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Taylor reveals depth of Trump’s obsession with Biden: Impeachment hearing highlights

Two of the most important witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry are testifying Wednesday, marking the first time the public has heard directly from the diplomats in Democrats’ effort to remove President Donald Trump from office.

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, are testifying about Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine’s president to investigate political rivals in exchange for military aid and a coveted White House meeting.

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Taylor, in damning closed-door testimony, linked the president directly to the quid pro quo at the heart of the Democrats’ impeachment probe. Kent previously told investigators that he was uneasy with attempts by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to influence Ukraine policy and smear the now-ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

Check back for updates. We’ll post the most important revelations here.

New revelations from William Taylor

U.S. diplomat William Taylor’s opening statement contained some startling new information he said he’d learned just last Friday from a member of his staff.

The staffer was with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in Kyiv on July 26. That was the day after President Donald Trump held a key call with his Ukrainian counterpart. According to Taylor, the staffer told him that while at a restaurant, Sondland called Trump.

“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’

Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward,” Taylor recounted. “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.”

Taylor is the diplomat now in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

Jordan accuses Schiff of knowing who the whistleblower is

Rep. Jim Jordan, a strident ally of the president and long a congressional attack dog for Trump, quickly made a splash in Wednesday’s hearing after being subbed in on the committee.

Jordan accused Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of knowing the identity of the Ukraine whistleblower whose complaint kicked off the series of events leading to the impeachment inquiry. Republicans and Trump allies have repeatedly sought to unmask the whistleblower, despite nearly every allegation in the complaint having been corroborated elsewhere.

“You are the only member who knows who that individual is. Your staff is the only staff of any member of Congress that’s had a chance to talk with that individual,” Jordan alleged, demanding to know when Republicans would have the chance to speak with the whistleblower.

“First, as the gentleman knows, that’s a false statement,” Schiff shot back, noting that he too was unaware of the whistleblower’s identity and would work to keep it protected.

The New York Times reported that the whistleblower approached an aide for the Intelligence Committee seeking guidance about their concerns. The aide advised the person to file an official complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, which the whistleblower did. While the committee aide shared some of what the whistleblower said with Schiff, the aide did not reveal the whistleblower’s identity, the Times reported.

Republicans take their first shot at the witnesses

When it came time for Rep. Devin Nunes to take his first pass at questioning the witnesses, the congressman bombarded Taylor with a catalog of conservative buzzwords often employed to rebut the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry.

The top-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee mentioned Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee and Fusion GPS — as well as unfounded charges of Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election and former President Barack Obama’s request of Russia’s president in 2012 for “flexibility” until after his re-election campaign.

After Nunes yielded his time, Schiff and some GOP members on the panel engaged in a brief scuffle over House rules.

GOP counsel zeroes in on Hunter Biden

Steve Castor, the committee’s minority counsel, queried Taylor about Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine, and attempted to cast the president’s negative perception of the country’s leadership as justified.

Castor cited a May 23 meeting in the Oval Office that Taylor detailed in his deposition, during which Trump “was skeptical” of Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s new administration.

“You certainly can appreciate that President Trump was very concerned that some elements of the Ukrainian establishment were not in favor of him, did not support him and were out to get him?” Castor asked Taylor.

The GOP attorney also repeatedly invoked Hunter Biden and his role with Burisma, the Ukrainian energy firm, querying the diplomats on whether the former vice president’s son was qualified to serve on the company’s board.

For the most part, Taylor and Kent said they knew little about Biden. Castor’s likely intent, however, was to promote the idea that Trump had a legitimate concern about Biden and allegations of corruption in Ukraine. (There’s no evidence either Hunter or Joe Biden acted inappropriately.)

‘It’s not as outlandish as it could be’

While the GOP’s counsel may not have elicited any testimony that threatens to completely unwind Democrats’ case for impeachment, he did elicit a response from Taylor that Twitter quickly latched onto as a concise summary of the chaos of the Trump presidency.

