President Donald Trump said he had ‘never heard’ of new bombshell testimony from Wednesday’s first televised impeachment hearing based on a phone conversation he was overheard having with his ambassador to the EU.
Trump was asked at a press conference Wednesday afternoon about new information provided by diplomat William Taylor, who stunned listeners at the impeachment hearing when he said an aide of his had overheard the president on a phone call with Ambassador Gordon Sondland – a key figure in the alleged Ukraine pressure plot.
According to Taylor’s testimony, the official heard Trump ask Sondland about ‘investigations.’ The member of Taylor’s staff then asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine. The official said Sondland responded that Trump ‘cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Rudy] Giuliani was pushing for,’ Taylor said.
It was another piece of evidence connecting Trump to the plan to wring investigations out of Ukraine – but the president said he had ‘never heard this,’ when asked about it by a Fox News reporter.
President Trump said he knew ‘nothing’ about new testimony by diplomat Bill Taylor, who said a staff member of his overheard Trump talking to a U.S. diplomat discussing ‘investigations’
‘I know nothing about that, first time I’ve heard it. The one thing I’ve seen that Sondland said was that – he did speak to me for a brief moment and I said no quid pro quo under any circumstances. And that’s true,’ Trump said.
‘The other, I’ve never heard this. In any event it’s more second-hand information but I’ve never heard it. I don’t recall – no, not at all, not even a little bit. The only thing, and I guess Sondland has stayed with his testimony that there was no quid pro quo, pure and simple,’ Trump said.
Sondland wrote a text message to another diplomat stating there was no quid pro quo. But he turned in three pages of revised testimony after meeting with House members, saying his memory had been ‘refreshed.’
In the revised testimony, Sondland said he told an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy ‘the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks’ – a reference to investigations.
Sondland didn’t mention the July 26 phone call with the president that Taylor testified occurred.
Taylor said the Trump conversation that was overheard took place when Sondland was at a restaurant, although he didn’t say where.
On the date Taylor said it happened, July 26, Sondland was interviewed by Ukrainian state television.
The official, David Holmes, is expected to appear for a deposition behind closed doors Friday, CBS News reported. Holmes is counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Kiev.
The fresh information came less than two hours after Congress opened the public hearings of the impeachment inquiry which seems certain to end with the president going on trial in the Senate.
The morning began with Democratic chairman Adam Schiff saying the future of the American republic was in the balance and that Congress had to act against ‘corruption and abuse of power’ – and Republicans accusing Democrats of a ‘scorched earth’ war on the president so obsessive it even included trying to get nude photos of him.
But Democrats were given an early win by Taylor, a veteran diplomat and Vietnam infantry officer who is now the acting U.S. ambassador in Kiev.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff began Wednesday’s hearing with an opening statement where he sketched out the Ukraine affair, and asked whether President Trump sought to exploit Ukraine’s ‘vulnerability’
Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent (L) and Bill Taylor are pictured at the start of Wednesday’s first open hearing in the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump in Washington
Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in the US embassy in Ukraine testified on Capitol Hill before the House Intelligence Committee that he learned of a directive by President Trump not to let any U.S. aid flow to Ukraine during a video-conference
In his opening statement, diplomat George Kent spoke of Russian aggression against Ukraine, saying he became aware of an effort by Giuliani and others ‘to run a campaign to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch and other officials at the U.S. embassy in Kiev’
President Trump tweeted furiously Wednesday morning ahead of the hearing: ‘READ THE TRANSCRIPT’
During the hearing, the first of a series that Democrats have now announced, Taylor testified about new information he obtained about a staff aide who overheard Trump discussing ‘investigations’ on a phone call with ambassador Gordon Sondland.
He said Trump was described by his ambassador to the European Union as caring ‘more about the investigations of Biden’ than about Ukraine.
Taylor described to the hushed hearing room how he was given fresh information by a member of his staff after earlier closed door evidence to the impeachment inquiry.
He said the aide accompanied U.S. ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland in a restaurant on July 26, while Taylor was visiting the front in Ukraine.
