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National Govt & Politics
Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings
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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

The five days of historic impeachment hearings held by the House Intelligence Committee this month clearly demonstrated the sharp partisan divide over the question of whether President Donald Trump tried to use the reward of a White House meeting or the threat of withholding military aid to push the government of Ukraine to announce investigations which could benefit Mr. Trump politically.

As Democrats headed home for the Thanksgiving break, the final plans were still being worked out by lawmakers on what's next - which could culminate in a House vote just before Christmas on actual articles of impeachment against the President, leading to a trial before the full Senate at some point next year.

Regardless of whether you think the impeachment investigation is a sham, or should proceed to a vote in the full House, it was an interesting time to be in the room with a view of the proceedings.

Here's some of what I saw from my vantage point in room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building.

1. Trump becomes part of the hearings in real time. Obviously, the impeachment hearings are about the President. While no one would expect any testimony by a President in this situation, Mr. Trump was able to use the social media tool of Twitter to impact the hearings in real time, sending out tweets ridiculing the diplomatic work of his former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Democrats swiftly took those remarks and read them to Yovanovitch to get her reaction. As a reporter, it was a remarkable moment to sit in the room and see something happen outside - in real time - and have that become the major part of the story, upending whatever plans GOP lawmakers may have had that day to deal with the Ambassador's testimony.

2. GOP jawbones over real time news headlines. Just as the President electronically elbowed his way into the hearings in real time on Twitter - right along with the social media power exercised by the White House - the other change which was evident from these impeachment hearings was Republican lawmakers trying to fight the way news of the testimony was being reported in real time. When Kurt Volker testified, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) relayed a headline from The Daily Mail - a British newspaper which for some reason gets an out sized amount of attention from American media outlets - with Turner arguing the headline was false, with which Volker agreed. During testimony from Gordon Sondland, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) complained that media reports were citing "blockbuster testimony" from Sondland about "quid pro quo and new evidence." While Ratcliffe groused about that description, it was all over the internet as he spoke - and was the blaring morning headline in newspapers all over America the next day.

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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

3. The Trump witnesses who may never talk. One of the main GOP complaints about the evidence provided by the impeachment hearing witnesses was a lack of firsthand accounts related to actions by President Trump. The main reason for that is pretty simple - those people with the largest amount of firsthand evidence are refusing to testify. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Officials in the White House budget office. And then there is Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York, who led the charge for President Trump with back channel efforts in Ukraine. Giuliani has defied subpoenas as well, and has made clear he won't testify before Congress. Their lack of public questioning raises big questions about what lawmakers can do in the investigation - if the key players refuse to cooperate.  Those refusals were especially interesting in the light of some of Giuliani's real time tweets about the impeachment hearings.

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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

4. Kurt Volker proves it is a small world. One of the key players in the Ukraine story is Kurt Volker, who worked as a special U.S. envoy to Ukraine under President Trump. The name was instantly familiar to me, as over thirty years ago, I met Volker when he was going to graduate school in Washington, D.C., starting his trek into the diplomatic world. After a few years of fun in our twenties with a group of common friends, Volker headed overseas for the State Department. Before his public testimony, the last time I had seen Volker was at the U.S. Embassy in London, in November of 1988, just a month before I got my current job covering Congress. One can only imagine how much all of us would have laughed if we had predicted then, that almost 31 years later to the day, he would be testifying before impeachment hearings of an American President, with me watching and reporting from inside the same room. You can't make this stuff up.

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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

5. A Return to Gucci Gulch. The House Intelligence Committee doesn't really have a public hearing room it calls home - because it works in secret for the most part, so the panel used the historic hearing room of the House Ways and Means Committee. It's extremely familiar to me, because I worked for the committee as an intern in the summer of 1982, which featured long hours as lawmakers forged agreement on a major tax bill, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act. The hallways outside are known as "Gucci Gulch," for the well-heeled tax lobbyists who plied the hallways in the 1980's, when the Ways and Means Committee churned out a series of major tax measures, culminating in the tax reforms of 1986. Don't be surprised if you see more impeachment action in that room - which still seems jarring to me.

