WASHINGTON –The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump moved into public view Wednesday as the House Intelligence Committee heard from two witnesses, Ambassador William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department.
Diplomat: Trump sought to leverage aid, felt ‘wronged’ by Ukraine
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, read his Sept. 1 text message out loud, asking Sondland whether security assistance for Ukraine was conditioned on investigations. Taylor said he had thought only a White House meeting depended on announcing investigations, but that the diplomat thought the requirement for security assistance to a country at war against Russia was more alarming.
“It’s one thing to try to leverage a meeting in the White House. It’s another thing, I thought, to leverage security assistance,” Taylor said. “The White House meeting was one thing, the security assistance was much more alarming.”
Under questioning from Daniel Goldman, the attorney for the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, Taylor explained that Trump felt “wronged” by the Ukrainians and felt he “owed” him to open investigations into Biden and the 2016 election.
“He had feeling of having been wronged by the Ukrainians, this was something he felt they owed him to fix,” Taylor said, when asked if Trump felt the Ukrainians owed him something personally.
Trump spokeswoman calls impeachment hearing a ‘sham’ and ‘boring’
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham denounced the impeachment inquiry hearing on Twitter, calling it a “sham,” “boring” and a “colossal waste” of time and taxpayer money.
CIA director sought release of Ukraine aid
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, revealed that CIA Director Gina Haspel was among senior administration officials who tried to persuade Trump to lift the hold on Ukraine’s military aid.
“My understanding was that the Secretaries of Defense and State, the CIA Director, and the National Security Advisor sought a joint meeting with the President to convince him to release the hold, but such a meeting was hard to schedule and the hold lasted well into September.”
Taylor: Aide overheard Trump asking about investigations
A new revelation from Taylor’s public testimony was that one of his aides overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and the U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland, in which the president inquired about “the investigations.”
He said his staffer asked Sondland what the president thought about Ukraine. Sondland said that “President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for” than the other Ukraine policies.
Taylor said he was not privy to the conversation when he first testified in closed-door hearings with impeachment investigators on Oct. 22, which is why he added it to his statement now.
Diplomat: Holding back aid for Ukraine was ‘crazy’
Taylor delivered an opening statement that largely echoed his closed-door testimony. He said he arrived in Kyiv on July 17 and discovered two diplomatic tracks that provided “a weird combination of encouraging, confusing and ultimately alarming circumstances,” and that the channels of the official State Department and a back-channel guided by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani quickly began diverging.
Taylor learned after a May 23 White House meeting that Trump wasn’t eager to meet with Zelensky. On June 27, Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told Taylor that Zelensky had to make clear to Trump he wasn’t standing in the way of “investigations.” By Sept. 8, Sondland told Taylor during a call that Zelensky had to announce investigations “in public,” but he said Sondland insisted there was no quid pro quo. On Sept. 9, Taylor told Sondland and special envoy Kurt Volker that he thought the policy was crazy. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor said.
White House: Trump is not watching
While all eyes are on the opening day of the public phase of the impeachment inquiry, the one person its outcome effects the most is tuning out.
“He’s not watching – he’s working,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said of President Donald Trump.
Trump is in fact in the Oval Office, which is not outfitted with TVs. The president is due to welcome Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan later on Wednesday and will likely face questions from reporters about the testimony today.
Meanwhile, TVs are on throughout the West Wing, including in the offices of communication aides who figure to be responding to today’s events.
Stewards are setting up the Cabinet Room for a luncheon in connection with Erdogan’s visit.
Protesters huddle outside hearing room
Protesters wearing “arrest Trump” T-shirts, a drag queen and dozens of people anxious to witness history crowded outside the hearing room where the first public impeachment inquiry is underway.
“I feel like this is a turning point in our history,” Cathy Benjamin, a retiree who traveled with two friends from Long Island, New York, to watch the first hearing. “This is a moment that could change everything and it’s important that people don’t ignore what’s going on.”
Benjamin got in line about 9 a.m. and was still waiting an hour and half later. “We could watch this on TV, sure. But it’s history. Who doesn’t want to witness history?” she said as her two friends nodded.
Law enforcement officers made the rounds, making sure protesters weren’t blocking the halls or causing a disturbance. They stopped one woman, wearing a black “ARREST TRUMP” T-shirt, who walked up and down the long line of people waiting to enter the hearing. The woman repeatedly read aloud the portion of the Constitution that outlines how Congress can remove a president from office.
The large crowd huddled outside the hearing included members of the press from as far as Australia and Japan.
Kent: Giuliani part of smear campaign
Deputy assistant secretary of State George Kent, in the text his opening statement, described a shadow campaign in Ukraine that was part of Rudy Giulani’s influence “infecting” American policymaking in Ukraine.
