Longtime U.S. diplomats outlined their discomfort and disapproval with what they described as a campaign by President Donald Trump’s allies to hijack Ukraine relations for Trump’s re-election campaign, the central issue in Trump’s potential impeachment.
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Eastern Europe, and Ambassador Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in Kyiv, opened public hearings before the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry by detailing the workings of a shadow foreign policy quarterbacked by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. The goal of that effort was to compel Ukrainian officials to provide Trump aides with damaging information on Trump’s domestic political rivals.
Taylor referenced his now well-known text to fellow diplomats saying that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a U.S. political campaign would be “crazy.”
“I believed that then,” Taylor told the legislators, “and I believe it now.” Taylor explained that what he called “the odd push to make President Zelensky publicly commit to investigations of Burisma and alleged interference in the 2016 election showed how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani.”
The means of that effort involved dangling White House invitations to the novice Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and freezing about $400 million in military aid. It created at least one diplomatic casualty: Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, whom a disinformation campaign drove from the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. Yovanovitch is slated to testify on Friday.
Taylor also revealed new information about the extent of Trump’s interest in Ukraine opening investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter and their involvement with a Ukrainian energy company. He testified that when he gave his deposition on Oct. 22, he was not aware of events that happened on July 26, when Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, visited Kyiv.
Taylor said he was told last Friday that one of his staffers accompanied Sondland and heard him talk to Trump on the phone. During that call, the staffer heard the president press Sondland on “the investigations.”
Sondland, according to Taylor’s staffer, told Trump “the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” After hanging up, the staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine, to which Sondland responded that the president “cares more about the investigations of Biden.”
Kent, who spoke with more emotion than Taylor, told the panel that “it was unexpected, and most unfortunate, to watch some Americans—including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas—launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine. In my opinion, those attacks undermined U.S. and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship.”
“If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” asked the leading Democratic impeachment figure, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) during the hearing, who referenced Ben Franklin’s famous quote about bequeathing America “a republic, if you can keep it.”
This scheme, involving a country obscure to most Americans and a cast of characters even less familiar, has made Trump the fourth U.S. president in 242 years to face impeachment. That mechanism, prescribed in the Constitution to combat high crimes and misdemeanors, has yet to remove a single president from office, although it compelled Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation.
The president has insisted his actions with regard to Ukraine are beyond reproach, even as he has released a readout of his July 25 call with Zelensky showing him asking for “a favor” in the form of investigations of Joe Biden and 2016 election interference once Zelensky mentioned a desire to purchase more anti-tank missiles. The acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who is also the White House budget chief, stated publicly that Trump withheld the aid to compel Ukrainian compliance—only to attempt retracting his astonishing comments once it became clear they decimated Trump’s denial of any quid pro quo.
Mulvaney, whom several officials have told Congress in depositions is central to the Ukraine pressure campaign, is refusing cooperation with the impeachment inquiry.
Over the past several weeks, more than a dozen witnesses from the State Department, Pentagon, National Security Council, and Vice President’s office have provided depositions behind closed doors. Transcripts released thus far show a largely consistent account of what Taylor again called an “irregular” foreign-policy channel for Ukraine “unaccountable to Congress” involving Giuliani; millionaire donor turned Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who claimed a mandate from Trump himself; since-fired Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker; Mulvaney; and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Sondland, who has flailed under the pressure of the inquiry, initially denied seeking any quid pro quo before reversing himself and stating that he told Zelensky aides that “resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
Little of that has diminished loyalty to Trump from Hill Republicans. They have attempted to reframe the impeachment inquiry around process concerns, like the secrecy of the depositions, that they consider unfair to Trump, or to impugn and even expose the CIA official who became a whistleblower after hearing of the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call. At Tuesday’s hearing, the senior Republican on the intelligence committee called impeachment a “carefully orchestrated media smear campaign” emerging from a “cult-like atmosphere” from credibility-drained Democrats who launch “absurd accusations.”
That Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes (CA), who has long alleged a conspiracy against Trump within the federal bureaucracy, said moments before the two diplomats testified that “the FBI, Department of Justice, and now the State Dept has lost the confidence of millions of Americans.”