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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

6. Working inside the impeachment hearings. For those who don't know, I'm a radio reporter. But because of a mystery ailment, I have lost the ability to speak properly. I am still on the radio because of a computer generated voice created from my audio archives. So, I'm the only person who is "broadcasting" from inside the impeachment hearing room. I have the hearing audio in my left ear from my tape recorder. I have a second earplug in my right ear from my laptop, where I am creating my text-to-speech stories, and going through audio from the hearing. Plus I'm tweeting and updating my blog. Over and over. Hour after hour. And then I have to be ready to post a full blog story once the hearing ends - right away - so I'm writing that at the same time. It's fun stuff. One ironic note is that, if I were still able to speak, I would have been back in my broadcast booths in the Capitol for the most part to file my stories - not in the hearing room.

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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

7. The still photographers. Among the busiest people in the hearings were the legion of photographers who send out pictures for major newspapers across America and the world. The major papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have multiple people at these hearings, with remote cameras which wirelessly send pictures to their phones and computers, editors who are determining which photos are filed, as they juggle who gets assigned to what task. As a one-man band in radio, it is always fun to watch how others do their work. You will see a picture below which is standard for a number of the photographers, as they have used Velcro to attach a variety of gadgets, for power, the internet, and more, to their laptops. When the hearing is in recess, the photographers also leave their cameras - their very expensive cameras - sitting on the floor, to stake their claim to a spot for a money-shot photo.

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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

8. C-SPAN does the basics for every TV network. When I arrived on Capitol Hill as a reporter in 1986, C-SPAN was still a relative newcomer to Congress. At that time, the major TV networks frowned on the cable TV creation, with little cooperation. At big hearings, C-SPAN would set up their own microphones and cameras, and so would the networks. Things were so regimented that I remember network TV technicians pulling my cable out of the audio box at a hearing, because I was a lowly independent radio reporter. So, C-SPAN became my friend and ally on Capitol Hill, and at events around the country. But over the years, things have changed, as the networks relaxed their union rules and mellowed. C-SPAN is now regularly in charge of televising major events, as their cameras fed the televised coverage to every network, whether it was Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, or anything else. All of official proceedings at the hearings was filmed by C-SPAN. A tip of the cap to them.

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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

9. What was it like inside? The questions I got asked the most by friends, readers, and listeners were along the lines of: What was it like to be in there? Was the room tense? Who was the best witness? I have to say I find those hard to answer, simply because I am doing so much work while the hearing is going on in front of me.  If I had to pick the biggest day of impeachment testimony - I would say that was Gordon Sondland. To me, the room felt on edge at times, especially as Republicans jabbed at him. What was my view of the proceedings? Well, unfortunately, there was a giant TV screen sitting in front me. But I could still see the witnesses, and it was a treat to be on hand.

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Five days inside the Trump Impeachment hearings

