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How a little-known GOP lawmaker became point man on impeachment



Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., has called the impeachment probe into President Donald Trump a “charade,” a “clown show,” and a “cocktail that is” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff’s “favorite drink to get America drunk on.”

Naturally, there’s an occupant in the Oval Office who’s taken notice of his strong words. And, in turn, a once little-known, 39-year-old lawmaker representing eastern Long Island has become one of the president’s point men in battling impeachment, teaming up with fellow anti-impeachment crusaders like House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

“For me, it’s just about getting facts out there and getting the rest of the story out there. Adam Schiff isn’t going to do that for my constituents,” Zeldin told NBC News in an interview when asked about the risk of going all in on Trump’s defense. “And I have a lot of constituents who oppose this impeachment inquiry. Most of the calls my office receives are from people who are opposed to this impeachment inquiry. This isn’t an issue, obviously, that’s going to unite a country.”

“As a matter of fact, an impeachment inquiry like this rips the country in half,” he continued. “So I’m not expecting unanimous calls to come into my office in opposition to the impeachment inquiry. We hear from people who oppose the president. And quite frankly, many of those people have opposed the president since the day he was elected and sworn into office.”

President Donald Trump is greeted on the tarmac by Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., center, and Maria Moore, left, Mayor of Westhampton Beach, NY., during his arrival at Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, N.Y., on Aug. 17, 2018.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

In the seven impeachment deposition transcripts released so far, no Republican has spoken more than Zeldin, who is referenced more than 550 times, according to an NBC News tally. His attempts to steer the depositions away from Trump’s conduct and toward a host of tangential matters— including the Biden family, a conspiracy theory about the 2016 election, and even the witnesses’ own credibility— has driven counsel for multiple witnesses to their wit’s end.

“With all respect, congressman, we’ve now been here for eight-and-a-half hours and Ambassador Sondland has not declined to answer a single question posed by any member or any counsel member,” Robert Luskin, the attorney for E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, told Zeldin last month after the Long Island lawmaker asked over and over about the merits of asking Ukraine to probe the Bidens’ ties to a Ukrainian gas company. “You’ve asked this question now three different times. I know you’re unhappy with his answer, but if we stay until 7:30 he’s not going to change his answer.”

Zeldin was indefatigable. He pressed Sondland again on why it would have been okay for Trump to want Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, tearing into the ambassador over his earlier answers.

“[M]ore questions I don’t think are going to assist you any further,” Luskin said. “I think you’ve asked it about as many times as you can.”

In return for Zeldin’s pertinacity, Trump has shown appreciation by tweeting or retweeting the New York lawmaker’s commentary on the investigation nearly two dozen times since the inquiry was launched in late September, including nine times in the early morning hours on Saturday. Previously, the president had promoted Zeldin on Twitter only once to endorse his 2018 reelection bid.

Zeldin’s district spans from working-class central Long Island to wealthy enclaves like Ponquogue Beach in the Hamptons.John Taggart / for NBC News

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Unlike his counterparts Jordan and Meadows, Zeldin doesn’t reside in an uber-safe Republican district. While Trump won New York’s 1st congressional district by 12 points in 2016, Zeldin won reelection in 2018 by just 4 percentage points, and 2020 could feature another hotly contested race.

Zeldin’s loyalty to Trump, as well as his attacks on the impeachment process, has been met with much chagrin from Democrats. One House Democratic aide said Zeldin was “maybe the best instance I’ve seen of someone using emulating Trump as a pathway to relevance.”

But Zeldin, who served in the military, wasn’t a Trump acolyte from the get-go. The congressman only endorsed Trump after the former reality TV star cleared the 2016 Republican field and even in the years that followed, he was not averse to criticizing the president and those close to him.

“I voted for @POTUS last Nov. & want him & USA to succeed, but that meeting, given that email chain just released, is a big no-no,” Zeldin tweeted in July 2017 after president’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr. acknowledged his role in arranging a 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer in the hopes of landing dirt on then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Asked if he similarly saw anything wrong with the president’s conduct toward Ukraine, Zeldin declined to answer, telling NBC News instead that, “I too am concerned with corruption in Ukraine.”

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., who represents the Long Island district next door to Zeldin’s, said he hasn’t been all that surprised that Zeldin, who sits on one of the three committees able to take part in the impeachment probe, has become one of Trump’s staunchest impeachment defenders.

“Well, I know that he feels strongly about it,” King said of Zeldin’s thoughts on the investigation. “I know that he and the president get along. I think this could be just the first time he’s really had an opportunity because he’s on one of the committees. Once you’re in it, it’s hard to go halfway.”

Meanwhile, since Zeldin’s earlier criticism of Trump Jr.’s emails, the two men have become “close,” as a source close to both Trump Jr. and Zeldin told NBC News. Trump Jr. headlined a fundraiser for Zeldin last year and is slated to headline another event for the Long Island congressman later this month.