The testimony provides yet another data point connecting Trump to ‘investigations’ the president and his allies were seeking from the Ukrainian government – in short-hand for probes of the Bidens and the 2016 elections. Trump also raised the issue in his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Zelensky the day before the newly revealed incident.
‘Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26. While Ambassador Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr. Yermak,’ Taylor said 18 pages into his prepared statement, referencing a top aide to Ukrainian president Zelensky.
‘Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kiev. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations,’ he testified.
He said his aide, whom he did not name, could hear the president on the call. Taylor did not say where the restaurant was but implied it was in Kiev.
‘Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward,’ he said, describing the Trump-nominated hotelier who gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration and communicated with the president directly.
‘Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,’ Taylor continued.
The impeachment inquiry into Trump began promptly at 10.06am in a packed Congressional hearing room, watched by millions around the country and the world as the fate of his presidency publicly hangs in the balance.
Inside the room the Republicans put up posters trying to paint the hearing as corrupt and fixed; in the audience were scores of journalists and incongruously, a drag queen – and at the White House Trump himself was certain to be watching. He had already tweeted furiously: ‘READ THE TRANSCRIPT.’
Chairman Adam Schiff began the hearing with an opening statement where he sketched out the Ukraine affair, and asked whether President Trump sought to exploit Ukraine’s ‘vulnerability.’
He asked whether Trump ‘sought to condition official acts such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance,’ and soon turned to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who pushed Ukraine investigations of a Ukrainian energy company and the 2016 elections.
Before Schiff could even get going, he was interrupted by Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas lawmaker who voiced a ‘parliamentary inquiry’ just as Schiff was saying ‘it is the intention of the committee to proceed without disruptions.’
Neither of the investigations were ‘in the U.S. national interest,’ said Schiff, but said both were in Trump’s ‘personal interest.’
A text message from Bill Taylor was shown on a screen during the impeachment inquiry, showing him question withholding security assistance for help with a political campaign
Adam Schiff (C) is flanked by Daniel Goldman (L), attorney and director of investigations with the House Intelligence Committee, and U.S. House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes (R)
This week’s hearings may pave the way for the Democratic-led House to approve articles of impeachment – formal charges – against Trump
George Kent (left) arrived to testify before the House Intelligence Committee for the first public impeachment hearing on Capitol Hill. Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor (right) is pictured arriving to Capitol Hill
Visual aids are permitted for Wednesday’s hearing, including photos of tweets and quotes from representatives
The California House Intelligence chairman described the alleged abuse of power in broad strokes as Americans who may not have followed the day-to-day details tuned in on television.
He said Giuliani’s purpose was to harm Vice President Joe Biden, who ‘was seen as a strong potential challenger to Trump’ in the 2020 elections.
Schiff asked whether ‘such an abuse of his power’ was compatible with Trump’s office.
He quoted testimony from Gordon Sondland that the pressure kept getting ‘more insidious’ as time wore on. And he flagged the credentials of decorated Vietnam vet William Taylor, who Democrats consider a star witness.
‘The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections; whether President Trump sought to condition official acts such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance on Ukraine’s willingness to assist with two political investigations that would help his re-election campaign; and, if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency,’ said Schiff. ‘The matter is as simple and as terrible as that.’
‘If this is not impeachable conduct, what is,’ Schiff asked.
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California made plain that the minority would provide a full-throated defense of the president, using some of Trump’s own phrases.
He bashed ‘Democrats, the corrupt media, and partisan bureaucrats’ he said were seeking to ‘overturn the results of the 2016 election.’
He brought up the Golden Showers dossier, accused Democrats of having ‘cooperated’ in Ukrainian election meddling, and pointed to what he called the ‘spectacular implosion of the Russia hoax.’
He went into the Russia probe that proceeded Wednesday’s inquiry. Trump’s infamous July 25 call with Ukraine was the day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller told Congress about his report.
He accused Democrats of staging a ‘theatrical performance.’
He accused Democrats of running a ‘Star Chamber,’ calling their basements Capitol meetings like a ‘cult,’ and brought up former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, who figures prominently in the saga.
‘They are trying to impeach the president for inquiring about Hunter Biden’s activities, yet they refuse our request from Biden himself,’ he said.
