MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Congress is finishing up a two-week recess. Yes, hard to believe Congress actually has been in recess given all the activity on Capitol Hill, including today, when Marie Yovanovitch testified before the House committees running the impeachment inquiry. Marie Yovanovitch was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was ousted in May. And it wasn't clear today until the last minute if she would indeed show up. The State Department had told her not to testify. But the committee subpoenaed her, and she complied.
So the Yovanovitch testimony is just one of such a deluge of developments that we wanted to hit pause and invite two of our best sourced reporters tracking this story to come share their takeaways from a crazy week. Congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us from Capitol Hill.
Hi there, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: And justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here in the studio.
Welcome to you.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Thank you.
KELLY: I want each of you to point me, if you would, to a moment or a development this week that will stick with you, either because it advanced your understanding of the story or because it was particularly crazy, even against the landscape of everything going on. Sue, I'm going to throw that one to you first.
DAVIS: You know, I would say today, I think, was a pretty revealing day in this impeachment process because we learned that the State Department, at the direction of the White House, overnight, did, in fact, try to block former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch from coming up here to testify on Capitol Hill today. In response, Congress issued a subpoena for her early this morning in order to give her a legal end run around that order because legally, the White House can't block someone from testifying if they've been issued a subpoena.
KELLY: So is it true what I said? Were people really - was it a nail-biter to see if she was actually going to turn up?
DAVIS: It was. I mean, this was all happening in real time. And I think - the reason why I think it stands out to me is it speaks to how contentious this inquiry is between the Congress and White House and I think for the public to understand that we really are watching a constitutional pressure test happen in real time.
KELLY: Ryan, your moment that you're going to just never ever forget; it will haunt you for forever from this week.
LUCAS: I don't know if it'll haunt me forever, but the thing that really stood out to me - and it's more kind of on the crazy front - is the arrest of these two businessmen with ties to Rudy Giuliani. These two businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, worked with Giuliani to gather information in Ukraine on Joe Biden and other conspiracy theories that we've heard related to the 2016 election. And the circumstances of their arrest in particular are almost, like, out of a movie.
LUCAS: Here's the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman, speaking to reporters yesterday about that.
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GEOFFREY BERMAN: Parnas and Fruman were arrested around 6:00 p.m. last night at Dulles Airport as they were about to board an international flight with one-way tickets.
KELLY: One-way tickets.
LUCAS: One-way tickets - Parnas and Fruman face campaign finance charges. But the really kind of eye-grabbing aspect of the indictment is the allegation that they made donations that got them face-time with then U.S. Congressman Pete Sessions. Parnas and Fruman wanted his help getting the then U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, a name that's familiar, Marie Yovanovitch, removed from her post. They were working on this in cahoots with the Ukrainian official according to the indictment. And, of course, we do know that Yovanovitch was removed.
KELLY: I want to just follow up on this development with these two arrested because President Trump was very quick to try to distance himself from this aspect of everything. This is a taste of him. He was speaking last - he was speaking yesterday to reporters right before boarding the plane for his rally in Minnesota.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't know them. I don't know about them. I don't know what they do. But I don't know, maybe they were clients of Rudy. You'd have ask Rudy. I just don't know.
KELLY: Ryan, if we asked Rudy, what does he know? I mean, how worried should Rudy Giuliani be about this particular development?
LUCAS: That's really the question hanging over all of this. And it's hard to answer at this point in time. But certainly, the fact that these two individuals have been indicted and do have ties to Giuliani does raise the prospect of perhaps the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York looking at Giuliani more closely.
KELLY: All right, let me ask you both what strategies you see playing out on Capitol Hill, at the White House, either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Sue, are you starting to watch a strategy take shape for how the three committees conducting this inquiry are planning to proceed?
DAVIS: Well, it is interesting because I think that one of the debates that the Democrats have had internally is how narrow or expansive do they want to keep this impeachment inquiry. And over the course of this break while the committee has continued its work, I think Adam Schiff, the chairman of the committee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi still maintain that they want to keep this impeachment focus almost uniquely on this question of whether the president sought interference in the election and the Ukrainian connection. They might face some resistance to that from Democrats more broadly in the party who might want to expand the scope of this investigation as more and more of these details come into play. So I think discipline among Democrats is going to be one of the things we're looking for.
But I would also say on the other end, for Republicans, I think one thing this recess has taught us is that - don't expect much of daylight between the rank and file on Capitol Hill and between the president. Republicans have been outpolling in the House in swing seats and in competitive districts. And the message that they are getting is you better stick with this president. I've even talked to a lot of lawmakers' aides, who said the message they've - their lawmakers have heard over the break are not just stick with them, but you should be fighting harder for them.
KELLY: You mentioned Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee and also been empowered to quarterback this whole thing. Ryan Lucas, over to the president and his allies, I want to play quickly a piece of tape from the president. It's been getting a lot of airtime because it seems to sum up so neatly the strategy that seems to be emerging from the White House.
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TRUMP: The Democrats' brazen attempt to overthrow our government will produce a backlash at the ballot box the likes of which they have never ever seen before in the history of this country.
KELLY: Ryan, where does that point us in terms of where the president and his lawyers are headed?
LUCAS: Well, it really registers with what we saw from the White House counsel in the letter from the White House counsel's office this week.
KELLY: Pat Cipollone.
LUCAS: Pat Cipollone - spelling out quite clearly that the White House views this impeachment inquiry as an abuse of power by Democrats in the House. And the White House said we are not going to cooperate - full stop. Legal experts that I've spoken with have said that, you know, the legal arguments in that letter are pretty weak. It's really more of a political document than a legal one in their view. The talking points in that letter - we heard from the president on the tape there. And as Sue said, we're likely to hear from the president's Republican allies. But we've seen this strategy before from the White House, of not cooperating, of stonewalling Congress and congressional oversight - force lawmakers to go to court, drag this out through litigation, kind of try to run out the clock. Now on the non-cooperation front, we've already seen cracks in that though because we had, for example, today, Marie Yovanovitch testifying.
KELLY: Speaking of running out the clock, in the minute we have left, a quick look ahead from each of you. Where are things headed next week? Will it get even stranger as Congress actually comes back to town next week? Ryan.
LUCAS: Well, there's one thing in particular that I am going to be paying attention to, and that is two witnesses - one Fiona Hill, a former national security official and top White House adviser on Russia. She is scheduled to testify. And then there's Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who was very, very tight with the president's efforts to pressure Ukraine.
KELLY: OK. Sue?
DAVIS: I'm watching for how quickly Democrats want to move. They say they want to wrap this up by the end of the year. But there's only 28 days left in session to figure out if they can do that. I think in the next three weeks when they're back for this work period, we'll get a sense of how likely that is.
KELLY: Right. It's always been a question - would they try to wrap this up this year? Would they risk tipping into an actual election year in 2020?
DAVIS: And that makes a lot of Democrats uncomfortable.
KELLY: Yeah. That's NPR's Susan Davis on Capitol Hill and NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thanks to you both.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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