WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time a top diplomat testified Wednesday that President Donald Trump was overheard asking about “the investigations” he wanted Ukraine to pursue that are central to the impeachment inquiry.
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, revealed the new information as the House Intelligence Committee opened extraordinary hearings on whether the 45th president of the United States should be removed from office.
Taylor said his staff recently told him they overheard Trump when they were meeting with another diplomat, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with the new leader of Ukraine that sparked the impeachment investigation.
The staff explained that Sondland had called the president and they could hear Trump on the phone asking about “the investigations.” The ambassador told the president the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Taylor testified.
Not inappropriate, let alone impeachable, countered the intelligence panel’s top Republican, Devin Nunes of California.
Trump “would have a perfectly good reason for wanting to find out what happened” if there were indications that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 presidential election, he said.
National security officials have told Congress they don’t believe Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.
The hearing Wednesday was the first public session of the impeachment inquiry, a remarkable moment, even for a White House full of them.
It’s the first chance for America, and the rest of the world, to see and hear for themselves about Trump’s actions toward Ukraine and consider whether they are, in fact, impeachable offenses.
An anonymous whistleblower’s complaint to the intelligence community’s inspector general — including that Trump had pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate Democratic foe Joe Biden and Bidens’ son and was holding up U.S. military aid — ignited the rare inquiry now unfolding in Congress.
The country has been here only three times before, and never against the 21st century backdrop of real-time commentary, including from the Republican president himself. The proceedings were being broadcast live, and on social media, from a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill.
The session unfolded in measured, quietly dramatic tones. Taylor, a former Army infantry leader, his voice weathered after a 50-year career in foreign service, paused for sips of water during what he acknowledged was a lengthy recitation of facts. It took 40 minutes.
The scene, with Republican questioning still to come, was offering the credibility that Democrats wanted to set the stage and sway public opinions, but Trump still offered counter-programming.
Moments after the hearings began, his reelection machine sent out an email blast: “FAKE IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS HAVE BEGUN! ... I WANT TO RAISE 3 MILLION DOLLARS IN THE NEXT 24 HOURS.”
At the start, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, outlined the question at the core of the impeachment inquiry -- whether the president used his office to pressure Ukraine officials for personal political gain.
“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” said Schiff of California. “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.”
Republicans lawmakers immediately pushed Democrats to hear in closed session from the anonymous whistleblower.
Schiff denied the request at the time but said it would be considered later.
“We will do everything necessary to protect the whistleblower’s identity,” Schiff declared.
Rep. Nunes, the committee’s top Republican, accused the Democratic majority of conducting a “scorched earth” effort to take down the president after the special counsel’s Russia investigation into the 2016 election failed to spark impeachment proceedings.
“We’re supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out new allegations?” said Nunes, a top Trump ally. He derided what he called the “cult-like atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol” where investigators have been interviewing witnesses behind closed doors for weeks. Transcripts of those interviews have been released.
Nunes called the Ukraine matter a “low rent” sequel to the Russia probe. “Democrats are advancing their impeachment sham,” he said.
Both Taylor and the other public witness, George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, defied White House instructions not to testify. They both received subpoenas to appear.