According to Kent, Ukraine was pushed to pursue politically motivated investigations, though he acknowledged that “There are and always have been conditionality placed on our sovereign loan guarantees for Ukraine.”
Additionally, Kent said Giuliani, who is Trump’s personal lawyer, had been part of an effort to “smear” U.S. officials as part of an effort working with Ukrainians who sought to peddle “false information in order to exact revenge against those who had exposed their misconduct, including U.S. diplomats, Ukrainian anti-corruption officials, and reform-minded civil society groups in Ukraine.”
Anticipating Republicans’ questions about the alleged conditioning of security assistance on the opening of investigations into Trump’s political enemies, he said, “As a general principle I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power.”
Kent made several points in his opening statement of interest to both sides in the impeachment debate.
Kent said he raised concerns about Hunter Biden serving on the board of Burisma and reported it during a February 2015 call. But Kent said he didn’t witness any efforts to shield Burisma from scrutiny.
George Kent’s opening statement:Read the full text of George Kent’s opening statement in public impeachment hearing
Schiff: ‘future of the presidency’ at stake
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., opened the hearing saying that lawmakers are looking for answers to whether Trump sought to exploit the vulnerability of Ukraine to a Russian invasion, by withholding a White House meeting or military aid from the newly elected Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for investigations into his political rival.
“And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency?” Schiff said. “The matter is as simple, and as terrible as that.”
Drawing attention to the gravity of the situation, Schiff added, “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their Commander-in-Chief.”
Schiff said there are still missing pieces to the investigation because the White House directed the State Department and other agencies not to cooperate with congressional subpoenas. Trump has suggested that aides who cooperate are traitors and spies, Schiff said. But the lack of cooperation could lead to an article of impeachment for obstruction of Congress, Schiff said.
“These actions will force Congress to consider, as it did with President Nixon, whether Trump’s obstruction of the constitutional duties of Congress constitute additional grounds for impeachment,” Schiff said. “If the president can simply refuse all oversight, particularly in the context of an impeachment proceeding, the balance of power between our two branches of government will be irrevocably altered. That is not what the Founders intended.”
Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, responded by attempting to paint Schiff as an unreliable leader of the Committee, saying Democrats have a “scorched earth campaign against President Trump,” and attacking the “corrupt media.”
Nunes said Democrats auditioned witnesses during closed-door depositions in the Capitol basement. He said the GOP has three primary questions for the hearings:
- What is the full extent of Democratic coordination with the whistleblower?
- What is the extent of Ukrainian meddling in Trump’s 2016 campaign?
- Why did the Ukrainian energy company Burisma hire Hunter Biden, the son of the former Vice President Joe Biden?
“What we will witness today is a televised theatrical performance,” Nunes said. “This spectacle is doing great damage to our country.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., asked whether Schiff would block witnesses from asking questions from lawmakers.
Schiff replied that he only prohibited questions during closed-door depositions when lawmakers were asking questions about the anonymous whistleblower who complained to the inspector general for the intelligence community about Trump’s call July 25 with Zelensky.
“We will do everything necessary to protect the whistleblower’s identity,” Schiff said.
What Taylor, Kent said in closed-door testimony
In closed-door testimony, Taylor told members of Congress and staff that security aid and a White House meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would be conditioned on investigations into Democrats.
Kent, the State Department official overseeing European and Eurasian policy, said he raised red flags within the department about the influence of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine policy-making and the ways in which Giuliani pushed a narrative about Ukraine and Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company where former vice president Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, sat on the board.
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Kent also said he had raised concerns with a member of Joe Biden’s staff about “the perception of a conflict of interest” with Hunter Biden’s Burisma board seat, but he was told there was “no further bandwidth to deal with family-related issues at that time” since Joe Biden’s other son Beau was dying of cancer at the time.
Based on the transcripts of the closed-door depositions, the public hearings are likely to be full of drama as House Republicans attempt to defend the president against what they see as a “partisan” and “illegitimate” process. The president has called the inquiry a “witch hunt.”
In preparation for the hearings, Republicans moved Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a staunch ally of the president, to the House Intelligence Committee. Jordan has repeatedly denounced the inquiry and has been a vocal defender of the president in his role as the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee.
Republicans released their own list of proposed witnesses for public testimony on Saturday. Their roster included Hunter Biden and the whistleblower. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Democrats were “evaluating” Republicans’ requests and would give “due consideration to witnesses within the scope of the impeachment inquiry.”
The list indicates how Republicans might try to direct lines of questioning during the inquiry, as it includes witnesses related to theories about the Steele dossier and Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee asked about the Steele dossier during the committees’ interview with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, according to the transcript of his testimony.
The list of future public hearings has not yet been released, but on Friday, the Democrats plan to hold another public impeachment inquiry hearing with Yovanovitch.