and I would submit that they'd probably not want to prolong things.

I was struck in the whistleblower's complaint that the author said it was their duty to report the alleged abuse of power they had been made aware of. What is the nature and extent of that duty, if it exists? Is it a duty relating to personal conscience, their Oath to the Constitution, or part of their employment contracts as government employees? If they are required by contract to report alleged misconduct (which surely they are), do those contracts sanction them for not reporting it? I appreciate it's a complex question, maybe you could consider it a possible subject for an article? Thanks so much!

That's an interesting question. I don't know off hand whether the whistleblower law requires someone to report a crime. But I could imagine that the WB considers it a duty under the oath they may have taken as a government employee. 

Is US still withholding Ukraine defense funds?

No, the money that Congress appropriated has been flowing. And this week, the State Dept. approved the sale of additional Javelin missiles to Ukraine. 

Is there a way to compel the translator for the Trump Putin meeting in Helsinki to reveal the contents of the conversation? Should there be?

There has been some talk about this, but even people who would like to see what the translators have to say admit it's fraught. The problem is if you make translators spill, it puts other translators in a tough spot moving forward.

How are the governments of the UK, Australia, and Italy reacting to being asked to investigate details around the 2016 election? Are the "humoring" Barr and the President. are the seriously devoting resources to the effort. Has there been any pushback?

They have essentially said that they'll cooperate as appropriate. But it's important to note that we don't exactly understand what Barr has asked from them. Does he want to see documents? Does he want information from their own intelligence files? The U.S. has a remarkably close relationship with British and Australian intelligence. Italy, a little less so, but still close. My reporting indicates that officials in these countries think Barr's request is unusual and that he appears to suspect that the FBI probe of the Trump campaign was somehow corrupted. 

Can you cite specific laws allegedly broken by Trump in urging foreign leaders to investigate political opponents?

According to my sources, there are two big ones that are being floated. The most basic one is a campaign finance violation. Federal law says it is illegal for "a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation" which inclues things that are broader understood to be "of value."

The second -- and this would obviously be a bigger deal -- is that it could raise questions of extortion. The thinking there would be there would be some kind of threat involved in the quid pro quo.

I know we're not there yet, and the Senate is unlikely to move for Trump's removal. But, assuming it got to that point and the Senate DID vote for removal, how quickly is the president no longer the president? Is it effective immediately -- as in, literally the second the votes comes through, someone walks into the Oval Office, grabs Trump by the elbows and shoves him out the door?

This is a GREAT question. I doubt there is an established procedure, though, because we have never seen a president removed by Congress. The two who have been impeached -- Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton -- weren't convicted. Nixon might have been removed after he was impeached, but he resigned.

I'll poke around, but I suspect this is something nobody has ever decided because they haven't had to. I would be surprised if it were anything other than immediate. 

We have heard several people listened in, the decision was made to lock the transcript in the more secure vault, and someone did do that. When will we hear who all was on the call, and if they know there is or was a longer transcript?

I suspect that as the House proceeds with its impeachment inquiry, and reporters continue to cover the story, we'll learn more about who was on that call. Already, we've learned that Sec. of State Pompeo joined it. (He'd been asked about the call previously and didn't volunteer that he was on it.) It's typical to have a number of White House staff  listening in to the president's calls with foreign leaders. For example, the National Security Council staffer responsible for Ukraine issues could reasonably have listened in. People transcribing the call in the Situation Room also listen. The White House has said that the memo they released about the call is not a verbatim transcript. We had a piece recently about the unusual nature of that memo. 

How far do the polls have to move showing public support for impeachment for GOP leaders to get on board (or at least not actively fight it)?

Another great question. There are two key points here: One is the point at which Republicans become convinced he can no longer win. But even at that point, they will become wary of alienating his existing base. Once they decide turning on him won't break the party in two, they will gladly disown Trump.

To your answer about extortion - who would prosecute this and how fast?

To be clear, the question is about what laws would be involved under normal circumstances. But there would be no prosecution while Trump is in office. It's just instructive for saying "Here's what might be charged if he weren't president."

As with any presidential wrongdoing, Congress is the arbiter. They deal with this through impeachment and removal. Once he's out of office, any crimes could actually be charged -- hypothetically.

Assuming that Trump had the best of intentions with regard to asking Ukraine to investigate corruption related to the Biden family, is asking a foreign leader to look into an issue that negatively involves a political rival in and of itself cause for an impeachment inquiry?

Good question. House Democrats certainly believe it is, in part because it is illegal for foreign governments or persons to get involved in a U.S. election. Here, Democrats say the president was soliciting foreign interference. They will also argue that he is abusing the powers of his office for his own political gain. The president, however has countered that he wanted Ukraine to do a better job combating corruption before he gave them American aid. One could read that as him having, as you put it, the best of intentions. But the president hasn't routinely made policing corruption a condition of U.S. aid to other countries. And when it comes to what corruption he wanted investigated, he has repeatedly pointed to the Bidens and Democrats, not other cases. He also called on Thursday for China to investigate the Bidens, and he didn't say anything about corruption or aid. 

