First day of Trump impeachment hearings focuses on Ukraine pressure campaign

Mr William Taylor, charge d'affaires of the US embassy in Kiev, arrives to testify.
Mr William Taylor, charge d'affaires of the US embassy in Kiev, arrives to testify.PHOTO: REUTERS
US House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff (centre) looks on.
US House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff (centre) looks on.PHOTO: AFP
Mr William Taylor (centre left) and Mr George Kent (centre right), deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, face the media cameras as they arrive to testify.
Mr William Taylor (centre left) and Mr George Kent (centre right), deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, face the media cameras as they arrive to testify.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The top United States diplomat in Ukraine, testifying in the first televised hearing of the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, on Wednesday (Nov 13) linked the President more directly to a pressure campaign on Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit him politically.

Mr William Taylor was one of two career diplomats who testified before the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee as a crucial new phase began in the impeachment inquiry that threatens Mr Trump's presidency even as he seeks re-election in 2020.

Both Mr Taylor and Mr George Kent testified about their concerns about pressure by Mr Trump and allies to get Ukraine to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden in a dramatic hearing that pitted Democratic and Republican lawmakers against each other.

While the hearing turned contentious at times - including sniping between lawmakers - the low-key testimony given by the two witnesses may have fallen short of giving the Democrats the ammunition they need to advance their argument that Mr Trump has committed misdeeds worthy of ousting him from office.

An important revelation came from Mr Taylor, acting ambassador to Ukraine, who pointed to the Republican President's keen interest in getting Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden, a former vice-president, and reiterated his understanding that US$391 million (S$533 million) in US security aid was withheld from Kiev unless it cooperated.

Mr Taylor said a member of his staff overheard a July 26 phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Gordon Sondland, a former political donor appointed as a senior diplomat, in which the Republican President asked about those investigations and Mr Sondland told him that the Ukrainians were ready to proceed.

Following the call - which occurred a day after Mr Trump had asked Ukraine's President during a phone call to conduct these investigations - the staff member asked Mr Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, what Mr Trump thought about Ukraine, Mr Taylor said.

"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 Mr Adam Schiff, the committee's Democratic chairman, if that meant Mr Trump cared more about the investigations than about Ukraine, Mr Taylor said, "Yes, sir."

Mr David Holmes, a Taylor aide subpoenaed to testify behind closed doors next week to the impeachment inquiry, is the Taylor staffer who overheard the call that Mr Sondland made to Mr Trump from Ukraine, said a person familiar with the issue.

Republican lawmakers called Mr Taylor's account hearsay and noted that Ukraine's President has not said he felt pressured by Mr Trump.

With a potential television audience of tens of millions looking on, Mr 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.

The hearing lasted 5½ hours from start to finish.

Mr Schiff's accusations that Mr Trump abused his power was met by a staunch denial by the panel's senior Republican, Mr Devin Nunes, that the Republican President and his aides improperly pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on Mr Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 election, for his political benefit.

Mr Taylor and Mr Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, expressed concern that US security aid - as well as a meeting with Mr Trump - was withheld from Ukraine as leverage over Kiev.

"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," Mr 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," he said.

He added, "If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?"

This week's sessions, 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 Mr Trump.

That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to convict Mr Trump of those charges and remove him from office.

Republicans control the Senate and have shown little support for his removal.

Asked about the impeachment proceedings, Mr Trump, at an Oval Office meeting with visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters he was "too busy to watch" and again called it a "a witch hunt, a hoax".

Mr Nunes accused the Democrats of conducting a "carefully orchestrated smear campaign" using "a horrifically one-sided process" and accused "Democrats, the corrupt media and partisan bureaucrats" of trying to overturn the results of the 2016 election won by Mr Trump.

He hewed to the Republican strategy of arguing that Mr Trump did nothing wrong or impeachable when he asked Ukraine's new president to investigate Mr Biden.

"It's nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime," Mr Nunes said.

The focus of the inquiry is on the July 25 telephone call in which Mr Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open a corruption investigation into Mr Biden and his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 US election. Mr Hunter Biden had been a board member for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.

Democrats are looking into whether Mr Trump abused his power by withholding the security aid to Ukraine - a vulnerable US ally facing Russian aggression - as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting investigations politically beneficial to himself.

 
 

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.

'STAR WITNESS'

Both witnesses remained calm and unflappable throughout the marathon session. Mr Taylor said at the outset: "I am not here to take one side or the other, or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings."

Republican Jim Jordan, a forceful Trump ally, told Mr Taylor, "you're their star witness", referring to the Democrats.

"I don't consider myself a star witness for anything," Mr Taylor responded.

Mr Taylor, a former US Army officer, previously served as US ambassador to Ukraine and is now the charge d'affaires of the US embassy in Kiev. Mr Kent oversees Ukraine policy at the State Department.

"I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country," Mr Kent said.

Mr Taylor said he found two channels of US policy toward Ukraine - one regular and one "highly irregular" - and recounted how a Trump meeting with the Ukrainian President was improperly conditioned on Kiev agreeing to investigate Burisma and the debunked notion of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.

Mr Taylor said he became aware that a hold on the security aid was contingent Ukraine opening the investigations and that was most alarming to him because it entailed "security assistance to a country at war".

He said he still believes what he said in a text message that was released during his previous closed-door testimony.

"I wrote that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be'crazy.' I believed that then, and I believe it now," he said.

He testified that Mr Trump "had a feeling of having been wronged by the Ukrainians" and the investigations were "something that he thought they owed him".

In the last US impeachment drama, Republicans, who then controlled the House, brought impeachment charges against Democratic President Bill Clinton in a scandal involving his sexual relationship with a White House intern. The Senate ultimately voted to keep Mr Clinton in office.

Only two US presidents ever have been impeached. No president has been removed through the impeachment process.

Mr Trump has denied any wrongdoing and has derided some of the current and former US officials who have appeared before committees as "Never Trumpers" - a term referring to Republican opponents of the president whom he has called "human scum".

Asked during the hearing whether they are "Never Trumpers", Mr Taylor responded, "No, Sir", and Mr Kent noted that he had worked as a diplomat under presidents of both parties.

Mr Kent said he had been alarmed by efforts by Mr Giuliani and others to pressure Ukraine. He said Giuliani - who Democrats have accused of conducting a shadow foreign policy effort in Ukraine to benefit the President - had conducted a "campaign full of lies" against Ms Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly pulled from her post as US ambassador to Ukraine in May. She will give public testimony on Friday.

Democrats are hoping to convince independent voters and other doubters that Mr Trump was wrong not only in asking Ukraine to dig up dirt on his rival but in making it a "quid pro quo" - a Latin meaning a favour in exchange for a favour.

Mr Nunes accused the Democrats of pursuing impeachment after failing to gain more politically from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost Mr Trump's candidacy.

Mr Mueller documented extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia but found insufficient evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy.

Republicans peppered the two witnesses with questions promoting the discredited notion of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.