WASHINGTON — Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited President Donald Trump to testify in front of investigators in the House impeachment inquiry ahead of a week that will see several key witnesses appear publicly.
Pushing back against accusations from the president that the process has been stacked against him, Pelosi said Trump is welcome to appear or answer questions in writing, if he chooses.
“If he has information that is exculpatory, that means ex, taking away, culpable, blame, then we look forward to seeing it,” she said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Trump “could come right before the committee and talk, speak all the truth that he wants if he wants,” she said.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer echoed that suggestion.
“If Donald Trump doesn’t agree with what he’s hearing, doesn’t like what he’s hearing, he shouldn’t tweet. He should come to the committee and testify under oath. And he should allow all those around him to come to the committee and testify under oath,” Schumer told reporters. He said the White House’s insistence on blocking witnesses from cooperating begs the question: “What is he hiding?”
The comments come as the House Intelligence Committee prepares for a second week of public hearings as part of its inquiry, including with the man who is arguably the most important witness. Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, is among the only people interviewed to date who had direct conversations with the president about the situation because the White House has blocked others from cooperating with what they dismiss as a sham investigation. And testimony suggests he was intimately involved in discussions that are at the heart of the investigation into whether Trump held up U.S. military aid to Ukraine to try to pressure the county’s president to announce an investigation into Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 candidate, and his son, Hunter.
Multiple witnesses overheard a phone call in which Trump and Sondland reportedly discussed efforts to push for the investigations. In private testimony to impeachment investigators made public Saturday, Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council aide and longtime Republican defense hawk, said Sondland told him he was discussing Ukraine matters directly with Trump.
Morrison said Sondland and Trump had spoken approximately five times between July 15 and Sept. 11 — the weeks that $391 million in U.S. assistance was withheld from Ukraine before it was released.
And he recounted that Sondland told a top Ukrainian official in a meeting that the vital U.S. military assistance might be freed up if the country’s top prosecutor “would go to the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation.” Burisma is the gas company that hired Hunter Biden.
Morrison’s testimony contradicted much of what Sondland told congressional investigators during his own closed-door deposition, which the ambassador later amended.
Trump has said he has no recollection of the overheard call and has suggested he barely knew Sondland, a wealthy donor to his 2016 campaign. But Democrats are hoping he sheds new light on the discussions.
“I’m not going to try to prejudge his testimony,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said on “Fox News Sunday.” But he suggested, “it was not lost on Ambassador Sondland what happened to the president’s close associate Roger Stone for lying to Congress, to Michael Cohen for lying to Congress. My guess is that Ambassador Sondland is going to do his level best to tell the truth, because otherwise he may have a very unpleasant legal future in front of him.”
The committee will also be interviewing a long list of others. On Tuesday, they’ll hear from Morrison along with Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, Alexander Vindman, the director for European affairs at the National Security Council, and Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine.
On Wednesday the committee will hear from Sondland in addition to Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, and David Hale, a State Department official. And on Thursday, Fiona Hill, a former top NSC staffer for Europe and Russia, will appear.
Trump, meanwhile, continued to tweet and retweet a steady stream of commentary from supporters as he bashed “The Crazed, Do Nothing Democrats” for “turning Impeachment into a routine partisan weapon.”
“That is very bad for our Country, and not what the Founders had in mind!!!!” he wrote.
He also tweeted a doctored video exchange between Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, in which Schiff said he did not know the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the inquiry. The clip has been altered to show Schiff wearing a referee’s uniform and loudly blowing a whistle.
In her CBS interview, Pelosi vowed to protect the whistleblower, whom Trump has said should be forced to come forward despite longstanding whistleblower protections.
“I will make sure he does not intimidate the whistleblower,” Pelosi said.
Trump has been under fire for his treatment of one of the witnesses, the former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump criticized by tweet as she was testifying last week.
That attack prompted accusations of witness intimidation from Democrats and even some criticism from Republicans, who have been largely united in their defense of Trump.
“I think, along with most people, I find the president’s tweet generally unfortunate,” said Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Still, he insisted that tweets were “certainly not impeachable and it’s certainly not criminal. And it’s certainly not witness intimidation,” even if Yovanovitch said she felt intimidated by the attacks.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said Trump “communicates in ways that sometimes I wouldn’t,” but dismissed the significance of the attacks.
“If your basis for impeachment is going to include a tweet, that shows how weak the evidence for that impeachment is,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
And the backlash didn’t stop Trump from lashing out at yet another witness, this time Pence aide Williams. He directed her in a Sunday tweet to “meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!”
JAY — Back in February, Lou Cochran said she was taking a cue from her religion, that she would “love thy neighbor.”
Even if the Blossom Farm poultry operation brought big trucks, dust and some added agricultural smells, her grandson enjoyed playing with the kids at the poultry farm across the road. She was tired of conflict and worry.