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The Latest News Headlines

  • Police in Jacksonville Beach are investigating after more than a dozen cars were broken into over the course of a few days. It started last weekend along 5th Street South where several of those burglaries took place.  Police reports said there were 14 burglaries that happened Saturday through Monday.  Joseph Rennie said he’s hoping this weekend they don’t see a repeat.  “All in all, this is a pretty safe neighborhood. But occasionally, you have things like this happen and come up, but it’s definitely a little bit unnerving,” Rennie said.  Police said someone was going around smashing out windows of vehicles and looking for valuables inside. Wallets, credit and debit cards were taken.  Some people had nothing taken, but were left with a broken window. It happened to 6 cars on 5th Street, 4 cars on 12th, and several others on the surrounding blocks.  Rennie, like many others who live in the area, said he’s thankful he wasn’t a victim, but was surprised it happened to so many people in the area.  “There is a sense of just making sure you’re being smart about it, not leaving stuff of value in your car, kind of anywhere. But yeah, its really unfortunate to see that that’s happened, especially around the holiday season,” Rennie said.  As always, police are urging people not to leave valuables in their cars.
  • Florida, along with 29 other states, has been accepted for membership into the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), according to Governor Ron DeSantis' office. ERIC is a multi-state partnership that uses a data-matching tool to help enhance election security and make voter rolls more accurate.  The governor's office says through ERIC, member states can share information from voter registration systems, motor vehicle databases, social security death records, and US Post Office records, to help identify voters who have moved, passed away, or changed their name.  Additionally, the governor's office says ERIC will help boost voter registration as it will provide member states better information on how to contact potentially eligible, but unregistered voters.  Governor DeSantis says he has set aside an estimated $1.3 million in his 2020-2021 recommend budget to conduct outreach to these unregistered voters with a direct mailer prior to the 2020 general election.  But the governor's office says Florida's full participation in ERIC will be contingent on the state legislature signing off on his budget. Being a member of ERIC requires annual dues of around $75,000.
  • In response to a smash-and-grab burglary at a Fernandina Beach gun store where thieves stole 57 guns in 60 seconds, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the National Shooting Sports Foundation announced a reward of up to $5,000 for tips leading to the arrest of suspects or recovery of stolen guns. The burglary happened Sunday, Dec. 8 at TNT Firearms and Accessories off State Road 200 in Nassau County.  Security footage shows 3 suspects smash through a glass door before breaking glass display cases and ransacking the store of 57 rifles and handguns.  The ATF is offering a reward of up to $2,500, which will be matched by the NSSF for a total of up to $5,000.  The ATF and NSSF are working together in a national campaign to fund rewards in cases involving guns being stolen from federally licensed dealers.
  • A Virginia mother is wanted on abduction charges after authorities say she took her four children on vacation six months ago and never brought them home. The woman alleges she is saving the children from sex trafficking by their father and grandfather. Along with four misdemeanor abduction charges, Melody Bannister, 34, of Stafford, is charged with felony violation of a court order and filing a false police report, a news release from the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office said. A warrant was issued for her arrest Aug. 23, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Her children are identified as Genevieve Bannister, 13; Janelle Bannister, 12; Vivienne Bannister, 11; and Peter Bannister, 7. Genevieve is described as 5 feet, 3 inches tall and 110 pounds with brown hair and hazel eyes, according to the NCMEC. Janelle is described as 5 feet, 1 inch tall and 115 pounds. Like her older sister, she has brown hair and hazel eyes. Vivienne is listed as 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 95 pounds with brown hair and blue eyes. Peter is described as 4 feet, 1 inch tall and 90 pounds. He also brown hair and blue eyes. Bannister is described as 5 feet, 2 inches tall and 110 pounds. Like her two youngest children, she has brown hair and blue eyes. The children and their mother were last known to be traveling in a blue-green 2002 Honda Odyssey with Virginia license plate number VBH7123, Stafford County Sheriff’s Office Detective James Wright said during a segment about the case on “Live PD” on A&E. Finding Bannister and the children has become more urgent after “recent developments in the investigation have led investigators to believe the children may now be in danger,” the Sheriff’s Office’s statement said. Wright, who is lead investigator on the case, said on “Live PD” that authorities believe the missing family might be in danger due to the “clandestine nature” of the religious organization they belong to. “We’re concerned about the welfare because they are unable to take care of themselves. They don’t have any means to take care of them. Melody doesn’t have means to take care of them,” Wright told host Tom Morris Jr. Sheriff’s Office spokesman Amanda Vicinanzo said investigators believe Bannister has had help along the way from members of a religious group of which she is purportedly a member, according to the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg. The newspaper reported that the family’s pets, a white Great Pyrenees dog and white ragdoll cat, were left at one of the stops Bannister has made since leaving Virginia. “After months on the road, we had to say goodbye to our beloved pets: Our giant, bounding bundle of puppy-faced joy and our fluffy cat, whose soothing whirr often assuaged our soreness of heart,” Bannister