He said the president has ‘full authority’ to remove diplomats – pushing back on Schiff’s claim that Trump fired Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch after Trump allies smeared her.
Ranking Member Devin Nunes (L), Republican of California, speaks with Representative Jim Jordan (C), Republican of Ohio, and Republican Counsel Stephen Castor (R) Wednesday
Journalist and camera crews fill Longworth House Office Building where George Kent and Bill Taylor are seated to testify
Representative Jim Jordan asks questions of witnesses US Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor
‘This spectacle is doing great damage to our country,’ Nunes said, calling the process ‘in search of a crime.’
Rep. Jim Jordan also played attack dog for the Republican side.
He went after the whistleblower – and complained that Schiff knew the individual’s identity – something the California Democrat denied at the top of the hearing.
Jordan returned to the topic again, as the hearing was winding down.
‘Now there is one witness, one witness that they won’t bring in front of us, they won’t bring in front of the American people. That’s the guy who started it all: The whistleblower,’ Jordan said.
Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, was ready with a retort.
‘Thank you, I say to my colleague, I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come testify,’ Welch said. ‘President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there,’ Welch said to laughs.
Hours into the hearing, GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas brought up the whistle-blower and tried to push Schiff to reveal information about his staff contacts before the official filed a complaint.
‘I’m not trying to find out the identity I’m trying to find out the date that this happened,’ Ratcliffe said has his inquiries to Schiff, rather than to the witnesses, drew tense.
‘Are we ever going to be able to find out the details,’ he asked.
‘Mr. Ratcliffe, your time is dwindling I suggest you use it,’ Schiff told him. Ratcliffe concluded his remarks without gleaning any new information.
During other questioning, Jordan ridiculed the complex tales by a web of officials.
“We’ve got six people having four conversations in one sentence,” Jordan told Taylor in reference to earlier testimony, and you told me this is where you got your clear understanding?”
He repeatedly accused witnesses of not having first-hand information – although the White House is holding back key witnesses like acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney who might be able to testify to instructions they got from the president.
Both witnesses expressed clear discomfort with the role being played by Rudy Giuliani.
‘In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting,’ Kent testified.
A jogger runs past the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, where the first public impeachment hearing is to be held
A protestor holds signs outside Longworth House Office Building, where top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, and career Foreign Service officer George Kent, are set to testify before the House Intelligence Committee
Drag queen Pissi Myles, from Asbury Park, NJ, was on Capitol Hill Wednesday in the hallway of the Longworth building as people awaited the arrival of the first two witnesses to testify before the House Intelligence Committee
A woman walks by a sign across the street from the Longworth House Office Building, where government officials testify
Democrats leading the U.S. House of Representatives probe summoned three U.S. diplomats – all of whom have previously expressed alarm in closed-door testimony about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine – to detail their concerns under the glare of wall-to-wall news coverage this week. The public hearings are to continue Friday.
With a potential television audience of tens of millions looking on, two witnesses – William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs – have testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday about whether Trump improperly pressured Ukraine for his own political benefit.
Taylor, a career diplomat and former U.S. Army officer, previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and is now the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Kiev. Kent oversees Ukraine policy at the State Department.
Taylor and Kent, who had already agreed to testify but still received subpoenas to appear, arrived separately under heavy security. Both previously have testified to lawmakers in closed sessions.
In his opening statement, diplomat George Kent spoke of Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Summarizing his closed-door testimony, Kent said that he ‘raised my concern that Hunter Biden’s status as a board member could create the perception of a conflict of interest.’ But he says he did not ‘witness any efforts by any U.S official to shield Burisma from scrutiny. In fact, I and other U.S. officials consistently advocated reinstituting a scuttled investigation of [Burisma owner Mykola] Zlochevsky, Burisma’s founder, as well as holding the corrupt prosecutors who closed the case to account.’
But if that testimony buttressed the GOP case that Biden had done something wrong, Kent also testified he became aware of an effort by Giuliani and others ‘to run a campaign to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch and other officials at the U.S. embassy in Kiev.’
