The Trump Impeachment Inquiry: What Happened Today

Welcome to the Impeachment Briefing, a special edition of the Morning Briefing that explains the latest developments in the House impeachment inquiry against President Trump. Sign up here to get the briefing by email every weeknight.

I’m Noah Weiland, and I’m here to catch you up on the day’s news, along with insights from the Washington bureau, where I work, and the rest of the Times newsroom.

My colleague Mike Schmidt, who helped break the story last night about American envoys drafting a statement for Ukraine’s president, called me this morning as he was eating breakfast to help me answer that question.

Mike, you covered Robert Mueller for two years. That investigation — the evidence-gathering and writing of the report — felt relentlessly plodding. This impeachment inquiry feels like it’s moving at Mach speed. Why?

Mueller was premised on the idea that his investigators had to do their work in secret and then would release what they found. It was this self-contained thing inside the Justice Department, operating under the rules of a federal investigation that are designed to shield work from the public. Then you basically got a big dump of Thanksgiving dinner — the report — and you were supposed to sit there and try to wade through it.

What makes this impeachment investigation so different from one run by professional prosecutors?

The witnesses are scurrying to get their side out publicly to make sure it doesn’t look like they were enabling the president. It propels the story forward at an incredible speed. These inspectors general, like Mr. Atkinson today, are not bound by the same rules of a federal investigation. They’re sort of like free agents and can largely make reports to Congress without going through the Justice Department.

So should Democrats in Congress be grateful that they’re the investigators this time around?

A lot of times, Congress is impeded by a federal investigation and can’t get to a lot of the evidence or witnesses, because the F.B.I. says, “We’re conducting an ongoing investigation.” That’s a huge chill. While Democrats are upset there isn’t an F.B.I. investigation, it has still freed up witnesses to cooperate with them. They benefit from being able to do it themselves.

One through-line of the Trump presidency has been Mr. Trump trying to dissociate himself from people around him who have been linked to a controversy or alleged crime. He did it with Paul Manafort. He did it with Michael Cohen. He tried again today. “I don’t even know most of these ambassadors,” he told reporters who asked him about the revealing text messages of American envoys. “I didn’t even know their names.”

We put together a helpful graphic today that explains what was actually in those texts.

  • Ukraine’s top prosecutor said he would audit several investigations carried out by his predecessors, including a case involving a natural gas company that employed Mr. Biden’s son.

  • The Oregonian wrote about Mr. Sondland, who is at the center of the Ukraine investigation. His parents escaped the Holocaust. He founded a Portland-based boutique hotel chain. Before his companies gave money to Mr. Trump’s inauguration, he was a bundler for Mitt Romney.

  • Senator Ron Johnson said he was blocked by Mr. Trump in August from telling Ukraine’s president that military aid was coming, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

  • Does John Cornyn know something we don’t? The Texas senator tweeted this morning that the Justice Department was investigating Mr. Biden’s “conflicts of interest.” Then one of his aides appeared to walk back the statement. When asked about it, Mr. Trump told reporters they should ask the attorney general.

  • “No pro quo,” Mr. Trump said on the South Lawn of the White House this morning while talking to reporters. Do we sense a new rally chant?

And finally, a scene from the White House lawn, courtesy Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News:

See you next week.

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