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Trump's Ukraine demand was loud and clear, envoy testifies

State Department official George Kent, left, and the

State Department official George Kent, left, and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, testify Wednesday at a public House impeachment hearing. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

All about 'the investigations'

If the opening day of open and televised House impeachment hearings didn't produce a game-over bombshell, there was at least a bomblet to shake up President Donald Trump's defense.

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, offered new testimony that President Donald Trump was overheard asking on the phone about “the investigations” of Democrats that he wanted Ukraine to pursue, a day after his July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Taylor said one of his staffers could hear Trump when EU envoy Gordon Sondland was on the phone with Trump while Sondland and the staffer were meeting at a Kyiv restaurant with a Zelensky aide.

Sondland "told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward,” Taylor said. After the call, when his staffer asked Sondland about Trump's views of Ukraine, Sondland replied that Trump's top priority was for Ukraine to launch investigations into the Bidens, "which [Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.” The staffer, U.S. Embassy political counselor David Holmes, is scheduled to be questioned in closed session Friday for the House impeachment inquiry.

Taylor's account was further support for allegations by Democrats and career officials who detailed the president's efforts to leverage Ukraine's needs for his personal political ends, and the testimony undermined Trump's claim to "hardly know" Sondland.

On Wednesday, Trump's response was to deny any knowledge of the call, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez. “I know nothing about that,” he said during a news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “First time I’ve heard it … I don’t recall, not at all, not even a little bit.” 

Republicans at the House Intelligence Committee hearing argued that Taylor and the Wednesday session's other witness, State Department official George Kent, have only second- or third-hand knowledge of Trump’s alleged transgressions. But Sondland is scheduled to appear next week. One of the White House officials most directly involved in the squeeze on Ukraine, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, is resisting a subpoena.

Republicans also pressed their complaint that committee chairman Adam Schiff has refused to bring in the whistleblower, whom Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) referred to as "the guy who started it all." That led to a swift rejoinder from Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). "I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify,” Welch said. “President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.”

Harm's ways

Newsday's Tom Brune has more takeaways from the hearing. Taylor and Kent, who has long experience in Ukraine, bemoaned the damage from Trump’s request to drag the beleaguered country into U.S. domestic politics, and from Giuliani’s “irregular” diplomatic channel that undermined U.S. policy.

Taylor stressed the importance of U.S. support for Ukraine, which he said “is on the front line in the conflict with the newly aggressive Russia” that is “attacking Ukrainian soldiers in their own country” — something he said he saw last week in a visit to the front.

Kent said, “I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations because such selective actions undermine the rule of law, no matter what country.” He suggested Giuliani has aligned himself with corrupt Ukrainians in launching attacks on “dedicated public servants,” including a “smear campaign” against ousted U.S. Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch.

Kent also testified that during the Obama administration, he voiced concerns about the perception of conflict of interest from Hunter Biden’s serving on the board of Burisma, a company that has faced corruption investigations. But he added, “Let me be clear, however, I did not witness any effort by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny” — the charge Trump and Giuliani have made against Joe Biden.

Watch video highlights here.

Janison: Trump's channel-flipping

As the impeachment inquiry heard testimony about Trump and Giuliani's "irregular" policy channel in Ukraine, Trump was hosting Turkey's Erdogan at the White House. What's the connection? Newsday's Dan Janison notes much has looked irregular about the Trump administration's conduct with Turkey.

Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, lobbied for the Ankara regime while working for Trump's campaign and right up until his appointment, seeking to fulfill Erdogan's request for the extradition of an exiled Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania.

Giuliani made himself a behind-the-scenes private player while trying to get a criminal case dropped against a Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab, who Erdogan wanted released. 

Trump has business interests in Turkey. One of his back channels is adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

A GOP drag show?

Some Republican senators are privately discussing whether to drag out the impeachment trial expected to begin in January, The Washington Post reports. The idea is to disrupt the Democratic presidential race because the half-dozen senator candidates would be largely stuck in Washington until the eve of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses or longer.

“That might be a strategy,” said Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Texas Sen. John Cornyn mused that two nonsenators in the Democratic contest, Biden and Pete Buttigieg, "might like that.”

Tax return fight headed to Supreme Court

A full federal appeals court on Wednesday refused to take up Trump’s appeal of an earlier ruling by a three-judge panel that his accounting firm must comply with a House committee’s demands for eight years of his tax records.

Trump is virtually certain to now appeal to the Supreme Court, one of several showdowns headed its way on the constitutional separation of powers. 

Trump’s attorneys also are planning to ask the high court as soon as Thursday to block a similar subpoena for the president’s tax records from the Manhattan district attorney, who is investigating hush-money payments in the lead-up to the 2016 election. 

Stone-cold liar?

In closing arguments, prosecutors charged that longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone repeatedly and deliberately lied under oath to Congress to help Trump's 2016 campaign avoid embarrassment about his reaching out to WikiLeaks.

Stone, 67, was indicted in January as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference. Defense attorneys countered that Stone had done nothing deliberately illegal in pursuit of stolen Democratic emails.

The case is expected to go to the jury Thursday in Washington.

What else is happening:

  • George Conway, the husband of White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, took his Trump-trashing to a new platform Wednesday, offering commentary on MSNBC. He previously stuck to Twitter and op-ed pages.
  • Jordan was a recent add to the Intelligence panel, and one way he stands out in contentious hearings is by going jacketless. He explained: "I can’t really get fired up and get into it if you’ve got some jacket slowing you down.”
  • Trump has said he doesn't know two indicted Giuliani collaborators, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. But Parnas has described to his associates that he discussed Ukraine as part of a small group having dinner with the president in April 2018, The Washington Post reported. Parnas recalled bad-mouthing Yovanovitch to Trump.
  • Chad Wolf was sworn in Wednesday as Trump's fifth acting secretary for the Department of Homeland Security in under three years. The Senate earlier made Wolf legally eligible for the post by confirming him as undersecretary of the agency's Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans. Trump has left open whether he'll seek a permanent secretary.
  • When thousands of migrant children ended up held in squalid conditions at Border Patrol stations last spring, Trump administration officials knew ahead of time it would happen, The Washington Post reported, based on internal government document and interviews. They went ahead anyway, hoping it would have a deterrent effect on Central American migrants.
  • White House officials plan to set up live webcams to watch construction on Trump's border wall despite complaints from the Army Corps of Engineers and Customs and Border Protection officials, The Washington Post reported. The objections: Contractors do not want their proprietary techniques visible to competitors, and there's concern the cameras will reveal crews straying onto Mexican territory while maneuvering equipment.
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is telling fellow Democrats he plans to make a late entry into the 2020 race, in part, out of concern about how Biden is faring, BuzzFeed reports. Patrick is a close ally of former President Barack Obama but isn't well-known nationally.
  • The student president at the University of Florida is facing impeachment for paying $50,000 from student activity fees for a political speech last month on campus by Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle.

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