Taylor testified in Wednesday’s televised impeachment hearing that he learned of a directive by President Trump not to let any U.S. aid flow to Ukraine during a video-conference, amid what he was uncovering about an ‘irregular’ policy channel toward the country.
In his first significant public revelation testimony, Taylor described learning about two channels of Ukraine policy – one official channel through the State Department, and an ‘irregular’ channel overseen by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
He described a regular national security video-conference from July 18, where ‘I heard a staff person from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) say that there was a hold on security assistance to Ukraine but could not say why,’ Taylor told lawmakers who listened silently as he told his role in the Ukraine affair.
‘Toward the end of an otherwise normal meeting, a voice on the call—the person was off-screen—said that she was from OMB and that her boss had instructed her not to approve any additional spending on security assistance for Ukraine until further notice.’
He was shaken by what he heard. ‘I and others sat in astonishment—the Ukrainians were fighting the Russians and counted on not only the training and weapons, but also the assurance of U.S. support,’ Taylor testified.
Then he revealed the origins of the directive, amid a push for ‘investigations’ from the Ukrainians that might help Trump.
‘All that the OMB staff person said was that the directive had come from the President to the Chief of Staff to OMB. In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened,’ Taylor continued in his opening statement. ‘The irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of longstanding U.S. policy.’
Explosive claims, bitter rivalries – and Donald Trump’s presidency in the balance: Your guide to the impeachment hearings
The House on Wednesday holds the first televised hearing in its impeachment inquiry about whether President Donald Trump abused his office – with a California congressman and a war veteran diplomat taking center stage – and the president’s allies running interference.
The impeachment of President Trump, long predicted by his critics both before and during the Russia probe, is set to advance when the House Intelligence Committee gavels into order at 10 am in an ornate House committee room.
On Monday, as the historic proceedings were about to begin, the nation was split 48 to 44 in favor of some form of impeachment, according to a FiveThirtyEight average.
House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff of California will be overseeing the spectacle, after instructing his colleagues on what conduct he would and would not tolerate. His task is to maintain order amid withering attacks as he tries to keep the focus on the Ukraine affair that has overwhelmed congressional business this fall.
‘The hearings will be conducted in a manner that ensures that all participants are treated fairly and with respect, mindful of the solemn and historic task before us,’ Schiff wrote them Tuesday.
‘I hope that we have a substantive and serious hearing and that Republicans will cooperate in treating this the way that Americans want the Congress to treat it – which is as a serious issue,’ Texas Rep. Julian Castro, who will participate, told DailyMail.com.
Schiff and his GOP counterpart Rep. Devin Nunes will each get to provide opening statements. Each will control a 90 minute block of time which they can use to question the witness or yield to an attorney.
After the time expires, members will alternate questioning in five-minute increments. The hearing is certain to last hours. Schiff advised lawmakers that only members of three committees could be present – after GOP lawmakers tried to crash a closed deposition in a secure room. And with the threat of protests or other pyrotechnics, he advised all members to observe proper decorum.
The committee room in the Longworth House Office Building that will host the House Intelligence Committee’s open impeachment hearings against President Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC
Democrats are beginning with their most emphatic witness, Bill Taylor, the Charge d’Affairs running the U.S. embassy in Kiev – after the administration forced out Ambassador Marie Yavanovitch. Schiff is overseeing a hearing to gather information – but it is one that could lead to the recommendation of articles of impeachment that the Judiciary Committee could consider, with a potential House vote and Senate trial to follow.
Taylor, who was awarded a Bronze star serving in Vietnam, texted colleagues he thought it was ‘crazy’ to hold up millions in U.S. military aid to get Ukraine to conduct investigations of the Bidens and 2016.
Also up: bow tie-wearing diplomat George Kent, who testified to Congress Trump wanted to hear three words from Ukrainian President Zelensky: ‘Investigations, Biden and Clinton.’
On Friday, Yovanovitch is set to testify Friday. The longtime diplomat was removed from her post after Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his allies spread information, swatted down by a series of witnesses, that she was working against Trump.
She testified behind closed doors Giuliani’s associates ‘may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.’
