In the first public hearing Wednesday of the U.S. congressional impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, more evidence was added to the growing case against the President, reinforcing his central role in pressing Ukraine to discredit his potential Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine says Mr. Trump pushed one of his emissaries for an update on investigations the President wanted Kyiv to launch into his Democratic political opponents. After the previously undisclosed conversation, acting Ambassador William Taylor said that the emissary, U.S. ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, confided that Mr. Trump “cares more about the investigations” than about U.S. policy in Ukraine.
Mr. Taylor, who testified alongside senior State Department official George Kent, laid out in detail a “crazy” plot to ransom nearly US$400-million of badly needed military aid to press Kyiv to announce the investigations. And both men made the case for why this effort – pursued through an “unofficial channel” of diplomacy that Mr. Trump’s allies set up – undermined U.S. national security and foreign-policy goals.
“Withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be crazy,” Mr. Taylor told the House intelligence committee. “I believed that then and I believe it now.”
The historic hearings make Mr. Trump only the fourth U.S. president to face formal impeachment proceedings. While much of the substance of Mr. Taylor’s and Mr. Kent’s testimony had already been revealed in closed-door depositions, the dramatic public airing of their disclosures has the potential to seize public attention and pave the way for the Democratic-controlled House to move forward with efforts to push Mr. Trump out of office.
In a July telephone conversation, Mr. Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate conspiracy theories concerning Mr. Biden and supposed Ukrainian help for the Democrats in the 2016 election. The inquiry is trying to determine if this request – and Mr. Trump’s alleged withholding of military aid – constitutes an abuse of power by soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 vote.
“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” Democratic intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff said. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but … what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief.”
Mr. Kent bluntly undermined Mr. Trump’s argument that the President had legitimate reasons to ask Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden, one of the Democratic candidates vying to face Mr. Trump in next year’s presidential election. Asked by Daniel Goldman, a lawyer for committee Democrats, whether there were any grounds to believe Mr. Biden had committed wrongdoing in Ukraine, Mr. Kent said “none whatsoever.” He also said there was “no factual basis” for the conspiracy theory that Ukraine colluded with the Democrats in 2016.
“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,” Mr. Kent said. “Such selective actions undermine the rule of law, regardless of the country.”
From the time he arrived in Kyiv this spring, Mr. Taylor said, there was an “informal channel” between Mr. Trump’s allies, including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and Ukraine that circumvented normal diplomatic contacts.
At first, he said, back-channel operatives tried to trade a White House invitation to Mr. Zelensky in exchange for the investigations. Then, over the summer, Mr. Trump ordered the military aid to Ukraine frozen. Kyiv has relied on the help for its fight against Russian-backed insurgents.
Mr. Taylor said he learned from Mr. Sondland, the EU ambassador, that the President would not release the aid until Mr. Zelensky announced the investigation. Mr. Taylor said Mr. Sondland claimed that there was “no quid pro quo,” while at the same time telling him that Mr. Trump felt Ukraine “owes him something” and had to “pay up” before he would “sign the cheque.”
By withholding aid, Mr. Taylor said, the U.S. was failing to help a key ally attempting to contain the Kremlin’s authoritarian expansionism. The day after Mr. Zelensky’s call with Mr. Trump, he said, he visited the front line of the Ukrainian fight against Russian-backed forces. “More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor revealed the conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Sondland that he only recently learned about from a member of his staff. The staffer, he said, overheard Mr. Sondland in a Kyiv restaurant speaking by telephone with Mr. Trump the day after the President’s call with Mr. Zelensky. Mr. Trump asked Mr. Sondland about “the investigations,” Mr. Taylor said, and Mr. Sondland told him the Ukrainians were “ready to move forward.”
Afterward, the staffer asked Mr. Sondland what Mr. Trump thought of Ukraine. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Mr. Taylor said.
At a White House news conference Wednesday, Mr. Trump appeared to deny making this call. “I know nothing about that,” he said. “I’ve never heard it. Not even a little bit.”
The President also said he had not watched even “one minute” of the testimony.
Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor, said the conversation was significant because it undermines one potential defence for Mr. Trump: That his overzealous emissaries made demands of Kyiv without his approval. Mr. Taylor’s account shows Mr. Trump co-ordinating the push.
“This is now the President himself saying this thing that they were trying to distance him from,” said Ms. Rodgers, who now teaches law at Columbia University. “This is an important piece of evidence.”
Republican members of the committee repeatedly pointed out that Mr. Taylor had not spoken directly with Mr. Trump, and his understanding of the bartering of military aid came indirectly from others.
Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, also took up the conspiracy theories Mr. Trump had pushed on Mr. Zelensky, saying that there should be a probe into “Ukraine’s election meddling against the Trump campaign” and alleged that there had been a “three-year-long operation by the Democrats, the corrupt media and partisan bureaucrats” to take down Mr. Trump.
Ravi Perry, chair of the political-science department at Howard University in Washington, said such a strategy at the hearing could prove effective. While the Democrats largely stuck to laying out a lengthy series of facts, the Republicans instead went for emotional attack lines that could play well as sound bites for their base.
“I wish I could say that the facts matter, that people realizing the details of the Ukrainian connection matter. In a normal, pre-Trump world, those facts would have mattered,” he said. “But in the Trump world, what matters more is perception and winning the headline battle.”
The hearings continue Friday with Marie Yovanovitch, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who says she was ousted by Mr. Giuliani. Next week, the committee will hear from eight more diplomats and administration officials.
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