WASHINGTON – Two Cabinet secretaries. The acting White House chief of staff. A bevy of career diplomats. President Donald Trump's personal attorney. And at the center of the impeachment inquiry, the president himself.
Over two weeks of closed-door testimony, a clear portrait has emerged of a president personally orchestrating the effort to pressure a foreign government to dig up dirt on a potential 2020 political rival — and marshaling the full resources of the federal bureaucracy to help in that endeavor.
On Thursday, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney waded further into the morass, saying during a rare news conference that he understood Trump to be asking for a quid pro quo with his Ukrainian counterpart — only to attempt to retract those comments in a bellicose statement six hours later.
Contrary to weeks of denials from the president and his defenders, a growing body of evidence makes clear it was Trump himself who repeatedly pushed his own government and a foreign power to intervene in domestic political concerns, enlisting and ensnaring a growing number of administration officials in a way that increasingly made even some members of his own team uncomfortable.
The wave of witnesses reflects the growing peril enveloping Trump amid the burgeoning inquiry, which he and some top aides have tried to block by refusing to abide by congressional subpoenas. Not only are a growing number of officials and longtime employees choosing to come forward with damaging evidence, the narrative they are laying out points to potential violations of law, including prohibitions on accepting campaign help from a foreign entity, that bolster the case for impeachment.
At the core of the impeachment inquiry is Trump's request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — while the United States was withholding nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine — for "a favor" in the form of investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as detailed in a rough transcript of a July 25 call between the two leaders that was released by the White House under public pressure.
The prepared testimony Thursday of Gordon Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, depicts an atmosphere where diplomats at times felt trapped, torn between what they believed was right and the directives the president was issuing. Sondland said that he and the U.S. delegation urged Trump to arrange both a phone call and an Oval Office visit with Zelensky — only to be told by the president that he had concerns about Ukraine, and that they should talk to Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani about them.
"Based on the president's direction, we were faced with a choice," Sondland wrote in his testimony, explaining that the Ukraine envoys felt they could either "abandon" their effort to improve relations between the two countries, "or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President's concerns." (Ultimately, they chose the latter.)
As early as May, Giuliani began publicly pushing theories involving Ukraine and Hunter Biden, for which he had no reliable evidence.
Working for the president
At the time, many viewed Giuliani's efforts in Ukraine as something of a personal passion project — the extracurricular schemes of an aging lawyer whose behavior even some in Trump's own orbit considered erratic.
Now, however, as Giuliani himself and a number of other witnesses have said, it is clear Giuliani was working at the behest of his client, the president of the United States.
The steady stream of closed-door testimony, as well as public statements, contradicts Trump's repeated claims that his phone call with Zelensky was "perfect" and that he did nothing wrong.
Nick Akerman, a prosecutor who investigated President Richard Nixon, said that unlike Watergate, when prosecutors struggled to figure out Nixon's role in the events, a growing body of evidence points directly to Trump.
"Here, you'll have that in spades," Akerman said. "All these individuals, all testifying that this is what happened. … It's just cascading at this point."
Akerman said that unlike Nixon's loyal cadre of aides, Trump's outer circle of aides and advisers are increasingly unwilling to shield him from what some view as his own dubious behavior.
"This is a situation where you've got a lot of people who are career people, extremely smart people who certainly don't want their reputations smeared," Akerman said. "Trump had to use these foreign services people and professionals. He didn't speak Ukrainian and Russian. He couldn't communicate his threat without these people. He was forced to use people whose loyalty was to the U.S. government and Constitution and not to him."
And, he added, each new witness and detail seems to reveal a common thread: "You've got Trump clearly involved."