Ambassador William Taylor and State Department official George Kent are the first witnesses at Wednesday’s televised impeachment hearing
President Trump has been his own chief defender, calling the inquiry ‘A total Impeachment Scam by the Do Nothing Democrats!’ He said his July 25 call where he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for ‘a favor though’ was a ‘perfect call.’ His mantra to critics has been to ‘read the transcript!’ of the call.
At the hearing, Republicans are led by California Rep. Devin Nunes, who as former Intelligence chairman repeatedly attacked the Mueller probe and coordinated with the White House.
GOP leaders just days ago installed Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio on the committee, so he can put his prosecutorial skills to use on Trump’s behalf.
Members of the Intelligence committee will be present, after an inquiry that also involved members of the House Foreign Relations and Oversight Committees.
Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA) will control a block of time for Republican questioning
Under rules passed by the House and imposed by Schiff, committee counsel will be able to lead questioning. As the Judiciary Committee did in May when former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski testified, committee counsel will grill witnesses for an extended block.
But Schiff and Nunes will get 90 minute blocks of time. Schiff said he would yield a significant amount to Democratic superlawyer Daniel Goldman, who conducted many of the closed-door interviews for the committee. Goldman spent years as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York going after mobsters.
For Republicans, Steve Castor will be handling questioning. He is an experienced congressional attorney, who spent 14 years advising the House Oversight Committee and handled a series of prominent and controversial investigations.
Daniel Goldman, attorney and Director of Investigations with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, will question witnesses during a block of time for Democrats. Attorney Steve Castor will question witnesses for Republicans.
A wild card in the hearings will be President Trump. He has repeatedly sought to attack the inquiry in public, while his administration has fiercely resisted subpoenas for witnesses and documents.
‘A total Impeachment Scam by the Do Nothing Democrats!’ Trump tweeted on Tuesday. He could try to provide online commentary – or change the subject. He will be hosting Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and has scheduled a press conference, which gives him the ability to preempt or try to steer TV coverage. Trump has also repeatedly hyped the transcript of an additional call he held with the Ukrainian president, saying he would release it this week.
Trump mocked the hearings in a Saturday tweet: ‘I recommend that Nervous Nancy Pelosi (who backed up Schiff’s lie), Shifty Adam Schiff, Sleepy Joe Biden, the Whistleblower (who miraculously disappeared after I released the transcript of the call), the 2nd Whistleblower (who also disappeared), & the I.G., be part of the list!’ The New York Times reported Tuesday Trump had spoken about firing the IG, who holds an independent post.
A key piece of evidence is the transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
WILL THE WHISTLE-BLOWER GET EXPOSED?
Democrats have raised concerns that Republicans might try to use the hearing to out the whistle-blower who first brought forward a complaint about Trump’s Ukraine call.
‘That is a concern of mine … This person has a right to remain anonymous,’ said Rep. Castro.
Schiff issued a warning to Republican House members by saying they could be subject to Ethics Committee probes if they seek to out the whistle-blower during televised impeachment hearings.
Schiff conveyed the warning in a memo he penned for committee members on the eve of the first block-buster hearing, which begins Wednesday morning.
He said the committee will not facilitate efforts to ‘threaten, intimidate, or retaliate against the whistle-blower,’ after Democrats accused Republicans of using closed-door questioning to ferret out information on the whistle-blower.
The he referenced House official Code of Official Conduct for Members of Congress. It contains a key provision requiring that members act in a way that ‘shall reflect creditably on the House.’ The line from the code has been used in numerous findings by the bipartisan House Ethics Committee against members.
‘The Committee on Ethics has historically viewed this provision as ‘encompassing violations of law and abuses of one’s official position,’ Schiff noted. He also provides a citation in the U.S. code on ‘prohibited practices’ in the intelligence community, including reprisals against whistle-blowers.
Rep. Adam Schiff spelled out rules for the impeachment inquiry on Tuesday
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
A congressional resolution stated parameters of the inquiry, as Schiff reminded lawmakers. ‘Did the President request that a foreign leader and government initiate investigations to benefit the President’s personal political interests in the United States, including an investigation related to the President’s political rival and potential opponent in the 2020 U.S. presidential election?’