“It’s not so bad,” she said.
Wednesday, the man who lives on Blossom Farm — one of several poultry operations owned by Chau Tran and Donna Nguyen that produce broiler chickens for Arkansas-based Simmons Foods — was solemn-faced as he took the stand in the Delaware County Courthouse.
Robert Miller said it was “very much a surprise” to learn of a lawsuit filed by Cochran and others against the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, Tran and Nguyen.
The kids don’t play together anymore, he told the court.
Lou Cochran was in the courtroom, too.
“I couldn’t look at him when he went up there,” she said later.
The conflict between the neighbors is a microcosm of broader concerns across Delaware County. Last year, it grew into the state’s largest center for poultry production, with an increase in new and expanded poultry farms. It has more than 120 new “mega farm” poultry houses that raise millions of chickens annually.
No matter how much she liked her new neighbors, the lawsuit asking for an injunction — and based on complaints to the water resources board before the farm was built — had to continue, Cochran said.
The Delaware County case was filed in March and final arguments were Wednesday before District Court Judge Barry Denney. Wednesday’s testimony was continued from a hearing in September.
The lawsuit was filed by Delaware County residents and seeks an injunction to prevent the Oklahoma Water Resources Board from issuing groundwater permits for the farm. Among the plaintiffs are Louanna “Lou” Cochran, Andrea Cochran, Gerald Cochran, William Cochran, Melissa Foreman, Suzanne Maupin and Viola Powell.
Attorney Jason Aamodt of the Indian and Environmental Law Group in Tulsa filed the lawsuit, which is against the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, with Tran and Nguyen later added as interested parties.
Attorneys now will submit to the court their respective conclusions and proposed findings of fact by Dec. 11 for the judge to rule on an injunction.
Like many Oklahoma oil well operations and other construction projects, getting the farm going started off with a 90-day temporary permit for groundwater use as it applied for a permanent permit for its two wells. Roughly 1,500 of the temporary permits are issued annually in Oklahoma, according to Kent Wilkins, chief of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board Planning and Management Division.
Wilkins’ testimony filled most of the day Wednesday, as he was on the stand nearly four hours. Most of the time, he took questions to outline agency procedures with Oklahoma Water Resources Board Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Allen.
At the crux of the issue is the water resources board’s issuance of five successive 90-day permits. Those allow the farm to operate, even though the plaintiffs filed complaints against the farm receiving a long-term permit.
The long-term permit involves issuing public notice, a more complete review by the water resources board and final approval by the board. The 90-day permits are issued administratively as long as an application meets basic legal requirements, such as the applicant owning the land over the well site, that the water needed is deemed “for beneficial use,” and that the water use will not degrade surface waters or groundwater.
In testimony, Wilkins pointed out that the farm’s owners must accept all liability in case a permanent permit ultimately is denied, so the temporary permits do come with risk. The farm can’t operate without two wells — one main and one for backup, he said.
Wilkins’ testimony spelled out the water resources board’s jurisdiction, in terms of water use and well design. He said issues with water being wasted in pollution would likely fall to other agencies, such as the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry or the Department of Environmental Quality.
State law precludes the water resources board from addressing those issues. However, if another agency investigated and found there was a problem, then the water resources board could revoke a permit, he said.
The protest filed against the long-term permit states that the farm operation could diminish groundwater and pollute both groundwater and surface waters of the area.
That is where Cochran came into the case. Her home is downhill and across a poorly maintained county road from the farm. She says that during heavy rains, water runs downhill from the farm and across her yard. It did even before the farm existed, she said.
“But back then it was clean water,” she said.
Her home and those of others in the area rely on well water they fear could be contaminated or diminished by the nearby farm, which actually is closer than state law now allows under new buffer requirements.
Blossom Farm did construct a driveway and a shallow ditch it claims redirects the runoff toward the ditches along U.S. 412. But Cochran points to a gully in the county road and water pooling around her yard that shows that isn’t the case, especially in this past year of record rainfall.
“I don’t have a yard left,” she said.
However, Wilkins said in testimony that the Cochrans’ complaint lacked specifics and that surface water and groundwater concerns are handled separately, by other agencies. He said their complaints were not within the Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s jurisdiction.
“Fear alone is not sufficient to make a valid protest,” he said.
Adding interest to the case, the fifth temporary permit for the farm expires on Nov. 25. A hearing on the farm’s permanent permit is set for Nov. 22 but likely couldn’t be voted on by the full water board until its January or February meetings.
Attorneys for both sides said they assume another temporary permit will be issued to keep the farm running until the court and the water board make their decisions.
“Probably, they will issue a temporary again, without telling anyone, again,” Aamodt said after court was adjourned.
