Watch Live: House Holds 1st Open Hearing In Trump Impeachment Inquiry | St. Louis Public Radio

Watch Live: House Holds 1st Open Hearing In Trump Impeachment Inquiry

2 hours ago
Originally published on November 13, 2019 11:40 am

Updated at 12:32 p.m. ET

A State Department staffer overheard President Trump asking a top diplomat about "investigations" he wanted Ukraine to pursue that he believed might help him in the 2020 election, another senior diplomat told Congress on Wednesday.

William Taylor, the acting boss of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, added that detail to earlier testimony he gave House investigators about the Ukraine affair.

Watch the hearing live.

Taylor said a diplomatic staffer told him that the staffer was with Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU, when Sondland got a phone call from Trump.

The staffer "could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about 'the investigations,'" Taylor said.

Continued Taylor: "Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward." Further, Sondland told the staffer "that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for."

An attorney for Sondland declined to comment on Taylor's testimony, saying that the ambassador would tell his own story to Congress when he appears Nov. 20.

In exchange for investigations, witnesses say, Trump was prepared to meet in person with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and sustain financial assistance — appropriated by Congress — that Washington had been providing to Ukraine since it was invaded by Russia in 2014.

The White House froze Ukraine's aid for a period of weeks this year and then released it. Although Zelenskiy was close to booking a CNN interview in September, he never made the public commitment that witnesses have said Trump wanted.

Defenders scoff at what they call 'sham'

Republicans argue this shows there was no inappropriate exchange and say the impeachment process has been a "sham." Plus the case is based on hearsay, they argue and — for some supporters — Trump's actions were legitimate or, at very least, not impeachable.

Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., also said Democrats have lost all credibility following the Russia imbroglio and called their impeachment inquiry a "carefully orchestrated media smear campaign."

"This spectacle is doing great damage to our country," he said. "It's nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime."

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Democrats are squandering bandwidth they should be using on more important priorities.

Dems: Congress has no choice but to act

No, Democrats argue — they say that Trump has so abused his office that Congress has no choice but to reach for one of its rarest and most serious remedies — impeachment.

If Congress does not act, "the prospects for further corruption and abuse in this administration or any other will be exponentially increased," said Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. "If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?"

Democrats have scheduled another hearing for Friday with former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Maria Yovanovitch and three more hearings next week with a variety of witnesses.

Investigators also said on Wednesday they're scheduled closed-door depositions with two more witnesses: David Holmes of the State Department and Mark Sandy, an official from the Office of Management and Budget.

The witnesses

For Wednesday's hearing, Schiff called Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent to tell their stories. They've already spoken to investigators in closed depositions and repeated much of their stories on Wednesday.

Taylor's detail about a staffer overhearing Trump's phone call, however, was new.

Kent's full opening statement is available here; Taylor is available here.

Kent is the senior State Department supervisor whose responsibility includes policy for Eastern Europe — except he was told to "keep his head down," he says, and "keep a low profile" on Ukraine because the White House had hand-picked "three amigos" to take that portfolio.

Kent told lawmakers on Wednesday that he raised concerns during the administration of President Barack Obama about the appearance of conflict raised when the son of then-Vice President Joe Biden was hired to join the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.

But Kent also said he never saw any evidence that Biden leaned on Ukrainian officials not to investigate the company in a way that might have been improper.

Trump has cited what he calls "corruption" involving the Bidens as the reason he says it's appropriate that he tried to get Zelenskiy to investigate them.

Taylor is the acting boss of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. He told investigators that he learned about Trump's desire for investigations from other diplomats and couldn't explain to Ukrainians why their military assistance had been withheld.

Taylor said on Wednesday that Ukraine depends on American assistance and the threat from Russian and Russian-backed forces there remains real — one that continues to cost the lives of Ukrainian troops.

But Taylor described a sense of unreality in the Ukrainian capital when he was appointed to run the diplomatic mission there: "Once I arrived in Kyiv, I discovered a weird combination of encouraging, confusing, and ultimately alarming circumstances," he said.

Kent and Taylor opposed Trump's pressure policy, in part because it was run by Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani — not someone within the foreign policy establishment — and in part because they thought it was bad on its merits.

Giuliani's unofficial policy toward Ukraine "undercut" the official policy pursued by diplomats like Taylor, the ambassador said on Wednesday.

Ukraine is a strategic partner of the U.S. resisting aggression by an adversary, in Russia. Trump's freeze in assistance raised doubt about America's commitment in Eastern Europe, foreign policy and national security witnesses have told Congress.

Trump's allies

Nunes is leading the defense for the president on Wednesday.

First, Republicans argue, the case is hearsay because neither Taylor nor Kent nor others from whom Congress has heard spoke directly with Trump and can say what his intentions were.

Moreover, corruption is endemic in Ukraine and that is a solid basis upon which the White House may act, Republicans argued in a policy memo circulated on Tuesday.

Other defenders who won't be in the hearing room on Wednesday have offered other analyses: Trump's administration was too incompetent to actually execute a quid pro quo with Zelenskiy and ineptitude shouldn't be impeachable.

Another defense is that Trump's invitation for foreign interference in the 2020 race might have been inappropriate, as Ohio's Republican Sen. Rob Portman argued, but it isn't impeachable.

NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.

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