WASHINGTON -- Offering his own take on five days of public hearings, President Donald Trump brushed off the impeachment inquiry as "total nonsense" on Friday and criticized a number of the U.S. diplomats who testified to Congress that he mounted a pressure campaign in Ukraine.
Trump said House Democrats looked like "fools" during the hearings on Capitol Hill. He also offered a window into his political strategy ahead of an expected House vote to impeach him. If that happens, the Senate would hold a trial on whether to oust him from office.
"I think we had a tremendous week with the hoax," Trump said at the White House.
At the same time, he talked up theories that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, speaking just one day after a former White House adviser testified that the claim was a "fictional narrative" that played into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump also repeated claims that officials in President Barack Obama's administration spied on his campaign, and underscored the need to keep Republicans unified against impeachment.
"I don't think I've ever seen support in the Republican Party like we do right now," he said.
Separately, the Justice Department's internal watchdog is expected to find in a forthcoming report that political bias did not taint top officials running the FBI investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016, while at the same time criticizing the bureau for systemic failures in its handling of surveillance applications, according to two U.S. officials.
The report due out Dec. 9 from Inspector General Michael Horowitz will allege that a low-level FBI lawyer inappropriately altered a document that was used as part of a controversial application for electronic surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser, the officials said. The inspector general referred that finding to U.S. Attorney John Durham, so that he may investigate it as a possible crime, they said.
But Horowitz will conclude that the application still had a proper legal and factual basis, according to the officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive report.
In broad terms, the report refutes accusations of a political conspiracy by senior law enforcement officials against the Trump campaign to favor Democrat Hillary Clinton, while also knocking the bureau for procedural shortcomings, said the officials. On balance, they said, it provides a mixed assessment of the bureau and department's undertaking of an investigation that became highly politicized and divided the nation.
"You can see how the warring factions will seize on the various parts of this to advance their respective narratives," said a person familiar with the inspector general investigation.
The Russia investigation turned up evidence that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election in "sweeping and systematic fashion." It was ultimately taken over by former special counsel Robert Mueller, who racked up criminal charges against 34 people, including 26 Russians, and secured guilty pleas from seven.
Mueller ultimately found insufficient evidence to conclude that Trump or any of his associates conspired with the Russians.
'I WANT A TRIAL'
In Trump's nearly hourlong phone interview Friday on Fox & Friends, he said he did not expect to be impeached. But he added that if the House did vote to impeach him, he would welcome a trial in the Republican-led Senate.
A trial, he said, would give Republicans a chance to question Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who led the hearings as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Procedures for a Senate trial still are being worked out.
"I want to see Adam Schiff testify about the whistleblower, who is a fake whistleblower," the president said, adding that he knows the identity of the whistleblower whose formal complaint set off the impeachment inquiry.
Trump said he didn't believe Schiff, who has maintained that he doesn't know the identity of the whistleblower.
"If he doesn't, then he's the only person in Washington who doesn't," Trump said.
Trump's interview came after impeachment witnesses testified under oath that the president withheld aid from Ukraine to press the country to investigate his political rivals. Trump insisted he was trying to root out corruption in the eastern European nation when he held up nearly $400 million in military aid intended to help Ukraine battle Russian aggression.
"I think it's very hard to impeach you when they have absolutely nothing," Trump said.
He denied there was any quid pro quo, extortion or bribery. He also denied holding up a White House meeting or military aid to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son's dealings in Ukraine.
Trump repeated the theory that Ukrainians might have hacked the Democratic National Committee's network in 2016 and framed Russia for the crime.
"They gave the server to CrowdStrike, which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian," Trump said. "I still want to see that server. The FBI has never gotten that server."
Trump's claim on Ukraine being behind the 2016 election interference has been discredited by intelligence agencies and his own advisers.
CrowdStrike, an internet security firm in California, investigated the Democratic hack in June 2016 and traced it to two groups of hackers connected to a Russian intelligence service -- not Ukraine. The company's co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is a Russian-born U.S. citizen who immigrated as a child and graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Fiona Hill, a former Russia adviser on the White House National Security Council, admonished Republicans in her testimony on Thursday for pushing unsubstantiated theories about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
"This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves," Hill said.
Trump continued to distance himself from other impeachment witnesses, including Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Sondland said he was working on a deal to arrange a White House visit if Zelenskiy publicly announced investigations into Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. Biden's son, Hunter, was a Burisma board member.
Speaking of Sondland, Trump said, "I hardly know him, OK? I've spoken to him a few times."
In the interview, Trump hit on a theme that lawmakers and witnesses have raised during the impeachment hearings -- how was it that Sondland, with no foreign-policy experience and who was not the ambassador to Ukraine, found himself leading the U.S. policy with Ukraine?
"But he was really the European Union ambassador, and all of a sudden he's working on this," Trump said Friday.
Sondland told lawmakers that Trump directed him to do so.
The president said Sondland left out his account of a phone conversation in which Trump said: "I want nothing. No quid pro quo. Have Zelenskiy do whatever is right."
He also denigrated the testimony of David Holmes, a counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Holmes testified that he overheard a different phone conversation Sondland had with the president. Holmes said he heard the president talking loudly about Zelenskiy, asking, "So, he's gonna do the investigation?" Ambassador Sondland replied that "He's gonna do it."
Trump said he didn't believe Holmes could hear the conversation since it wasn't on a speakerphone. "That was a total phony deal," Trump said.
And Trump continued to criticize former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Trump recalled her from her post in Kyiv before her tenure was to end. Trump called her an "Obama person" and claimed she didn't want his picture to hang on the wall of the embassy.
Ian Kelly, the former U.S. ambassador to Georgia, tweeted in Yovanovitch's defense, saying: "Our official White House portraits did not arrive at Embassy Tbilisi until March 2018. This was because the [White House] was late getting them to all embassies."
Information for this article was contributed by Deb Riechmann and Aamer Madhani of The Associated Press; by Eileen Sullivan of The New York Times; and by Ellen Nakashima, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post.
A Section on 11/23/2019