“I know Don appreciates the fact that Lee is a fighter,” this person said, adding that what makes Zeldin “so fascinating is he’s the rare guy … who works closely with both the Freedom Caucus” and moderate Republicans.

In Zeldin’s district, which spans from working-class central Long Island to the wealthy enclave of the Hamptons, voters expressed mixed thoughts on his newfound prominence.

Rob Mauro, a 64-year-old construction manager and self-identified Republican, told NBC News that Zeldin is doing “as best he can” on a “nonsense” impeachment probe. But Mauro said he was at least a little surprised to see Zeldin featured so prominently.

Rob Mauro, a construction manager and Republican, at Eckart’s Luncheonette in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.John Taggart / for NBC News

“I don’t think a lot of people would stick their neck out at this point because it could go either way,” he said. “Obviously, it’s trying times.”

It wasn’t as surprising to Heather and Colin Bester. Heather, 51, said she felt Zeldin has “done a good job” while Colin, 57, said the congressman has “been leading up to” his starring role “for a while.”

Peter Ames, a massage therapist, felt differently.

“Well, I don’t like that he’s a big Trump supporter because I hate Trump, so that alone is enough to be unhappy with about him,” he said, adding however that he respected Zeldin’s efforts aimed at helping veterans.

“Most of the calls my office receives are from people who are opposed to this impeachment inquiry,” Zeldin said, who’s district re-elected him by only 4-points in 2018.John Taggart / for NBC News

King acknowledged there was some political risk in Zeldin — whom he called a “serious player in Washington” — going big on the president’s defense.

“Yeah, there is always risks,” he said. “But generally you are not going to achieve a lot unless you are willing to take risks.”

But Zeldin’s time in the impeachment spotlight could soon be coming to an end. Public hearings, which are slated to start this week, will be heard in front of solely the House Intelligence Committee. That sparked Republican leadership to swap a staunch Trump ally in Jordan onto the panel. Zeldin remains on the outside.

He’d “be happy to” join, though he said it’s “a decision to be made above my pay grade.”

“I’d be able to contribute to the process of the American public getting the entire story and not just the parts of it,” he said.

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Democratic senator: House didn’t need to go to courts to prove obstruction of justice



Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., talks to NBC News’ Leigh Ann Caldwell about Republicans’ claims that the House rushed the impeachment hearing process.

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What happened on Day Four



The Democratic House managers focused on President Donald Trump’s attempts to stymie their impeachment inquiry during his Senate trial Friday as more details about the president’s Ukraine dealings emerged.

The managers wound down their final day of opening arguments by outlining the second article of impeachment against the president, obstruction of Congress. Trump, they noted, is the only president in history to completely refuse to cooperate with an impeachment investigation, blocking witnesses and documents.

“The president has declared himself above the law. He has done so because he is guilty,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., told the Senate, charging the president wanted to cover up his attempts to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

Here are four key moments from the fourth full day of Trump’s trial.

A historic stonewalling

The case managers focused on the White House’s directive that no executive branch agency or personnel cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry, which Nadler called an unprecedented “categorical blockade.” He contrasted Trump to presidential cooperation in other investigations, including President Ronald Reagan turning over his personal diary to investigators during the Iran-Contra probe.

“This is a determination by President Trump that he wants to be all powerful, he does not have to respect the Congress, he does not have to respect the representatives of the people, only his will goes,” Nadler said. “He is a dictator. This must not stand.”

Lead House manager Adam Schiff, in the Democrats’ final presentation of the evening, hammered that point, too, defending the necessity of the second article of impeachment and painting Trump’s conduct as an ongoing threat to Congress’ ability to exercise oversight of the executive branch.

He also rebutted Republican arguments that the House had not appropriately exhausted its legal remedies to compel certain witnesses and agencies to comply with subpoenas before moving forward with the obstruction charge.

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“Justice delayed is justice denied,” he said.

A voice appearing to be Trump’s heard demanding Yovanovitch’s ouster

Trump has denied knowing Lev Parnas, the indicted Rudy Giuliani associate who advocated for the ouster of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, but evidence contradicting that claim emerged on Friday.

An audio recording reviewed by ABC News of a 2018 dinner at Trump’s Washington hotel had a man who sounded like Parnas telling a man who sounded like the president, “I think where we need to start is we gotta get rid of the ambassador. . . She’s basically walking around telling everybody ‘Wait, he’s gonna get impeached, just wait.'”

A voice that sounds like Trump replies, “Get rid of her!”

Yovanovitch, who has been lauded for anti-corruption work, was targeted for removal by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. She one of the key witnesses to testify in the House’s impeachment inquiry, telling Congress that she was subjected to a smear campaign based on lies that led to her abrupt removal from Kyiv.