In questioning the witnesses, Nunes and Republican counsel Steve Castor pointed to former Ukranian officials who expressed displeasure with Trump in 2016. Nunes derided Kent and Taylor for being “remarkably uninformed” over GOP allegations that Ukraine interfered on the Democrats’ behalf in the 2016 election. U.S. intelligence has made no such assessment and instead in January 2017 concluded that Russia interfered in the election. Taylor responded that the context for Ukranian displeasure with Trump was Trump’s “amazingly inflammatory” comments suggesting Russia be permitted to keep the Crimean peninsula it invaded and occupied.
Castor also raised repeated questions about Hunter Biden’s qualifications to serve on the board of Burisma—if he spoke Ukrainian, if he moved to Ukraine, if he had business experience—even as Kent and Taylor professed they did not know. "Does he possess any other elements other than he is the son of the sitting vice president?" asked Castor.
The witnesses’ response to these questions was consistent: “No knowledge.”
In his earlier testimony, Taylor said he actively resisted the Volker-Sondland-Giuliani pressure campaign, which he called an “irregular, informal channel of U.S. policymaking.” Texts released last month showed Taylor telling Volker and Sondland that freezing the Ukraine aid, which he learned about in July, was a “nightmare scenario” undermining the U.S. national interest to promote Trump’s parochial interest.
During a different line of questioning, Castor suggested that the Volker-Sondland-Giuliani “irregular channel” was diplomatically banal, asking witnesses if it was “not as outlandish as it could be.”
Taylor replied that “it’s a little unusual for the U.S. ambassador to the EU to be involved in Ukraine policy… I was concerned when the irregular channel appeared to be going against the overall direction of, and purpose of, the regular channel.”
At the onset of the hearing, Republicans tried to disrupt the flow of the hearing from the get-go with attempts to get their whistleblower-focused arguments on the board. Several GOP lawmakers peppered Schiff with requests to subpoena the whistleblower for private testimony, for example, while others asked why he didn’t accept all of their requested witnesses. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) made a point of order to insist that Schiff knew the identity of the whistleblower, which he argued was unfair.
“I do not know the identity of the whistleblower,” responded Schiff. An audible chuckle arose from the audience—from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a top ally of the president’s.
Earlier depositions—which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted to block—made clear the contours of Kent’s and Volker’s testimonies.
Kent told investigators of his alarm over Giuliani’s outreach to discredited Ukrainian prosecutors-general Viktor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko, as well as his frustration that senior State Department officials did not defend Yovanovitch against a smear campaign that untruthfully claimed she ordered Shokin not to prosecute Democratic-aligned officials. Asked if it was appropriate for Trump to request investigations of his rivals, Kent had told the inquiry, “I don’t think that as a matter of policy the U.S. should do that, period, because I have spent much of my career trying to improve the rule of law.”
Five days before the Trump-Zelensky call, with the military aid frozen, Taylor said in his deposition that “Ambassador Sondland told me that he had recommended to President Zelensky that he use the phrase, ‘I will leave no stone unturned’ with regard to investigations when President Zelensky spoke with President Trump.”
Some Democrats sought to frame these hearings as just one step in a careful process to determine whether or not to impeach the president. But the atmosphere in the hearing room was far from ho-hum: Before Schiff gaveled in, members of the Intelligence Committee filed into perhaps the most palatial hearing room in the House, greeted by dozens of cameras and dozens of reporters.
In the audience, 70 seats were reserved for members of Congress to come to observe the hearing. Present in the peanut gallery when the hearing kicked off were a handful of lawmakers, a group that included some of Trump’s staunchest allies on the Hill—such as Meadows—and a smattering of Democrats, including one freshman, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who came into office this year vowing to “impeach the motherfucker.”
While the hearing room remained largely calm, outside the room on the first floor of the Longworth House Office Building was a hive of activity.
Reporters swarmed the hallways, passing off boxes of Potbelly and Panera sandwiches. They took bites of the ham, turkey, and veggie deluxe in between television hits and interviews.
Members of the public stood in line behind a barricade of the front door of the hearing room, antsy to get their first glimpse of Kent and Taylor and the lawmakers peppering them with questions about Ukraine and President Trump.
Very few lawmakers left the room—only a few to go to the bathroom. The member door to the hearing was heavily guarded and press directors for the committees steered reporters six feet to either side of the exit.
The appearance of Congressman Meadows created an immediate press gaggle, which he used to tick through old talking points, debunked conspiracy, and a defense of Trump.
“The president obviously at that particular time was looking at a defense for the 2016 election charges, that’s why Rudy Giuliani got involved,” he said.
Additional reporting Erin Banco