‘Did the President—directly or through agents—seek to use the power of the Office of the President and other instruments of the federal government in other ways to apply pressure on the head of state and government of Ukraine to advance the President’s personal political interests, including by leveraging an Oval Office meeting desired by the President of Ukraine or by withholding U.S. military assistance to Ukraine?’
‘Did the President and his Administration seek to obstruct, suppress or cover up information to conceal from the Congress and the American people evidence about the President’s actions and conduct?’
Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is set to testify Friday
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has coffee with Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, U.S. September 20, 2019. Parnas was indicted on campaign finance charges
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified about the effort to get Ukraine to make a public statement about investigations. The hotelier gave $1 million for Trump’s inauguration
A key moment is the the July 25 call, where Zelensky brought up U.S. military support his country was seeking. Trump asked for a favor, and mentioned Joe Biden, in a reference to son Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian energy company.
Witnesses in the inquiry have testified that Trump told key officials to ‘talk to Rudy,’ in reference to his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, for guidance. Trump-nominated GOP donor Gordon Sondland testified that he told a Ukrainian official that a White House meeting was likely conditioned on Ukraine putting out a statement saying it would conduct the investigations Trump’s team was seeking. At the same time, the administration was holding up $390 million in appropriate assistance for Ukraine.
Sondland denied in a text exchange there was any ‘quid pro quo’ after speaking with President Trump. But his amended testimony confirmed something closer to it.
Democrats call it a shakedown. Republicans have noted that the aid eventually got released – although this happened after Congress got the whistle-blower’s complaint.
Trump’s fellow Republicans, who will also be able to question the witnesses, have crafted a defense strategy that will argue he did nothing wrong when he asked Ukraine’s new president to investigate prominent Democrat Joe Biden, a former U.S. vice president and key 2020 re-election rival.
This week’s hearings may pave the way for the Democratic-led House to approve articles of impeachment – formal charges – against Trump. That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to convict Trump of those charges and remove him from office. Republicans control the Senate and have shown little support for Trump’s removal.
Both sides are playing to a sharply polarized electorate as they move deeper into a six-week-old investigation that has cast a shadow over Trump’s presidency with the threat of being removed from office even as he campaigns for a second term.
It has been two decades since Americans last witnessed impeachment proceedings against a president, and these will be the first of the social media era. Republicans, who then controlled the House, brought impeachment charges against Democratic President Bill Clinton in a scandal involving his sexual relationship with a White House intern. The Senate ultimately voted to keep Clinton in office.
Only two U.S. presidents ever have been impeached and none have been removed through the impeachment process.
The focus of the inquiry is on a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open a corruption investigation into Biden and his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Hunter Biden had worked for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.
Democrats are looking into whether Trump abused his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine – a vulnerable U.S. ally facing Russian aggression – as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting investigations politically beneficial to Trump. The money – approved by the U.S. Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country – was later provided to Ukraine.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing, derided some of the current and former U.S. officials who have appeared before committees as ‘Never Trumpers’ – a term referring to Republican opponents of the president who he has called ‘human scum’ – and branded the investigation a witch hunt aimed at hurting his re-election changes.
Before the start of the hearing, Trump continued to raise doubts about the witnesses’ loyalties, tweeting ‘NEVER TRUMPERS’ and reiterating a refrain echoed by his political supporters: ‘READ THE TRANSCRIPT.’
A handful of protesters stood outside the Capitol building holding signs reading ‘Remove Trump’ and ‘Trump Lies all the Time.’ Inside, a long line of journalists and members of the public waited to enter the hearing room, where Americans will hear directly for the first time from people involved in events that sparked the congressional inquiry.
With a potential television audience of tens of millions looking on, the two witnesses were questioned for hours (pictured is the hearing being shown in a the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, Illinois
Journalists and camera crews report from inside the hearing room where the House Intelligence Committee will hold its first public impeachment hearing Wednesday
Lawmakers leading the probe released transcripts of closed-door testimony last week showing that Taylor said a White House-led effort to pressure Kiev to investigate Ukrainian energy company Burisma was motivated by a desire to help Trump win re-election next year.
