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Impeachment witnesses detail why Ukraine dealing was risky

Career Foreign Service officer George Kent, left, and

Career Foreign Service officer George Kent, left, and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor testify during an impeachment hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in Washington. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

During the first day of public impeachment hearings into activities of President Donald Trump, there wasn't a high-drama moment or a sudden shift of the partisan winds. 

Instead, there  were more than six hours of two steady, thoughtful voices  of credible, nonpartisan public servants who stuck to the facts and avoided the political game-playing that, at times, came from the dais.

Importantly, Wednesday's witnesses represent an indisputable record of service. George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for Eastern Europe and the Caucasus,  is a third-generation public servant. Ambassador William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine,  served in Vietnam, has more than a decade of involvement with Ukraine and was recruited out of retirement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

They testified about a president who conducted foreign policy through an "irregular" channel in which he allegedly held up military aid to Ukraine  unless he got a public commitment from Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his country's alleged involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — a debunked theory —  and Joe and Hunter Biden's connections to Ukraine and Burisma, a natural gas company there, despite no evidence of wrongdoing there, either.

Wednesday was the first public detailing of allegations that Trump tried to condition aid Ukraine needed to fight Russian aggressors and a White House meeting Zelensky desperately wanted on a public promise that he would investigate Trump's political opponents.

New information emerged: that a Taylor staffer overhead Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on the phone with Trump the day after the now-infamous Trump-Zelensky phone call in July. Trump was heard asking about "the investigations." It's just another piece in a puzzle still taking shape. 

Taylor and Kent framed why all of this matters, noting that Ukraine's strength and security are important for continued peace in Europe and to U.S. national security. Holding back aid, even temporarily, weakens Ukraine's fight against Russia.

It was helpful that attorneys asked many of the questions. Once members took over, Republicans didn't dispute much of what Taylor and Kent said. They unsuccessfully tried to distract or confuse the witnesses. Republicans noted that ultimately, the aid was released without Zelensky committing to investigations, but they failed to admit any problem with the request in the first place, or to mention that the aid flowed only two days after the House of Representatives opened its investigation into a whistleblower's complaint. Failure to succeed at a bad deed is not exoneration. 

Their other focus: Neither Kent nor Taylor had spoken to or met with Trump. It would be a reasonable point, except the White House has prevented those with direct knowledge of Trump's actions, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Pompeo, from testifying. The White House must unlock those shackles.

There are more witnesses, and therefore more efforts by Republicans to distract or confuse, to come. But this isn't about the side show. As Taylor and Kent made clear,  national security, institutions and fundamental values of the United States are in the center ring. That's where attention must stay.                                                      — The editorial board