SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
House managers presented their case to remove President Trump from office this week. They contend he abused his powers by pressuring Ukraine to provide damaging information on Joe Biden and then obstructed Congress by refusing to provide testimony and documents. Today, the president's legal team began their defense of the president. We have a roundup of those arguments elsewhere in the program. But as the trial continues, we wanted to hear from the White House. So we spoke with Steven Groves, special assistant to the president and deputy press secretary. Here's what he told us earlier today.
You were head of the Heritage Foundation's Freedom Project that worked to preserve and protect American sovereignty.
STEVEN GROVES: That's right.
SIMON: So how do you feel about a U.S. president, who according to witnesses, invited a foreign government to influence U.S. elections?
GROVES: Well, the only evidence - and I put scare quotes around the term "evidence" - of that is a comment that the president made during the 2016 race where he says, oh Russia if you're listening, you know, go and get those emails. But, of course, everybody wanted those e-mails....
SIMON: I think it's...
GROVES: So I think that - I think that the president is just fine with protecting American sovereignty and every action that he's taken since he's been president in the foreign sphere is to protect our sovereignty, so I have no qualms about that.
SIMON: I think that - I think the testimony has been a great deal larger than that. Several diplomats have talked about the president's interest in stopping Ukraine aid in exchange for information which raises this question, does the president say he didn't pressure Ukraine by withholding aid to Congress that was approved - and it was withheld for a couple of months - or is his argument that he did, but that's just politics, it's not impeachable?
GROVES: Well, his argument is going to be laid out ably by his attorneys in, I think, about 45 minutes so we'll hear directly from them. But the president's been perfectly clear...
SIMON: Well, why don't you just tell us the truth? Why don't you just tell us the truth now?
GROVES: Well, the truth will out and the president's attorneys are the ones that are going to present it to the American people and to the 100 members of the Senate. And their statements and their presentation will be based on the evidence, not on hearsay and speculation and inferences based on inferences. And the American people and the Senate will hear the president's defense.
SIMON: Did the president, Mr. Groves, withhold aid from Congress in exchange - withhold aid from Ukraine, that was approved by Congress, in exchange for damaging information about a political rival?
GROVES: No, he didn't, and there's been no evidence to the contrary. You've seen the transcript of the call. You've heard the Democrats case put forward by me...
SIMON: Well I asked the question because we - we've seen the transcript of the call. And I ask the question because we've heard testimony from...
GROVES: There is nothing in the transcript and the call and there is nothing in the transcript that said anything about withholding aid. There was nothing in the transcript that said anything about withholding a White House meeting.
SIMON: But it was withheld.
GROVES: There's nothing in the transcript that says so. There - President Zelenskiy has not been to the White House, but the meetings with the president were scheduled for Warsaw and then for the United Nations at the General Assembly where the president and President Zelenskiy did meet. So the White House - the meeting with the president was not held and there was nothing in the transcript that said so.
SIMON: Mr. Groves, Secretary of State Pompeo is reportedly on his way to Ukraine next week, but he had an interview with one of my colleagues yesterday and asked, do you think Americans care about Ukraine? Does the Trump administration believe the American people don't care about Ukraine?
GROVES: I don't know. I wasn't party to that conversation and apparently that was a conversation that happened behind closed doors, after your colleague interviewed Secretary Pompeo.
SIMON: It's still on...
GROVES: So if that's what we're going to do. If you're going to...
SIMON: ...On the record.
GROVES: ...Question me, sir. Sir, if you're going to question me about a conversation that the secretary of state had with one of your reporters...
SIMON: No, no, no, I'm -
GROVES: ...After their reporting, then we can have that conversation, sir.
SIMON: Well I'm questioning you about the Trump administration's belief about Ukraine and whether or not the American people believe that you don't care about Ukraine. You don't have to refer to that conversation to answer the question.
GROVES: Of course, the - well the American people care about Ukraine the same way they care about any other country. I think most Americans care a lot more about their own country, before what's happening in some other country.
SIMON: Well, one last question if we can. There are recordings, of course, that are surfacing saying that President Trump said to get rid of her, about Ambassador Yovanovitch to people who weren't in the U.S. government. Why make that demand of people who weren't in the U.S. government? Does that suggest they had a role in Ukrainian policy?
GROVES: Well, you should probably listen a little bit more closely to that recording and to Lev Parnas' explanation because he made it clear that President Trump's comment was made to Johnny DeStefano who was in charge of personnel at the time. So he wasn't telling Lev Parnas to fire Secretary Yovanovitch, so do a little bit more homework and then come back to me.
SIMON: Steven Groves, Special Assistant to the president, Deputy Press Secretary. Thank you for being with us.
GROVES: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.