wrote on her blog. “It is a comfort to know they are in good, loving hands, since they can no longer be in ours.” “Live PD” pointed out that Bannister has written about her religion previously, describing it as a “cult.” According to a blog she began in 2016 called Lady Adelaide’s Realm, Bannister grew up in a Quiverfull household. Followers of the Quiverfull movement believe that the men with the most children will earn the most favor from God. They shun all forms of contraception, believing that it is only God who “opens and closes the womb,” follower Kelly Swanson told NPR in 2009. The movement advocates stringent gender roles, and women are not allowed to question their husbands’ authority. They cannot work outside the home, wear pants or cut their hair. According to some of Bannister’s friends -- and a second blog the missing woman appears to have written since going on the run with her children -- the danger toward the children lies not with their mother, but in their father’s home. Bannister’s blog devoted to the allegations is subtitled “American Outlaws: The Plight of Child Sex Trafficking Victims Living Underground.” Her most recent blog post on Lady Adelaide’s Realm, dated June 28, names six men, including her father-in-law, as her children’s alleged abusers. The men are not being named because they have not been charged with a crime. ‘Will justice triumph over lawlessness this Christmas?’ A Change.org petition begging for help from Virginia and Alabama officials claims that the children’s father “conspired with (Bannister’s) father-in-law to perpetuate some of the most horrifying sexual and physical abuse imaginable upon her children.” “When local law enforcement failed to protect these children, ordering them back to live with their abuser, Melody chose to live on the wrong side of the law. What else could a truly desperate mother do?” the petition reads. Bannister has accused her husband of “deliver(ing) the children up for torture to the barn of his father.” She has accused her father-in-law of not only sexually abusing the children, but of offering them up for abuse by his friends. “The children have spoken of being given strange substances in the barn that made the world swim before their eyes and caused the taunting faces of their abusers to converge together in a dizzying blur,” Bannister wrote. She wrote on the blog that her only crimes were “believing (her) children when they disclosed a lifetime of ongoing abuse” and “reporting (it) to the Stafford, Virginia, police.” Stafford County officials said that an investigation into the allegations brought to them by Bannister in June found no evidence of abuse against the children. “A joint investigation with Stafford County law enforcement and Child Protective Services determined the allegations were unfounded,” according to the statement from the Sheriff’s Office. “Shortly after the conclusion of the investigation, Bannister left Virginia with the children on a planned vacation and never returned.” Bannister wrote on her blog that she and the children left town for a vacation June 14, the day after she reported the abuse, in part out of fear of reprisal from the accused. She said she called the Sheriff’s Office detective, Wright, a few days later to check up on the investigation. “We spoke briefly once, when he told me that he had interviewed my husband and would soon interview my father-in-law,” Bannister wrote. “After that, he stopped answering my phone calls.” She wrote that Wright and a CPS caseworker chalked the sex abuse claims up to children’s “vivid imaginations.” She described fleeing Virginia with the “rancid hot breath of child predators” on her back. “We left home with barely a week’s worth of summer clothes and are practically penniless, living off the kindness of friends who, one by one, have taken us under their wings,” Bannister wrote. She said her husband drained their joint bank account and cancelled her credit cards when she did not bring the children back to Virginia. Read Bannister’s entire, five-part blog here. Warning: It includes graphic details of alleged child sex abuse. Stafford County’s Juvenile, Domestic and Relations Court granted sole custody of the children to their father the following month, Stafford County authorities said. Their father, identified in court records as William Joseph Bannister, filed for divorce last month. “(Melody) Bannister refused to return the children and subsequently petitioned the courts in Alabama requesting custody be issued to her there,” a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said. “The courts in Alabama heard the case and also ordered Bannister to return her children to their father back in Virginia. “Bannister absconded from the state of Alabama with her four children and has not been seen since.” Bannister and the children were last seen Aug. 20 in Moulton, a small city in northwest Alabama. “We set up residence in Alabama and made it our new home, where we obtained a protective order against the man formerly known as Daddy,” Bannister wrote on her blog. “This was swiftly snatched away when the judge deferred to the Virginia ruling, which ordered me to return the children to him.” Bannister wrote that a family court hearing was held in Virginia without her presence Aug. 19, with a judge ruling in her husband’s favor. She claimed she was never served with a summons for the hearing. She and the children vanished from Alabama the next day. US marshals issue alert Aside from Alabama, potential sightings of the family have been reported in Wisconsin, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas. The U.S. Marshals Service and the NCMEC have been involved in the case over the past few months, the Sheriff’s Office said. The Marshals Service issued an alert this week seeking help from the public in finding Bannister and the missing children. A friend of Bannister, Julie Lampkins, shared a story on Facebook about the missing family, saying it was “with a heavy heart” that she shared the link about the mother’s alleged abduction of her children. “We all have questions, but no answers,” Lampkins wrote. “Help the authorities find her and her (four) kids.” Meanwhile, Bannister is appealing