Do we know whether or not Dan Coates or Susan Gordon were aware of the whistleblower's complaint before they offered their resignations?

Here's what Coats has said:

"Nothing came to me. ... I left on Aug. 15. ... The very next day that was presented to [acting DNI] Joe [Maguire]. I feel so bad for Joe. He is caught in a squeeze here and the lawyers are divided. So they are trying to work all that out. That's about all I can say about that."

Gordon left the same day, so I would be surprised if she knew about it and Coats didn't.

What are the chances that we'll see the summaries of any of the other calls placed in that super secret vault? Even if not, is there anyone who can tell them to move them back where they're supposed to be? I'd love to see them when they're declassified in 25 years.

Well, our reporting and others suggests that there were other calls/records moved into that vault. But it doesn't appear to have been routine. It's up to the White House which records it wants to make public. I don't think there's anyone who can direct the White House to move the records from one server to another. 

Who's the first R to support impeachment, if anyone ever does?

Romney, no question, among high-profile Republicans. Short of that, it would be some retiring House Republican.

What exactly will be his role in a Senate trial? Would/could he decide on evidence (say if 'hearsay' is okay), etc.? Or is his role mostly ceremonial?

Another great question! Longtime Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic wrote a few days ago about how William Rehnquist handled the Clinton impeachment trial. It's well worth a read.

Why is Rick Perry leaving the administration. Was he aware of the pressure being placed on the President of Ukraine?

The one way we know of in which he could perhaps have been involved was when, according to the whistleblower, he replaced Vice President Pence on that planned trip to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensy's inauguration.

But even if that were somehow involved, I'm not sure why having him outside the administration would help. And nothing we know about suggests he was more than a tangential player in this.

Sometimes, you're just a secretary for 32 months, and then you move on.

Why are calls to foreign leaders not recorded as well as transcribed. this seems old school to me.

I can't say for sure why they're not recorded, though I'd note that since the Nixon days, White Houses are a little skittish about recordings. But there is someone who is transcribing word-for-word what the leaders say. That person is usually listening to the call from the Situation Room. It's also customary for relevant National Security Council staffers to listen to the call, either from the Sit Room or in the Oval Office, and to take their own notes. The Situation Room usually sends the transcript to the relevant NSC official, who reviews it to make sure everything is accurate. For instance, if the transcriber wrote down "Angola" when the speaker actually said "Argentina," the NSC staffer might correct that. Ums and uhs might be removed. If something was inaudible, that's noted in the transcript. A memo of the conversation, or memcon, is then sent around to relevant officials. The point of that is so that people working on policy for the president can know what he said, what he wants them to follow up on, etc. While a lot of this does seem old school, it's important to note that, at least traditionally, the point of going through this process is so there's a clear record of what the president said and wants in order to fulfill his policies. These memos are meant to enable that policy process and keep all his staff up to speed. Placing them in secret servers or limiting their distribution to avoid leaks is not customary, but that has happened in the Trump White House. 

Why would he have said that the committee didn't speak with the whistle-blower, when clearly it had? Was he splitting hairs? He had to know that it would come out, right?

Here's the explanation his team offered to The Post's Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler:

"... In the context, he intended to answer the question of whether the Committee had heard testimony from the whistleblower, which they had not,” a committee spokesman told The Fact Checker. “As he said in his answer, the whistleblower was then awaiting instructions from the Acting DNI as to how the whistleblower could contact the Committee. Nonetheless he acknowledges that his statement should have been more carefully phrased to make that distinction clear."

Schiff also told the Daily Beast that he "did not know definitively at the time if the complaint had been authored by the same whistleblower who had approached his staff," but said he "should have been much more clear."

Schiff is generally more careful than this. Certainly not a great development for him.

It seems that now the President is going to try publically normalizing this behavior of asking a foreign entity for help with his election. I get that it is not technically against the law, but isn't this also an abuse of power? This seems the equivalent to his comment about shooting someone on 5th Avenue & getting away with it

Whether you CAN and whether you SHOULD are two different questions. It's 100 percent true that this is the kind of potential foreign involvement that would have given the founding father heartburn, at the least.

But as far as normalizing behavior, I keep coming back to this point: Trump may be pushing the envelope further than any president and surviving, but I'm not sure there are many politicians who could emulate what he's doing on that front.

What exactly are the National Security risks Involved with Trump asking Ukraine to investigate Biden?

