WASHINGTON — The first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry produced some news and a lot of sparring as two veteran members of the U.S. diplomatic corps described their concerns with what they understood as President Donald Trump’s demands of Ukraine.
The fourth public impeachment hearing in U.S. history, nationally televised and much discussed on social media, featured William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a senior career State Department official with long experience in Ukraine.
Here are some of the major takeaways from the day’s hearing.
Taylor cites another phone call involving Trump
Taylor broke news by citing a phone call that showed that Trump paid great attention to whether Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky would open the investigations into Democrat Joe Biden and his son and tied the pressure campaign closer to Trump.
In his opening statement, Taylor said that a staff member overheard Trump asking about the “investigations” in a phone call with Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, the day after Trump had spoken to Zelensky on July 25.
“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump personal lawyer Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said.
Trump later said at an unrelated news conference he does not recall that call.
A warning about efforts that undermine U.S. policy
Taylor and Kent warned of the damage that Trump’s request for Ukraine to engage in U.S. domestic politics and Giuliani’s “irregular” diplomatic channel that undermines U.S. policy would do.
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 that he said he saw last week in a visit to the front.
He added, “It’s one thing to try to leverage a meeting in the White House. It’s another thing, I thought, to leverage security assistance, security assistance to a country at war dependent on both the security assistance and the demonstration of support.”
Kent said, “I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations,” Kent said, “because such selective actions undermine the rule of law, no matter what country.”
Concern over Giuliani's efforts in Ukraine
Kent and Taylor said Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine alarmed them.
In mid-August,” Kent said, “it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelensky's desire for a White House meeting.”
Kent suggested that Giuliani has aligned himself with corrupt Ukrainians in launching attacks on “dedicated public servants,” including a “smear campaign” against Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch, who was recalled from Ukraine early.
“In my opinion those attacks undermine U.S. and Ukrainian national interest and damaged our critical bilateral relationship,” he said.
GOP: No direct evidence of pressure
Republicans stressed that the witnesses relied on second-hand information and produced no direct evidence that Trump put pressure on Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) criticized Taylor’s statement that he had an understanding from his conversations that Ukraine would not get its $391 million in U.S. aid and Zelensky his much-desired Oval Office meeting.
“Ambassador Taylor recalls that Mr. Morrison told Ambassador Taylor that I told Mr. Morrison that I conveyed this message to Mr. Yermak on September 1st, 2019 in connection with Vice President Pence's visit to Warsaw and a meeting with President Zelensky,” Jordan read from Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s amendment to his deposition.
“We got six people having four conversations in one sentence, and you just told me this is where you got your clear understanding,” Jordan said. “I've seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.”
Republicans said neither Trump nor Zelensky said there was pressure applied, and that the aid was released without an investigation or a public statement.
Jordan asked Taylor about his meetings with Zelensky after Trump’s phone call.
“Three meetings face-to-face with President Zelensky, no linkage. Yet in your deposition you said this,” Jordan said: “‘My clear understanding was security assistance money would not come until President Zelensky committed to pursue the investigation.’”
Jordan added, “Now, with all due respect, Ambassador, your clear understanding was obviously wrong because it didn't happen.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) later asked if Zelensky understood if he contradicted Trump and said he felt pressured, he may pay a very heavy price on future aid. Kent said, “That is a fair assessment.”
Kent: No basis to claim that Biden shielded his son
Kent said he knew of no evidence to support allegations that Joe Biden, a leading Democratic challenger to Trump, had acted improperly as vice president in his anti-corruption campaign in Ukraine.
Kent said he conveyed his concerns about the perception of conflict of interest in Hunter Biden’s serving on the board of Burisma, run by a corrupt oligarch. But he added, “Let me be clear, however, I did not witness any effort by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny.”
Asked if there is any factual basis to support Trump’s allegations that Biden had shielded his son from a Ukrainian prosecutor by forcing him out by threatening to withhold U.S. loan guarantees, Kent said: “None whatsoever.”
Asked if then-Vice President Biden acted in accordance with official U.S. policy when he forced out the prosecutor, Kent said, “He did.”
And asked if what Biden did is the same as Trump’s request to Zelensky to open investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 U.S. election, Kent said, “I would not say so. No, sir.”