Impeachment proceedings against President Trump entered a public phase Wednesday morning, giving the nation its first look at the previously unknown men and women who will testify that the president abused his office.
The first two witnesses, a pair of veteran diplomats, gave riveting testimony about their experience of watching the Trump administration withhold vital security assistance to Ukraine this past summer, at a time when the country was under attack from Russia.
Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of European and Eurasian affairs, told the House Intelligence Committee that Trump and some of his representatives made it clear to Ukraine that it would not receive the nearly $400 million in assistance unless authorities there announced an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter and his involvement with a Ukrainian energy company.
Taylor described a Sept. 7 phone call in which a National Security Council official relayed Trump’s instructions to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
“President Trump told Ambassador Sondland he was not asking for a quid pro quo. But President Trump did insist that President [Volodymyr] Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself,” Taylor said.
Taylor described attempts by Sondland to justify Trump’s behavior by saying that the president “is a businessman” and that “when a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something … the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.”
“I argued … that the explanation made no sense,” Taylor testified Wednesday. “The Ukrainians did not owe President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for domestic political gain was crazy.”
Taylor also relayed new information that he had not known when he testified in a closed-door deposition on Oct. 22.
The day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky, during which he asked the Ukrainian leader to “do us a favor” and look into Hunter Biden, a Taylor staffer was at a restaurant in Kyiv with Sondland when the ambassador to the EU called Trump on a cellphone to report on meetings he had attended that day.
Taylor said his staffer could hear Trump talking loudly enough to understand him and heard the president ask Sondland “about the investigations.”
After the call ended, Taylor’s staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine.
“Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden,” Taylor said.
Trump denied having made that phone call later in the day at a press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I know nothing about that. First time I’ve heard it,” Trump said. “I don’t recall, no not at all, not even a little bit.”
Republicans attempted to poke holes in the credibility of the stories told by Taylor and Kent by pointing out that neither man has had direct contact with Trump.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said the two men’s testimony amounted to a version of “so and so said such and such to so and so.”
The GOP members also sought to create a justification for why Trump would have been pressuring the Ukrainians to investigate Burisma, the energy company that hired Hunter Biden.
Republicans asked Kent in particular about his previous testimony in closed-door depositions about the corruption of the Ukrainian firm, and Kent talked about the fact that the U.S. government had suspected Burisma had paid a bribe in 2015 to a prosecutor in Ukraine to end an investigation into self-dealing and corruption by its owner.
But the thrust of the Republican complaint about former Vice President Joe Biden is that he pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor because of an investigation into Burisma, and that he was trying to protect his son.
However, Biden’s pressure on Ukraine came after a Ukrainian investigation into Burisma had already been dropped, and was based on the fact that the top prosecutor — Viktor Shokin — was not prosecuting corruption cases.
In addition, Kent testified that the former vice president’s “role was critically important” in Ukraine.
“It was top cover to help us pursue our policy agenda,” Kent said.
Kent’s and Taylor’s testimony was preceded by opening statements by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California.
Those statements, and some mild procedural jousting by other Republicans on the committee, took up to 40 minutes.
Schiff’s opening statement laid out the case for impeachment in broad strokes. The basic facts of the matter, he said, “are not seriously contested.”
Trump, Schiff said, pressured Ukraine to take actions that were not in the U.S. national interest but were “in Donald Trump’s personal interest and in the interest of his 2020 reelection campaign.”
The fact that the aid was ultimately released on Sept. 11 is not a defense, Schiff said, because that was “only after Congress began its investigation,” following a whistleblower complaint filed on Aug. 12, and after “members of Congress began asking uncomfortable questions about quid pro quos.”
“If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” Schiff concluded.
And Schiff said that the defense of Trump’s conduct by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was “breathtaking.”
“Get over it,” Mulvaney said in a White House press conference on Oct. 17, adding, “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Schiff, who read his opening statement in a low-key monotone, said the committee would explore the facts of the matter “without rancor if we can.”
By contrast, Nunes was visibly angry as he launched broadsides at Democrats, who he said were conducting a “carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.”
Nunes began his statement by listing ways he believed Democrats had gone too far in investigating whether Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with the Russian government.
“It makes them the last people on earth with the credibility to hurl more preposterous allegations at their political opponents,” Nunes said. “We’re supposed to take these people at face value.”
Nunes even mocked the witnesses. “I’d like to congratulate you for qualifying for passing the Democrats’ star chamber auditions,” he told Kent, a diplomat with decades of experience, and Taylor, who served 18 months as a rifle platoon and company commander in the Vietnam War and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
Taylor, however, said that while he had been called as part of an impeachment inquiry, he wanted to clarify his own purpose for appearing.
“I am not here to take one side or the other or to advocate for one particular outcome. My sole purpose is to provide facts as I know them,” he said.
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