Taylor testified he had been concerned to learn that security aid to Ukraine, as well as a White House meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy, had been delayed for political reasons.
Kent said he had been alarmed by efforts by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others to pressure Ukraine. Kent said Giuliani – who Democrats have accused of conducting a shadow foreign policy effort in Ukraine to benefit the president – had conducted a ‘campaign full of lies’ against Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly pulled from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May. She will give public testimony on Friday.
Taylor and Kent were testifying together because ‘they both were witness to the full storyline of the president’s misconduct,’ an official working on the impeachment inquiry said.
For both sides, the electoral implications of the impeachment process is clear as it looms over other issues, such as the economy and immigration, as the 2020 election campaign gathers steam.
Democrats are hoping to convince independent voters and other doubters that Trump was wrong not only in asking Ukraine to dig up dirt on his rival but in making it a ‘quid pro quo’ – a Latin meaning a favor in exchange for a favor.
Republicans want to paint the hearings as a partisan exercise by Trump’s opponents who resented failing to gain more politically from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy. Mueller documented extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia but found insufficient evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy.
Trump is the fourth U.S. president to face impeachment proceedings. While none were removed from office, Republican Richard Nixon resigned as he faced almost certain impeachment in 1974 over the Watergate scandal.
Read Chairman Adam Schiff’s opening statement for first impeachment hearing in full
In 2014, Russia invaded a United States ally, Ukraine, to reverse that nation’s embrace of the West, and to fulfill Vladimir Putin’s desire to rebuild a Russian empire. In the following years, thirteen thousand Ukrainians died as they battled superior Russian forces.
Earlier this year Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine on a platform of ending the conflict and tackling corruption. He was a newcomer to politics and immediately sought to establish a relationship with Ukraine’s most powerful patron, the United States. The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections? Whether President Trump sought to condition official acts, such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance, on Ukraine’s willingness to assist with two political investigations that would help his reelection campaign? And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency?
The matter is as simple, and as terrible as that. 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.
There are few actions as consequential as the impeachment of a President. While the Founders did not intend that impeachment be employed for mere differences over policy, they also made impeachment a constitutional process that the Congress must utilize when necessary.
The facts in the present inquiry are not seriously contested. Beginning in January of this year, the President’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, pressed Ukrainian authorities to investigate Burisma, the country’s largest natural gas producer, and the Bidens, since Vice President Joe Biden was seen as a strong potential challenger to Trump.
Giuliani also promoted a debunked conspiracy that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that hacked the 2016 election. The nation’s intelligence agencies have stated unequivocally that it was Russia, not Ukraine, that interfered in our election. But Giuliani believed this conspiracy theory, referred to as ‘Crowdstrike,’ shorthand for the company that discovered the Russian hack, would aid his client’s reelection.
Giuliani also conducted a smear campaign against the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. On April 29, a senior State Department official told her that although she had ‘done nothing wrong,’ President Trump had ‘lost confidence in her.’ With the sidelining of Yovanovich, the stage was set for the establishment of an irregular channel in which Giuliani and later others, including Gordon Sondland – an influential donor to the President’s inauguration now serving as Ambassador to the European Union – could advance the President’s personal and political interests.
Yovanovich’s replacement in Kyiv, Ambassador Bill Taylor, is a West Point graduate and Vietnam Veteran. As he began to better understand the scheme through the summer of 2019, he pushed back, informing Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent and others about a plan to condition U.S. government actions and funding on the performance of political favors by the Ukrainian government, favors intended for President Trump that would undermine our security and our elections.
Several key events in this scheme took place in the month of July. On July 10th, Ambassador Sondland informed a group of U.S. and Ukrainian officials meeting at the White House that, according to Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian president with Trump would happen only if Ukraine undertook an investigation into ‘the energy sector,’ which was understood to mean Burisma and, specifically, the Bidens. National Security Advisor Bolton abruptly ended the meeting and said afterwards that he would not be – quote – ‘part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this’ – end quote.