The most basic risk is that a foreign government could take steps to try to confuse American voters or insert false information into the debate. We saw this in the 2016 election. There too we also saw efforts by Russia to potentially manipulate voter databases, which could have disrupted Americans' ability to vote. In the Ukraine case, if the president was making an arrangement with a foreign government to dig up dirt on his political enemies, that arguably created a national security risk because a foreign government could threaten to expose what he did. Of course, now the president's comments to Ukraine's president on this subject are a matter of public record, so that minimizes the risk of blackmail. But I think what's at issue here with Ukraine is less a question of national security risk and more one of law. It is illegal for a foreign government to interfere in a U.S. election. This is why Robert Mueller indicted multiple Russians for hacking into email databases and manipulating social media in the 2016 election, and why he investigated whether any Americans participated in that effort. 

How is President Trump's recent open calls for election interference with reporters and video not valid reasons to simply arrest him for crimes against the United States and the Constitution by abuse of his Office? Didn't he just impeach himself with the comments?

Democrats certainly think so. Two issues:

1) Is he technically asking for election interference? He's asking for investigations that happen to carry very obvious political benefits for him, but he says it's about corruption. It strains credulity that he's not trying to help himself politically, but could it be proven in a court of law.

2) And even if you can prove his doing this for personal political reasons, there is the question of whether it would constitute a thing "of value," under the law.

And then lastly, presidents don't get arrested. The Justice Department has decided that's not how these things work.

I have not heard the question "what if Trump just asked for an investigation without tying it to a political rival?" No press, no politician D or R, no pundit, etc. has addressed that distinction. Is it not one?

Interesting question. If Trump had asked Ukraine to investigate an American business executive, say, that arguably might not be election interference. But it could be called an abuse of power. The Democrats are arguing that by pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden, he was inviting election interference and abusing his office. 

Is there any chance the house may end up voting on something less than impeachment that senate would act on like a censure or something?

Politically, I don't see that happening. The Democratic base would view it as a complete half-measure.

I think it's a terrible idea to rush through the impeachment process and limit it to Ukraine-related matters. There are lots of reasons not to do that. Has Nancy Pelosi explained why it's a good idea?

I tend to think the idea that this will be quick is wishful thinking -- and perhaps it's also Democrats sending a message to the White House that if they just cooperate, it will be over soon.

Realistically, given the number of leads and witnesses involved, I'm not sure how this moves quickly.

Is there any scenario under which Giuliani and Barr can receive criminal charges for their role in pressuring Ukraine for political purposes?

Sure. They could conceivably be prosecuted for soliciting foreign interference in an election, if there were evidence of that. Important to note, by the way, that neither Giuliani or Sec. Pompeo have been accused of a crime. But they can be charged with crimes just like any other American. The president, however, cannot be prosecuted while he's in office, the Justice Department has determined. That leaves impeachment as the legal remedy for holding the president--and any president--to account for alleged crimes. 

If the UK and Australia have a close relationship with the U.S. intelligence community, why would they go out of their way to try to share dirt on them at the request of an administration who attacks the U.S. IC daily?

Because they also need to retain good relations with President Trump -- simple as that. But you're right that they have competing pressures.

So they got the military hardware they wanted, and now the lead Ukraine prosecutor is going to "audit" the Biden case (news today). Isn't that quid pro quo once again?

The aid to Ukraine has been flowing according to lawful means. I don't see any evidence right now to link that to the recent decision by the prosecutor. 

If Trump is impeached and removed, it seems likely that all the evidence could leave Pence as if not guilty, at least smeared or damaged in the process. He could probably end the craziness, but wouldn't he seem unlikely to be elected as President himself since he'd be dirty in plenty of anti-Trump voters' eyes and would not be the full strength force that Trump is for his rabid supporters?

There are many, many things we still need to find out, and his team has suggested he's not really involved in this. As our team reported this week, though, it's getting more and more difficult for him to separate himself from it. If he didn't really know what was happening, it seems that was probably willfully the case.

Specifically, when he pressed Zelensky on "corruption," he had to know what that meant, given what Giuliani et. al. were doing very publicly for months before that. They were pressing for very specific investigations.

I know this isn't about impeachment but I would like to ask why my vote is important when the electoral college has the final say? I live in PA and am a Democrat so I'm worried my vote won't do any good.

I have GREAT news for you: Your vote probably counts more than about 85-90 percent of Americans under the electoral college. Pennsylvania was one of the closest states in 2016, and it promises to be a battleground again in 2020.

Ok, folks. Back to reporting for me. Thanks for spending time with us and asking such good questions. This helps me to understand what people are interested in and what they have questions about, so thanks. You're helping to hone my reporting. 

Thank you! My sincere gratitude to Shane Harris for joining us today. I hope you all found this chat helpful and informative.

Have a great weekend, everyone.


In This Chat
Aaron Blake
Aaron Blake is a senior political reporter, writing for The Fix. A Minnesota native and graduate of the University of Minnesota, Aaron has also written about politics for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and The Hill newspaper. Aaron lives with his family and trusty dog, Mauer, in Northern Virginia.
Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a staff writer with the Washington Post, covering intelligence and national security. He has previously written about these topics at The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, and National Journal. Shane is the author of two books, The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State and @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex. He graduated from Wake Forest University in 1998. He lives in Washington, DC.
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