Senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers presented dueling narratives on Wednesday as a US congressional impeachment inquiry that threatens Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency entered a crucial new phase with the first televised public hearing.
The drama unfolded in a hearing of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in which two career US diplomats - William Taylor and George Kent - voiced alarm over the Republican president and those around him pressuring Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
One revelation in particular drew attention, showing Trump’s keen interest in Ukraine investigating political rival Joe Biden. Taylor said a member of his staff overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a former political donor appointed as a senior diplomat, in which the Republican president asked about these investigations and Sondland told him that the Ukrainians were ready to proceed.
Following the call - which occurred a day after Trump had asked Ukraine’s president during a phone call to conduct these investigations - the staff member asked Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, what Trump thought about Ukraine, said Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine.
“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.”
The public hearings are scheduled for Wednesday and Friday.
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.
Schiff’s accusations that Trump abused his power was met by a staunch denial by the panel’s senior Republican, Devin Nunes, of the Republican president’s complicity in a saga that revolves around whether Trump and his aides improperly pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival for his political benefit.
Biden is 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, expressed concern that US security aid was withheld from Ukraine as leverage to get Kiev to carry out the investigations.
“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 in his opening statement.
“Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief,” Schiff said.
Schiff added, “If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?”
This week’s hearings, 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.
Nunes accused the Democrats of conducting a “carefully orchestrated smear campaign” and of using the hearings as a “televised theatrical performance.”
He hewed to the Republican strategy of arguing that Trump did nothing wrong or impeachable when he asked Ukraine’s new president to investigate prominent Democrat Joe Biden, a former US vice president and key 2020 re-election rival.
“It’s nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime,” Nunes said.
Schiff said the inquiry looks at whether Trump sought to condition official acts such as a White House meeting or US military assistance on Ukraine’s willingness to carry out two political investigations that would help his re-election campaign.
“And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency?” Schiff asked.
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 Biden and into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 US election. Hunter Biden had worked for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.
Democrats are looking into whether Trump abused his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine - a vulnerable US ally facing Russian aggression - as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting investigations politically beneficial to Trump. The money - approved by the US Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country - was later provided to Ukraine.