WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testifying on Wednesday in the first televised hearing of the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, linked him more directly to a pressure campaign on Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit him politically.
William Taylor was one of two career diplomats who testified before the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee as a crucial new phase began in the impeachment inquiry, which threatens Trump’s presidency even as he seeks re-election in 2020.
Both Taylor and George Kent testified about the pressure Trump and allies applied to get Ukraine to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden over his son’s business dealings in Ukraine.
Their testimony was calm and forceful, but it was not clear whether it would help Democrats break through a partisan divide and convince more Americans that the Republican president has committed misdeeds worthy of ousting him from office.
In a disclosure that drew the most attention, Taylor, acting ambassador to Ukraine, pointed to Trump’s keen interest in getting the eastern European ally to investigate Biden, a former vice president, and reiterated his understanding that $391 million in U.S. security aid was withheld from Kiev unless it cooperated.
Taylor said a member of his staff overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a former Trump political donor appointed as a senior diplomat, in which Trump asked about those investigations and Sondland told him the Ukrainians were ready to proceed.
After that conversation – which occurred a day after Trump had asked Ukraine’s president during a phone call to conduct the investigations – the staff member asked Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, what Trump thought about Ukraine, Taylor said.
“Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor testified, referring to Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Asked by Adam Schiff, the committee’s Democratic chairman, if that meant Trump cared more about the investigations than about Ukraine, Taylor said: “Yes, sir.”
Taylor, who was appointed by Trump in June, also said withholding military aid from Ukraine, which has been locked in conflict with Russia since Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, undermined U.S. strategic interests.
“It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical … It was crazy,” he said.
At a White House news conference with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan after the hearing ended, Trump said he knew “nothing” about the call with Sondland that Taylor said his aide overheard.
“It’s the first time I heard it,” said Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing.
David Holmes, a Taylor aide subpoenaed to testify behind closed doors on Friday in the impeachment inquiry, is the staffer who overheard the call that Sondland made to Trump from Ukraine, said a person familiar with the issue.
Republican lawmakers called Taylor’s account hearsay and noted Ukraine’s president has not said he felt pressured by Trump.
With a potential television audience of tens of millions looking on, Schiff opened the historic session – the first impeachment drama in two decades – in an ornate hearing room packed with journalists, lawmakers and members of the public. The contentious hearing lasted 5-1/2 hours.
Schiff and other Democrats accused Trump of abusing his power while the panel’s senior Republican, Devin Nunes, denied that Trump and his aides improperly pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 election.
Taylor and Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, detailed the evidence they saw that U.S. security aid – as well as a meeting with Trump at the White House – was withheld from Ukraine as leverage over Kiev.
“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,” Schiff said. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself.”
Schiff added: “If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?”
This week’s sessions, where Americans are hearing directly for the first time from people involved in events that sparked the congressional inquiry, 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.
The inquiry is being conducted as the 2020 presidential campaign gathers steam. Opinion polls show Democrats strongly back impeachment and Republicans strongly oppose, leaving both parties appealing to a small sliver of the public – independents and others who have not made up their minds.
During his news conference with Erdogan, Trump said he had been too busy to watch the hearing. “I hear it’s a joke,” he said. “This is a sham and shouldn’t be allowed.”
Nunes accused Democrats of conducting a “carefully orchestrated smear campaign” and said they had combined with the media and “partisan bureaucrats” to try to overturn the results of the 2016 election won by Trump.
He hewed to the Republican strategy of arguing Trump did nothing wrong in asking Ukraine’s new president to investigate Biden, calling it “an impeachment process in search of a crime.”
The focus of the inquiry is on the July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open a corruption investigation into Biden and his son Hunter, and into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Hunter Biden had been a board member for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.
Democrats say Trump abused his power by withholding the security aid to Ukraine – a vulnerable U.S. ally facing Russian aggression – as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting the investigations.
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.
Both witnesses remained calm and unflappable throughout the marathon session. Taylor said at the outset: “I am not here to take one side or the other, or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings.”
Republican Jim Jordan, a forceful Trump ally, told Taylor: “You’re their star witness,” referring to the Democrats.
“I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” Taylor responded.
Taylor, a 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.
“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, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country,” Kent said.
Taylor said he found two channels of U.S. policy toward Ukraine – one regular and one “highly irregular” – and recounted how a Trump meeting with the Ukrainian president was improperly conditioned on Kiev agreeing to investigate Burisma and the debunked notion of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Taylor said he became aware that a hold on the security aid was contingent on Ukraine opening the investigations, which was alarming to him because it entailed “security assistance to a country at war.”
Trump has 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 whom he has called “human scum.”
Asked during the hearing whether they are “never Trumpers,” Taylor responded: “No, Sir,” and Kent noted he had worked as a diplomat under presidents of both parties.
(GRAPHIC: The impeachment inquiry – here)
Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle and Karen Freifeld; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, David Morgan, Jonathan Landay, Doina Chiacu, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey and Jan Wolfe; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and John Whitesides; Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham, Peter Cooney and Gerry Doyle