“They’ve run through more than 2 million chickens now without getting a permit, where the neighbors and the people impacted by the use of that water had no chance to say anything about it,” he said.
“We’re not saying that all temporary permits need to have a notice issued; but when a protest gets lodged, the water board ought to step back and go, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, there are some interests here that need to be considered, and now due process is required,’ which is what the water board had been doing since the 1980s. They’ve just forgotten,” he said.
Upon arriving home after the day in court, Cochran stood in the driveway in front of her home where she had stood nine months earlier and said, “it’s not so bad.”
She only recanted part of the way she felt. It is bad living so close to the farm. The water runoff scares her.
“I don’t have a yard we can use anymore,” she said.
The smells are sometimes intense. If it isn’t muddy, it’s dusty. And what the big trucks from Arkansas do to the county roads, with loads of chickens and chicken litter that are not covered, beats up her vehicles.
Wednesday evening, she admired a pink, orange and blue sunset visible over the top of the white chicken house roofs next door. She described the smell as sunset brought cool moisture and the ambient odor intensified.
“Smells like puke. It’s that smell. Sorry, I just say what I think,” she said. “But that’s the smell.”
But she still said she holds love for her neighbors.
“I’ve told him it’s not about them, it’s about Simmons and the water board,” she said. “I don’t hold anything against them, but I guess they do against me now.”
Isaiah Oliver may not have his sights set on improv comedy in the future, but the experience of learning something so new and bold has him thinking about what else is possible.
“It’s really fun. I’m thinking about also trying something else new, like cooking,” said the junior at Union High School.
Oliver and his 18 classmates in Tina Talbott’s special education class for students with disabilities have been getting out of their routines in the best way possible, thanks to their work alongside Union’s 25 elite repertory theater students.
The two classes will stage a one-time performance of a variety show they’ve dubbed the “Show of Shows” to raise funds for the Union Special Olympics Booster Club.
The variety show, which will also feature magic, sketch comedy and song and dance, is set for 7 p.m. Thursday in the Studio Theater at Union High School Freshman Academy, 7616 S. Garnett Road. Admission, which is open to the public and sold at the door, is $10 for adults and $5 for children age 12 and under.
“They’re very excited and their parents are very excited because they’ve never done anything like this before,” said Talbott. “I’d like to see it continue and maybe open more opportunities like this in the future.”
Theater teacher Troy Powell said the inspiration for the show came from a beloved member of his own family and the experience of bringing his 25 repertory theater students to volunteer at last year’s Special Olympics in Stillwater.
“Getting into this class is audition-only, meaning they have to beat out like 150 other kids to get in — so these are the best of the best. It was an amazing experience seeing the immediate connections they made with the other kids,” said Powell. “All summer long, this was stewing in me because my wife’s cousin has Down syndrome. He’s such a joy in my life and I started thinking how great it would have been for him to have a connection like this when he was in high school.”
Oliver and his teammates on the improv comedy team couldn’t help but cut up at their own jokes as they rehearsed with a random assortment of props, including a traffic cone, a Canada goose decoy, a plastic sword and a pumpkin.
At rehearsals, Powell said his favorite part of how things have turned out is that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish those with disabilities and those without, as he watched one group belt out “Location” by Khalid and “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele and the improv group transitioned into an audience-participation act called “Body bag.”
“I tell my students: We strive as artists to open up our chests and be vulnerable. Look at these kids — there’s no hidden agendas. It’s all honest,” Powell said.
Students in both classes pitched ideas for what acts the “Show of Shows” should include and then Powell integrated them into a final plan.
But each team of students decided the specific songs, magic tricks or scenarios they should perform.
One team produced a mash-up of classical and pop music, including accompaniment by junior Sierra Dysinger on violin and senior Rebecca Ritter on cello. For their pop song choice, they went with the favorite of one of their special needs teammates, “High Hopes” by Panic At the Disco.
“We’re both in orchestra and repertory theater. We haven’t combined the two ever before, so when he said, ‘High Hopes,’ we said ‘Great!’ ” said Ritter.
Theater students reassured their teammates when nerves or shyness struck. “It’s my first time,” said Geovany Bamaca Hernandez, a sophomore in the improv comedy group. “I don’t know what to do.”
But Hernandez and Oliver and their classmate, Carlos Marinez, confidently plowed through rehearsals of those “body bag” and prop acts, as well as an improv scenario that has the performers pairing up as a driver and hitchhiker with all of the details filled in spontaneously.
Isaac Jones, a junior, confessed there was a learning curve for him and his theater classmates in the improv group, as well — figuring out how to teach the new participants improv because it’s such an abstract concept.
“I told them, ‘You just jump off the cliff and do everything to try to make it work,’ ” Jones said, “but it’s hard to explain.”
Junior Dorothy Palmer piped in, “We would play games and show them.”