House begins public hearings with testimonies from Bill Taylor and George Kent as president struggles to prevent investigation
Donald Trump cared more about investigating his political rival Joe Biden than the fate of Ukraine, according to dramatic testimony from a key witness in the first impeachment inquiry hearing before the American public.
Less than a year before the president faces re-election, the House of Representatives began public hearings on Wednesday into allegations that Trump abused the power of his office.
As Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair, gaveled the House intelligence committee into session, cameras from every major network carried the proceedings to millions of Americans, some of whom were encountering the allegations against Trump for the first time.
In an opening statement, Schiff said the hearings would explore whether Trump sought to exploit Ukraine’s vulnerability, condition White House acts on Ukraine’s willingness to help his re-election, and “whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the presidency”.
Schiff said: “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.”
Trump filled his Twitter account on Wednesday morning with video clips of his defenders attacking the proceedings. But in the hearing room, new testimony tied Trump directly to a plot to condition US military aid and a White House visit on a Ukrainian announcement of the Biden investigation.
Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, a state department deputy assistant secretary, were the first witnesses to be called. Taylor said one of his aides had heard Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, talking to Trump on the phone in July.
Taylor said: “Following the phone call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.”
The opening of the public impeachment hearings was a day Trump has struggled furiously to prevent, blocking witnesses, attacking investigators and throwing up a social media smokescreen. Trump has claimed his push for investigations in Ukraine arose from his concern about corruption in the country.
“I’m too busy to watch it,” Trump told reporters about the hearings. “It’s a witch-hunt, it’s a hoax.”
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, tweeted that the hearings were “boring”.
Devin Nunes, the senior Republican on the committee, declared the proceedings a “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” to the Russia investigation and said “it’s nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime.”
Republicans sought to blunt the impact of the testimony by pointing out that the witnesses had not had direct conversations with Trump about his intentions. They also argued that in asking for investigations, Trump was pursuing a legitimate anti-corruption agenda in Ukraine. Democrats responded that Trump has not expressed any anti-corruption initiative not having to do with Biden.
Taylor said: “I am not here to take one side or the other, or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings. My purpose is to provide the facts as I know them.”
Taylor described his concern to discover, last spring, an informal policy channel in Ukraine led by Giuliani, and advanced by US officials close to the White House, including Sondland.
Sondland told Taylor that he had told the Ukrainians that “everything” – military aid and a White House meeting for Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy – depended on Zelenskiy’s willingness to announce an investigation of Biden, Trump’s political rival, Taylor testified.
With a half-century of foreign service experience between them, the witnesses described a US policy of supporting Ukraine as a frontline state against what they said was a Russian assault on the “rules-based order” in eastern Europe. For the newly elected Zelenskiy, Kent testified, a White House meeting would be crucial.
“A meeting with the US president in the Oval Office at the White House” would be seen, said Kent, “as the ultimate sign of endorsement and support from the United States”.
The US demand that Ukraine pursue politically motivated investigations, and the withholding of aid for Ukraine, undermined US efforts to promote the rule of law and threatened to give Russia a free hand in the region, the diplomats testified.
Taylor was asked what he meant when he said in a text message obtained by the committee that withholding security assistance for Ukraine to help a political campaign was “crazy”.
“To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than to help with a political campaign made no sense,” Taylor said. “It was counterproductive. It was illogical, it could not be explained, it was crazy.”
The White House and its allies sought to dismiss the hearing as dull and irrelevant. Press secretary Stephanie Grisham and Trump’s son, Eric, both dismissed it as “boring”, with Eric adding “#Snoozefest” in a tweet.
The president himself seemed to have found the historic day soporific, judging by his low-energy, croaky-voiced performance at a joint press conference at the White House with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan which started an hour late.
“Are you talking about the witch hunt?” Trump asked a reporter. “Is that what you mean? Is that what you’re talking about? I hear it’s a joke. I haven’t watched, I haven’t watched for one minute because I’ve been with the president, which is much more important as far as I’m concerned.”
Corey Brettschneider, the author of The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents and a professor of constitutional law at Brown University, said that the president’s powers do not include exercising foreign policy for his own personal benefit.
“The framers dedicated a significant amount of time to thinking about this,” Brettschneider said. “They made a deliberate decision to say ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’, emphasizing that if the president abused power – not just committed a crime – then he or she would be removed.”