During a line of questioning about what Taylor has described as an “irregular,” supplemental channel of U.S. policymaking toward Ukraine, Castor sought to suss out why Taylor felt the group was inappropriate, laying out the main characters in the so-called irregular channel, including the former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker, Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Of Volker, Castor began, “in fairness, this irregular channel of diplomacy, it’s not as outlandish as it could be, is that correct?”

“It’s not as outlandish as it could be,” Taylor responded with a laugh. “I agree with that.”

Never Trumpers?

Prior to the hearing, the president tweeted out “NEVER TRUMPERS!” in an apparent attack on the two diplomats testifying.

So Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell asked both Kent and Taylor if they were, indeed Never Trumpers.

Kent said he was a career professional who’d served in government under three Republican presidents and two Democratic ones for 27 years.

Taylor was more blunt. “No, sir,” he said.

How Russia wins

It’s the bear in the room: Russia.

Over and over, Democrats as well as the two U.S. diplomats testifying Wednesday bring up Moscow and how the Kremlin is poised to benefit on a weakening of U.S.-Ukrainian relations.

Taylor in particular spent significant time describing how crucial it is for Washington to keep sending military aid to Ukraine, saying the European country is “on the front line” of the global competition between America and Russia. Schiff began his opening statement by talking about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

IMPEACHMENT TODAY

The historic sprint toward the impeachment of President Trump began today with the public testimony of diplomats William Taylor and George Kent.

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Republicans raised Russia too, but in a different context. Nunes blasted what he said was the “hoax” that Trump conspired with Moscow to win the 2016 election.

Taylor: For Trump, Ukraine wasn’t just business

Trump administration officials use the excuse frequently (and usually privately): Donald Trump is a businessman, and that’s how he approaches everything, even foreign policy.

On Wednesday, Democrats delved into this idea as they questioned U.S. diplomat William Taylor about his conversations with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Taylor repeated his earlier testimony that Sondland had explained to him that Trump wasn’t going to give Ukraine things they needed, including military aid, if they didn’t do something for him. It’s how businessmen think, said Sondland — himself a hotel owner who was given an ambassadorship after donating $ 1 million to Trump’s inauguration.

But it became clear that when it came to Ukraine, it wasn’t just about business, Taylor added. Trump, who apparently suspects Ukraine tried to undermine him in the 2016 election, “had a feeling of having been wronged by the Ukrainians.”

And “investigating Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden, “was something they’d owed him to fix that wrong,” Taylor said.

Taylor describes John Bolton’s fears of “drug deal”

Taylor elaborated on one of the more memorable lines of dialogue to emerge from the House impeachment depositions — former national security adviser John Bolton’s reported description of a “drug deal” pursued by administration officials seeking Ukrainian probes that would be politically advantageous for Trump.

The comment from Bolton came after a White House meeting on July 10 between American and Ukrainian officials that included his counterpart Alexander Danyliuk, the national security adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Taylor testified that the officials engaged in a “very substantive” conversation until Sondland “intervened to talk about the investigations.” It was then that Bolton “ceased the meeting, closed the meeting, finished the meeting, and told his staff to report this meeting to the lawyers.”

Taylor said Bolton later told Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official, that he “didn’t want to be associated with this drug deal. So it was — the implication was it was the domestic politics that was being cooked up.”

George Kent says he raised Hunter Biden’s Burisma board seat with VP’s office

Kent described in his opening statement his communications regarding Burisma, the controversial Ukrainian energy firm whose board employed Hunter Biden.

Kent testified that he questioned Ukraine’s deputy prosecutor general in early 2015 as to why the investigation into the company’s owner had been terminated.

After Kent later “became aware” that Hunter Biden sat on Burisma’s board, he participated in a briefing call in February 2015 with the national security staff in then-Vice President Joe Biden’s office.

“I raised my concern that Hunter Biden’s status as board member could create the perception of a conflict of interest,” Kent said, but emphasized that he “did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny.”