Yovanovitch departed Ukraine in May 2019, months ahead of her scheduled departure, after coming under attack from right-wing media, which alleged she was hostile to the president.

Trump denied doing Parnas’s bidding in an interview with Fox News airing Friday evening.

“No, no,” he said.

A preview of Trump’s defense

While arguing against the House managers’ motions to subpoena documents and witnesses on Tuesday, Trump’s legal team largely stuck to the legal arguments they outlined in their defense filings with the Senate — that the president didn’t abuse his power, and the allegations in the House articles of impeachment don’t reach the level of impeachable conduct.

But speaking to reporters on Friday, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow suggested they would go farther when they begin their presentation at 10 a.m. ET Saturday — complaining that Trump was the victim of a conspiracy and the real foreign interference in the 2016 election came from the Democrats and the FBI.

The president’s legal team will begin their presentation at 10 am ET Saturday. “After three days of lies and mischaracterizations by the Democrats, the president’s legal team is ready to come out swinging,” a source told NBC News’ Hallie Jackson. Sekulow said the presentation would last about three hours before kicking off in earnest on Monday.

“I guess I would call it a trailer, kind of a coming attractions, would be the best way to say it,” he said.

Trump suggested on Twitter Friday that he’d prefer for his team to present much of his defense before a potentially bigger television audience on Monday, noting that Saturday “is called Death Valley in T.V..”

How sweet it is

Senators who’ve been relying on Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s candy desk to help make through it the proceedings got a treat Friday when 700 pounds of Hershey’s chocolates were sent to the Republican lawmaker. Hershey Co. is headquartered in his home state of Pennsylvania.

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A voice appearing to be Trump’s heard in recording demanding diplomat Yovanovitch’s ouster



A voice that appears to be that of President Donald Trump ordered aides to “get rid” of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch after two now-indicted Rudy Giuliani associates told him she had been badmouthing him, according to an audio recording reviewed by ABC News.

The network said the recording appeared to include a discussion between Trump and Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman at a small private dinner. Trump has denied knowing the pair and dismissed numerous pictures of them together as just photos taken at public events.

NBC News has neither obtained nor heard the recording and cannot verify the authenticity of the ABC report.

Parnas’s lawyer Joseph Bondy told NBC News Friday night that he located a version of the recording and turned it over the House Intelligence Committee after ABC reported on its existence. A spokesperson for the committee declined to comment.

Trump denied knowing Parnas in an interview with Fox News earlier Friday.

Asked if he was relying on Parnas to get rid of Yovanovitch, Trump said, “No, no. I have a lot of people – he’s somebody I guess based on pictures I see goes to fundraisers but I’m not a fan of that ambassador,” Trump said. “I want ambassadors that are chosen by me. I have a right to hire and fire ambassadors.”

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According to ABC, the voice that sounds like Trump apparently told aides at the April 2018 dinner at Trump International Hotel in Washington: “Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”

Trump made the demand after a voice that sounds like Parnas’ told the president that Yovanovitch was telling people that Trump was going to be impeached.

“The biggest problem there, I think where we need to start is we got to get rid of the ambassador,” says the voice that sounds like Parnas. “She’s basically walking around telling everybody ‘Wait, he’s gonna get impeached, just wait.'”

Yovanovitch was removed from her post, but not until a year later.

A copy of the recording is in the custody of federal prosecutors in New York, according to ABC.

The audiotape lines up with what Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow about the Trump dinner in an interview last week.

He said he was having dinner in a private area of the hotel with the president and some of his aides.

“I don’t know how the issue is, the conversation came up, but I do remember me telling the president that the ambassador was badmouthing him and saying he was going to get impeached. Something to that effect,” Parnas told Maddow.

“And at that point he turned around to John DeStefano, who was his aide at the time, and said, ‘Fire her.’ And we all, there was silence in the room,” Parnas said.

He said DeStefano replied it couldn’t happen at the time because Mike Pompeo had not yet been confirmed as secretary of state. “I don’t know how many times at that dinner, once or twice or three times, but he fired her several times at that dinner,” Parnas said, speaking of Trump.

“He even had a breakdown and screamed, ‘fire her!'” to another assistant, Parnas claimed, and the assistant replied, “Mr. President, I can’t do that.”

Yovanovitch, who has been lauded for anti-corruption work, was targeted for removal in a campaign led by Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney.

The release of the audio comes as Democrats were outlining obstruction of Congress charges against the president in his Senate impeachment trial. Both Parnas and Fruman were ordered to turn over Ukraine-related documents to the House impeachment investigators, but refused.

Their lawyer at the time, former Trump lawyer John Dowd, cited various reasons for refusing to hand over documents, including that the pair “assisted Mr. Giuliani with his representation of President Trump.”

Following his arrest, Parnas started cooperating with House investigators and turned over numerous documents text messages and emails.

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