Two American diplomats shared key details of President Donald Trump's pressure campaign on Ukraine during the first day of public testimony in the impeachment inquiry and stuck to their story that Trump used his office to go after a political rival.
Democrats used Wednesday's open hearing to bolster their case for Trump's impeachment while Republicans tried to scuttle the process by dismissing Democrats' claims Trump engaged in a "quid pro quo" with Ukraine.
Over nearly six hours, House Intelligence Committee members peppered Ambassador Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, with questions about Trump's motivations in Ukraine.
Taylor testified a Trump official said the president "cares more" about investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential candidate, and his son Hunter than he did Ukraine policy. And Kent suggested a Ukraine company at the center of the controversy should be investigated. But mostly, the two withstood fiery questioning from both sides, often expanding on what they'd offered in closed-door testimony.
Trump, meanwhile, claimed not to pay any mind, although he continually tweeted throughout the hearing.
The inquiry is based on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky where Trump discussed military assistance for Ukraine in exchange for a "favor" to investigate his political rivals.
Here are key takeaways from Wednesday's hearing:
The new revelation
Taylor told the committee about a phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, in which the president seemed to indicate he was more interested in having the Bidens investigated than he was in overall U.S. policy toward Ukraine.
The details of the July 26 call, relayed to Taylor by an aide who overheard it, was a new revelation that had not come out of the closed-door hearings held in previous weeks.
In the conversation, Trump asked Sondland about "the investigations," Taylor told the panel Wednesday.
The president was apparently referring to his request to Zelensky to open probes into Joe Biden's son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that was previously under investigation, as well as alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election. U.S. intelligence has found no evidence of Ukrainian meddling in 2016.
Taylor told lawmakers his staffer asked Sondland what the president thought about Ukraine after the phone call, which came a day after Trump's conversation with Zelensky that sparked the impeachment inquiry.
Sondland said that "President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for" than the U.S. policies on Ukraine, according to Taylor.
Trump told reporters the phone call never happened.
The witnesses held up despite the GOP grilling
Taylor and Kent methodically laid out not only their concerns about the president's call and the resulting push by his allies to investigate the Bidens, but also the danger of using Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Guiliani, to pressure a strategic ally for political gain.
The taunts came early from Republicans. In his opening statement, California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top GOP lawmaker on the Intelligence Committee, mockingly congratulated them "for passing the Democrats’ Star Chamber auditions held for the last six weeks in the basement of the Capitol."
Later, Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, a staunch Trump defender known for his aggressive questioning, challenged Taylor about his "clear understanding" that both U.S. military aid and a meeting With Trump were contingent on Zelensky publicly announcing the investigations.
Jordan said he couldn't understand how Taylor could come to that conclusion when he never heard it firsthand from either Trump or Zelensky, whom he met three times since his appointment as ambassador in mid-June.
“Three meetings with the president of Ukraine and no linkage,” Jordan said. “Your clear understanding was wrong because it didn’t happen. (And) this is what I can't believe and you're their star witness,"
"I don't consider myself a star witness for anything," Taylor responded.
"They do," Jordan continued.
"I'm not here to take one side or the other or to advocate any particular outcome," the ambassador said. "My understanding is only coming from the people that I talk to."
At one point, both Kent and Taylor were asked whether they were "Never Trumpers." Both responded no.
Kent's Burisma concerns
In response to Republican questioning, State Department aide George Kent said the Ukrainian oligarch owner of gas company Burisma should be investigated for paying a bribe to kill a probe into the company.
The Ukrainian firm is at the center of the impeachment controversy. Hunter Biden, an attorney, joined the company's board in 2014 until leaving the firm earlier this year.
“To summarize, we thought that Mykola Zlochevsky had stolen money,” Kent said of the head of Burisma. "We thought a prosecutor had taken a bribe to shut the case, those were our main concerns."
“Are you in favor of that matter being fully investigated and prosecuted?” asked Steve Castor, House Intelligence Committee Counsel for the minority.
“I think since U.S. taxpayer dollars were wasted, I would love to see the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office find out who the corrupt prosecutor was and who took the bribe, and how much was paid, and that’s what I told the deputy prosecutor general in February 2015,” Kent replied.
Republicans have claimed investigations into Zlochevsky were ended to benefit Hunter Biden.
GOP downplays July 25 Trump call
Republicans questioned why Hunter Biden was getting a cozy appointment to a Ukrainian energy company that paid him as much as $50,000 per month. They brought up a debunked claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. And they accused Democrats of orchestrating an unfair process aimed at impeaching the president regardless of fact.
What they didn't talk about much was the actual contents of the July 25 call that triggered the impeachment inquiry and that critics have called an abuse of power.
When they did, it was to to say that nothing came of the president's alleged pressure.
"For the million of Americans viewing today, the two most important facts are the following," said Republican Elise Stefanik of New York. "Number one, Ukraine received the aid. Number two, there was in fact no investigation of the Bidens."
Jordan, the Ohio Republican, complained the panel wouldn’t hear testimony from the anonymous whistleblower who reported Trump’s July 25 call to the inspector general, which sparked the House investigation into Ukraine policy.
Jordan said lawmakers and the American public will never get the chance to gauge the whistleblower's credibility, motivation and bias.
"We will never get the chance to see the whistleblower raise his right hand, swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth," he said. "More importantly, the American people won't get that chance ... They understand the facts support the president. They understand this process is unfair.”
But Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the committee would welcome testimony from the person who prompted the investigation.
“President Trump is welcome to come in and take a seat,” Welch said to laughter in the hearing room.
Trump tweeted despite claims he wouldn't watch
Trump said he wouldn't be watching Wednesday's hearing but that didn't stop him from tweeting his criticism of the proceedings to his millions of followers.
The president's strongest weapon against impeachment has been his ability to keep Republican lawmakers in line. And they remain loyal in no small part due to the GOP base's devotion to Trump.
Trump was making sure his base had his version of the impeachment process with a string of tweets and retweets beginning Tuesday night that continued up to and during Wednesday's hearing.
Before the hearing, Trump called it a "phony showtrial," a "circus," a "fraudulent hoax conspiracy theory," and "another Witch Hunt." He retweeted conservative allies who have called the inquiry "a partisan sham" and said Democrats have "stacked the deck" against him.
At various times during the nearly six-hour hearing went on, the president retweeted his allies, some of whom mocked the "star witness" term Jordan had conferred on Taylor.
Trump also tweeted out an 83-second video halfway through the hearing that came with the following message: "DEMOCRATS ARE PUTTING POLITICS BEFORE COUNTRY!"
Contributing: Bart Jansen, Nicholas Wu, Courtney Subramanian
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment hearing: revelations and other key takeaways