In fact, Kent said he and other U.S. officials “consistently advocated reinstituting” the Burisma probe, “as well as holding the corrupt prosecutors who closed the case to account.”

Kent lays out Giuliani’s ‘campaign to smear’

In his prepared opening remarks before lawmakers, Kent swatted at Rudy Giuliani, describing for the first time in a public forum the efforts by Trump’s personal attorney and his associates “to run a campaign to smear” high-level diplomats in Kiev.

Kent testified that Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman sought to oust Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and said that “corrupt former prosecutors” in the Eastern European nation — including Victor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko — were also “peddling false information in order to exact revenge against those who had exposed their misconduct.” Parnas and Fruman are under indictment on campaign finance charges.

Kent “became alarmed” during the late spring and summer of 2019 as those efforts “bore fruit,” and by mid-August, he said “it became clear … that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically-motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting.”

Kent concluded his statement with a forceful defense of his “fellow public servants who have come under personal attack” and who have also sat for depositions with House impeachment investigators: Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former National Security Council official Fiona Hill.

“Masha, Alex, and Fiona were born abroad before their families or they themselves personally chose to immigrate to the United States,” Kent said. “They all made the professional choice to serve the United States as public officials, helping shape our national security policy, towards Russia in particular. And we and our national security are the better for it.”

Schiff lays out the case against Trump

Schiff delivered a sweeping opening statement to kick off the first public impeachment hearing, laying out the key events in the inquiry while also addressing what are sure to be the key counterarguments from Republicans.

The former prosecutor’s methodical remarks laid out the chronological narrative of the Ukraine scandal thus far. He neglected the kind of rhetorical embellishments he employed — and which got him into hot water — when the rough transcript of President Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was first released, sticking to quoting witnesses’ closed door testimony verbatim.

Schiff underscored Democrats’ chief strategy for the hearings set to unfold over the next week: Arguing that the president abused his power while keeping the proceedings simple and digestible enough to convince the public.

“The matter is as simple, and as terrible as that,” Schiff said. “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.”

Schiff’s narrative opening remarks were similar to those he made at the beginning of the first hearings about Russian election interference in 2017. Schiff also sought to shoot down Republican assertions that the conduct of the president was, in fact, impeachable, swiping at the White House’s attempts to stonewall the investigation and Republicans’ refusal to condemn it.

“If the President can simply refuse all oversight, particularly in the context of an impeachment proceeding, the balance of power between our two branches of government will be irrevocably altered,” Schiff contended. He also attempted to head off GOP arguments that the existence of a quid pro quo was irrelevant because the allegations that Trump looked to extort Ukraine ultimately did not pan out because the withheld aid was eventually released.

“A scheme to condition official acts or taxpayer funding to obtain a personal political benefit does not become less odious because it is discovered before it is fully consummated,” he noted.

Nunes calls career diplomats testifying part of a “politicized bureaucracy”

“Cult-like.” “Star Chamber.” “Impeachment sham.”

Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, made it clear right out of the gate Wednesday that the GOP’s defense of President Donald Trump will focus largely on attacking the impeachment process while questioning the very basis of its substance.

Nunes described the hearings as merely a continuation of the “Russia hoax” — his description of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign had conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. Mueller wasn’t able to establish such a conspiracy.

Nunes said the process had been one-sided and unfair to Republicans. He said the witnesses had been chosen after a “closed-door audition process in a cult-like atmosphere.” He also blasted the Democrats for what he described as selective leaks and an unwillingness to look into claims that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election.

Nunes also complained that Republicans were told they could not call witnesses such as Hunter Biden, the son of former vice president Joe Biden, whose employment by a Ukrainian energy company grabbed Trump’s attention.

Toward the end of his opening statement, Nunes insulted the career diplomats testifying Wednesday as being part of a “politicized bureaucracy.” He congratulated them for “passing the Democrats’ Star Chamber auditions.”


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