for help on the state and federal levels, according to the Change.org petition. It quoted additional portions of Bannister’s blog. “The mental health and credibility of my children and me have been assessed and verified by two of the most prestigious forensic psychiatrists in the country: Dr. Michael Stone and Dr. Carole Lieberman,” Bannister wrote on her blog. “Naturally, the abusers did not take kindly to such a development and are seeking to have the reports stricken from the record. ‘Eliminate all threats’ seems to be their motto. Hence our position of living underground.” Followers on her blog wrote this week that they believed her and her children. “Many people believe you and are praying and sharing the news and asking God to vindicate and protect. Praying that true justice will be served,” Carrie Brownell wrote. A friend, identified as Lana, told Bannister she was praying for her, as well as sharing her story and contacting a list of law enforcement officers listed on the blog on Bannister’s behalf. Another friend named Rachael offered similar well wishes. “Oh Melody…my heart is so broken for you and your sweet kids,” the woman wrote. “I will be keeping you in my prayers and doing what I can. Locally.” A third friend named Petra Carden wrote that Bannister and her children have a place in her home “any time, day or night, no questions asked” if Bannister has to return to Virginia. Others who read her story offered her help in other locations throughout the country, including Alabama, where she and the children were last seen. Many people who believe Bannister’s allegations of abuse urged caution in reporting the family’s whereabouts. “If the news articles released regarding Melody Bannister’s children being in danger is all people know, they will report them when they see them and put them back in danger,” one woman wrote on Twitter. A cult? Bannister’s Facebook profile lists her as manager of a website called Recovering Daughters. The description of the site on its corresponding Facebook page states it is about “healing from Vision Forum, authoritarianism and the Quiverfull Movement.” The Recovering Daughters website is no longer available because the domain has recently expired. Vision Forum was a Texas-based ministry that promoted a patriarchal lifestyle, in which the husband rules the family, and home-schooling its children. The ministry was shut down by its board in 2013 after leader Doug Phillips admitted to an extramarital affair, the Huffington Post reported. Phillips has been a friend of and influence on Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, whose TLC show “19 Kids and Counting” focused on their beliefs against birth control and that large families are a gift from God, the news site said. The Duggars, who lost their show after their eldest son, Josh Duggar, was publicly accused of sexually molesting multiple young girls, including some of his sisters, have also been associated with the Quiverfull movement, though the Huffington Post reported in 2015 that the couple does not formally consider themselves members of the movement. The Quiverfull movement gets its name from a Bible passage: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is His reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.” Hännah Ettinger, a young woman raised in the movement who had left that world behind, told Cosmopolitan in 2015 that her first big break from the religion came when her father told her she “didn’t have the spiritual discernment” to choose her own boyfriend, a man she met at her Christian college. “Later, I got utterly fed up with the churches I’d grown up in because I kept finding out that they’d protected child abusers, rapists, and men who’d beaten their wives, all in the name of redemption stories, ‘biblical’ male headship and complementarian theology,” Ettinger told the magazine. Vyckie Garrison, another former Quiverfull member, told Vice in 2016 that, with no central leader, the movement isn’t a cult, per se. It’s more of a mindset “in which each family becomes a cult unto itself with Daddy enshrined as the supreme patriarch,” Vice reported. Garrison founded a website called No Longer Quivering, which is designed to help other women in her situation escape the movement. In April 2015, the American Atheists Convention named her its 2014 Atheist of the Year. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Bannister and her children is asked to call the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office at 540-658-4400, the U.S. Marshals Service at 877-WANTED2 or the NCMEC at 800-THE-LOST.
  • Money is helping put local veterans in Northeast Florida back to work. Hundreds of people filled the inside of a warehouse at a former Navy base to celebrate a milestone.  It was 20 years ago when the U.S. Navy handed over ownership of Cecil Field Naval Air Station to the city of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.  The air station is now being operated by Boeing Global Services.  Friday, Boeing made a $55,000 check presentation to Veterans Florida to help put local veterans back to work.  Samuel Leeca is a Navy veteran and was one of the first people hired by Boeing back in 1999.  “We first only had one aircraft. Then they started filtering in. It was rough at first, but then we started to get it rolling,” said Samuel Leeca.  “When I see the Blue Angels, I don’t even bother anymore because I was sharing with someone that all 6 of them, I’ve physically touched them. I’ve physically put the cell in and taken it out,” Leeca explained.  Boeing Cecil Field site leader Warren Helm says the site is one of the most successful closed bases in the country.  “We have a great mix about 70% veterans on this site. It’s a great mix between people who have been here since day one,” Helm said.  Leeca says after working here for over 20 years, he heads a team of mostly young people who disassemble and repair aircraft.  “I just look at it as, not so much someone has to do it, but someone always did it. We live in a world now where it is so dangerous, I said, ‘I can’t leave them, I have to keep going to help the newer guys keep the jets flying,’” said Leeca.

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