A week later, on July 18, a representative from OMB, the White House agency that oversees federal spending, announced on a video conference call that Mulvaney, at the direction of the President, was freezing nearly $400 million in security assistance authorized and appropriated by Congress and which the entirety of the U.S. national security establishment supported.
One week after that, Donald Trump would have the now infamous July 25th phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky. During that call, Trump complained that the U.S. relationship with Ukraine had not been ‘reciprocal.’ Later, Zelensky thanks Trump for his support ‘in the area of defense,’ and says that Ukraine was ready to purchase more Javelins, an antitank weapon that was among the most important deterrents of further Russian military action. Trump’s immediate response: ‘I would like you to do us a favor, though.’
Trump then requested that Zelensky investigate the discredited 2016 ‘Crowdstrike’ conspiracy theory, and even more ominously, look into the Bidens. Neither of these investigations were in the U.S. national interest, and neither was part of the official preparatory material for the call. Both, however, were in Donald Trump’s personal interest, and in the interests of his 2020 re-election campaign. And the Ukrainian president knew about both in advance — because Sondland and others had been pressing Ukraine for weeks about investigations into the 2016 election, Burisma and the Bidens.
After the call, multiple individuals were concerned enough to report it to the National Security Council’s top lawyer. The White House would then take the extraordinary step of moving the call record to a highly classified server exclusively reserved for the most sensitive intelligence matters.
In the following weeks, Ambassador Taylor learned new facts about a scheme that even Sondland would describe as becoming more insidious. Taylor texted Sondland, ‘Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?’
As summer turned to fall ‘[i]t kept getting more insidious,’ Mr. Sondland testified. Mr. Taylor, who took notes of his conversations, said the ambassador told him in a September 1 phone call that ‘everything was dependent’ on the public announcement of investigations ‘including security assistance.’ President Trump wanted Mr. Zelensky ‘in a public box.’ ‘President Trump is a businessman,’ Sondland said later. ‘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.’
In a sworn declaration after Taylor’s testimony, Sondland would admit to telling the Ukrainians at a September 1st meeting in Warsaw ‘that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.’
The President’s chief of staff confirmed Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine by withholding aid. When Mick Mulvaney was asked publicly about it, his answer was breathtaking: ‘We do that all the time with foreign policy . . . I have news for everybody: get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy. That is going to happen.’ The video of that confession is plain for all to see.
Some have argued in the President’s defense that the aid was ultimately released. That is true. But only after Congress began an investigation; only after the President’s lawyers learned of a whistleblower complaint; and only after Members of Congress began asking uncomfortable questions about quid pro quos. A scheme to condition official acts or taxpayer funding to obtain a personal political benefit does not become less odious because it is discovered before it is fully consummated. In fact, the security assistance had been delayed so long, it would take another act of Congress to ensure that it would still go out. And that Oval Office meeting that Zelensky desperately sought – it still hasn’t happened.
Although we have learned a great deal about these events in the last several weeks, there are still missing pieces. The President has instructed the State Department and other agencies to ignore Congressional subpoenas for documents. He has instructed witnesses to defy subpoenas and refuse to appear. And he has suggested that those who do expose wrongdoing should be treated like traitors and spies.
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. 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. And the prospects for further corruption and abuse of power, in this administration or another, will be exponentially increased.
This is what we believe the testimony will show — both as to the President’s conduct and as to his obstruction of Congress. The issue that we confront is the one posed by the President’s Acting Chief of Staff when he challenged Americans to ‘get over it.’ If we find that the President of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections, or if he sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection campaign and did so by withholding official acts — a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid — must we simply ‘get over it?’ Is that what Americans should now expect from their president? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is? Does the oath of office itself – requiring that our laws be faithfully executed, that our president defend a constitution that balances the powers of its branches, setting ambition against ambition so that we become no monarchy – still have meaning?
These are the questions we must ask and answer. Without rancor if we can, without delay regardless, and without party favor or prejudice if we are true to our responsibilities. Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of a country America was to become, ‘A Republic,’ he answered, ‘if you can keep it.’ The fundamental issue raised by the impeachment inquiry into Donald J. Trump is: Can we, keep it?