- Democrat and Republican lawmakers questioned two witnesses and took shots at each other on Wednesday in the first public hearings of the impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump. William Taylor, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant Secretary of State, testified together at the House intelligence committee. Here’s a primer on the two men and the other witness due to testify this week, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
- In his testimony, Mr. Taylor revealed new information that Mr. Trump was overheard asking his envoy to Europe about “the investigations” at the centre of the impeachment case, and seemed more concerned about those investigations than Ukraine’s fate without U.S. military aid. Mr. Taylor said his staff told him recently about the call, which took place in July between Mr. Trump and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
- In his opening statement, House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff outlined the purpose of the hearings: To find out if Mr. Trump’s conduct was impeachable when he pressed Ukraine for an investigation of former vice-president Joe Biden’s son. The committee’s top Republican, Devin Nunes, countered that the impeachment process was a sham and a “televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.”
- Mr. Trump, who was elsewhere in Washington on Wednesday meeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he was “too busy” to watch the hearing, but dismissed the impeachment process as a “hoax."
What today’s two witnesses said
Mr. Taylor, a former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, was brought back into the position to take the place of Marie Yovanovitch, who U.S. President Donald Trump recalled from Kyiv this past spring. (She’ll be testifying to lawmakers this coming Friday.) In his closed-door hearing in October and his public testimony on Nov. 13, Mr. Taylor outlined how the White House tried to press Ukraine to announce investigations into Mr. Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden, and his son, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. Mr. Taylor said it was his “clear understanding” that Washington was withholding previously promised military aid until Kyiv agreed to the investigation.
Here are some of the highlights of what he said:
- On the quid pro quo question: Mr. Taylor said Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, confirmed to him that Ukraine was expected to announce a Burisma investigation before military aid would be unfrozen or President Volodymyr Zelensky would be invited to the White House. He also described conversations where Mr. Trump told Mr. Sondland that there was no quid pro quo involved, but that Ukraine’s refusal to announce an investigation would be a “stalemate.” Mr. Taylor also said Mr. Sondland likened the exchange to a business deal and said Mr. Trump felt Mr. Zelensky “owes him something,” but later said Mr. Sondland described it as a mistake.
- On the overheard phone call: Mr. Taylor described a phone conversation one of his staffers overheard on July 26 between Mr. Sondland and Mr. Trump. The staffer was in Kyiv with Mr. Sondland, while Mr. Trump was in Washington. The President asked about “the investigations,” and Mr. Sondland replied that the Ukrainians were “ready to move forward.” When the staffer asked Mr. Sondland what Mr. Trump thought of Ukraine, he said the President “cared more about the investigation of Biden that Giuliani was pressing for.”
- On the two channels: In his opening statement, Mr. Taylor described a “confusing and unusual” arrangement where Ukraine policy was being pursued through two lines of communication: The regular diplomatic channel, and another where Mr. Sondland, Mr. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, special Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker and others tried to shape policy themselves, “unaccountable to Congress.” He said he was part of the first channel, but was sometimes included in discussions within the second, and he got increasingly uncomfortable about what was going on.
Mr. Kent, a State Department official whose portfolio includes Ukraine, told the closed-door hearings about how Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, took part in a campaign to smear him and Ms. Yovanovitch with the help of Ukrainian prosecutor Yuri Lutsenko. Mr. Kent said he was concerned Mr. Giuliani’s “campaign of lies” about Ms. Yovanovitch bypassed official diplomatic channels.
Here are some of the highlights of what he said:
- On the investigation Trump wanted: In his opening statement, Mr. Kent said his anti-corruption work in Ukraine has sometimes led him to press for more scrutiny on Burisma, but said the U.S. should not ask other countries to engage in “selective, politically associated investigations.” He said such “selective actions” undermined the rule of law, regardless of the country involved.
- On the CrowdStrike hoax: Mr. Kent was asked about a conspiracy theory Mr. Trump raised with Mr. Zelensky positing that CrowdStrike, a U.S. cybersecurity company, was hired by the Democrats as part of a plot to frame Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Intelligence agencies including the CIA have agreed the hacks were indeed masterminded by Russia. Mr. Kent said “there is no factual basis” for the CrowdStrike hoax.
- On Ukraine corruption: Mr. Kent said that, in his opinion, he didn’t believe there was a comprehensive effort by the government to end corruption in Ukraine. He also said it is not normal for a citizen to play the role Mr. Giuliani did in foreign diplomacy. When talking about the stir caused by Ms. Yovanovitch’s anti-corruption efforts, Mr. Kent said you can’t fight anti-corruption “without pissing off corrupt people.” Mr. Kent also said that he believed Mr. Giuliani’s interest in Ukraine was “ to dig up political dirt against a potential rival." He also said that he knew Mr. Trump said he was more interested in the Bidens, but that to his knowledge there is no factual basis to the allegations against Mr. Biden.
What both witnesses agreed on
Both Mr. Kent and Mr. Taylor denied they are partisan “never Trumpers,” as the President has said they are. The witnesses also said they believed that the phone call was a cause for concern and that it hurts diplomats’ credibility when leaders ask foreign powers to investigate on their behalf. Neither voiced whether they believed Mr. Trump should be impeached.
What are these hearings about? The backstory
What Trump’s accused of: In July, Mr. Trump called the recently elected Mr. Zelensky to congratulate him on his presidency, but also to ask a favour: He wanted an investigation of Burisma, a Ukrainian company whose board includes Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. According to the White House’s record of that conversation (hurriedly declassified and released in September, after a whistleblower revealed the call’s existence), Mr. Trump suggested “there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son” and potential wrongdoing at Burisma. But according to several diplomats who’ve testified to House committees, the Trump administration was withholding US$400-million in military aid to Ukraine to press them to investigate Burisma. Some also alleged Mr. Trump was dangling the prospect of a White House invitation for Mr. Zelensky if he co-operated.
Why could Trump be impeached for that? If the exchange of aid for a Burisma investigation constitutes a quid pro quo (Latin for “this for that”), it’s potentially illegal. U.S. federal laws forbid anyone from soliciting, accepting or receiving anything of value from a foreign power in connection with an election. But it’s up to Congress to decide whether that amounts to the “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours” required by the U.S. Constitution for impeachment.
What the House has done so far: This past fall, multiple committees of the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives started holding hearings to assess the whistleblower’s claims against Mr. Trump, and other allegations from a second whistleblower. These hearings were behind closed doors and likened by the Democrats to grand jury hearings ahead of a potential indictment, though Republicans said it was an unfair and secretive process. In late October, the House approved public hearings and set out a process for how they would be conducted and when and how the President’s lawyers could defend him.
What next? How impeachment works
- Will the House go ahead with impeachment? The purpose of the hearings is to inform a political decision by lawmakers: Is it worth formally accusing the President of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours"? If the justice committee decides yes, the next step is to write up articles of impeachment accusing Mr. Trump of specific crimes.
- Will the House vote to impeach? A simple majority vote approving any of the articles will make the president “impeached,” or formally accused. Not all Democrats voted in favour of starting this impeachment process, and it remains to be seen how they’ll want to finish it.
- How will the Senate’s impeachment process work? If the House approves one or more of the articles of impeachment, the Senate holds trial-like proceedings where the president and his lawyers can defend their side. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over this trial.
- Will the Senate vote to impeach? Senators get to vote on each article of impeachment separately, and it takes a two-thirds majority to pass one. Unless Republicans break ranks, as they rarely have on other issues before the Senate, that seems unlikely. But if one or more articles is passed, the President is removed from office.
Commentary and analysis
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Associated Press, Reuters, Adrian Morrow and Tamsin McMahon
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