The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump moved into the public spotlight Wednesday when the House Intelligence Committee opened hearings in the Capitol.
Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., lay out the Democrats’ investigation into whether the president abused his power for political gain and against national security interests.
At issue is whether the president withheld nearly $400 million in military aide to Ukraine while asking Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call to investigate his political rival Democrat Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
“If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” Schiff said.
U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the committee, painted the impeachment inquiry as the latest turn in the “Democrats scorched Earth war against President Trump” that was prepped and primed in secret hearings. Until Wednesday, testimony had been held in a closed-door, high-security room in the basement of the Capitol.
On Wednesday two long-time civil servants testified: William Taylor, the top diplomat for the U.S. State Department in Ukraine, and George Kent, who is deputy assistant secretary in the European and Eurasian Bureau for the U.S. Department of State.
Much of the hearing covered information already in the public realm, except this piece: Taylor reported that his staff member overheard Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, on a July 26 phone call with President Trump. After the call ended, the staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought of Ukraine and Sondland replied that Trump cares more about the investigation into the Bidens than Ukraine, Taylor told the committee.
Democratic House members on the committee focused their questions of the witnesses on Trump’s behavior and that of the president’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and others in the president’s orbit. Republicans zeroed in on Ukraine’s history of corruption and questioned Hunter Biden’s credentials to serve on the board of an energy company there, Burisma. an energy company.
The statements and questioning stretched on for nearly six hours, delving into the weeds of foreign policy, diplomatic communications, national security interests and more.
Members of the House Intelligence Committee, including Ohio Republicans Jim Jordan of Urbana and Mike Turner of Dayton, were allotted five minutes each to question witnesses.
Jordan used his time to seek to undermine Taylor’s statements that he understood U.S. aid to Ukraine wouldn’t be released until Zelensky made public statements supporting an investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma. Jordan noted that Taylor met with Zelensky on July 26, Aug. 27 and Sept. 5 without any discussion linking the hold on military aid with an investigation.
“Three meetings, face to face with President Zelensky, it doesn’t come up. No linkage whatsoever,” Jordan said.
Jordan criticized the Democrats for refusing to subpoena the original whistle blower whose complaint triggered the impeachment inquiry.
“This anonymous so-called whistle blower with no first hand knowledge, who is biased against the president, who worked with Joe Biden, who is the reason we’re all sitting here today — we’ll never get a chance to question that individual,” he said.
Jordan called the hearings a “sham” impeachment inquiry launched less than 12 months before the 2020 election. “This is a sad day for this country.”
Turner noted that neither Kent or Taylor have had any contact with President Trump and much of their statements are hearsay.
“You both know that this impeachment inquiry is about the president of the United States don’t you?” Turner asked. “I mean the man that neither one of you have had any contact with, you’re the first-up witnesses. I find that a little amazing.”
Kent described himself a “fact witness” and a 27-year foreign service officer who served under five presidents. In his opening statement, he said security and prosperity in Ukraine and Europe supports the security and prosperity of the United States.
Taylor said he wasn’t taking sides but he still believes that it’s “crazy” to withhold security assistance in order to get help with a political campaign.
Taylor described how he straddled the ‘regular’ diplomatic channels with Ukraine, but also an ‘irregular’ diplomatic channel, which involved Giuliani, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Kent also noted that there is no evidence to support the theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 elections, though there is evidence that Russia did so.
Nunes, however, said political operatives worked with Ukrainians to dig up dirt on Donald Trump and deliver it to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Taylor and Kent both described what they said was a “smear” campaign to undermine Marie Yovanovitch, then U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine who was later removed from her post by Trump. Yovanovitch is scheduled to testify before the committee on Friday. Schiff said more hearings will be scheduled in the coming weeks.
Ukraine gained independence as a country in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union but has struggled to establish itself as a democracy.
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who favored closer ties with Russia over ties with the European Union, left the country for Russia in February 2014. In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which represents 7 percent of Ukraine’s land mass.
New elections led to pro-West president Petro Poroshenko assuming office in June 2014 and he was succeeded by Zelensky in May 2019.
Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe after Russia.
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