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‘The instructions are coming from the president’

Impeachment investigators are shifting their gaze away from the byzantine halls of the State Department and into the Oval Office.

Aided by an explosive new piece of evidence from a veteran ambassador, House Democrats spent their first public impeachment hearing Wednesday putting President Donald Trump’s words and actions on trial in a more concerted way than ever before.

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In doing so, they tried to set aside — at least temporarily — the complex, below-the-surface details of the shadow diplomacy led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani that roiled the upper ranks of the administration.

The strategy underscores that Democrats believe their best case to Americans is the one that puts Trump — rather than anonymous bureaucrats and State Department lifers — at the center of the action.

Zeroing in on the president’s movements, no matter how much his most senior allies have sought to shield them from the impeachment probe, makes it easier for Democrats to make their case that Trump should become the third president in U.S. history to be impeached.

Their effort to focus on Trump received a major boost when William Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, delivered damning new evidence to lawmakers.

A day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — during which Trump pressed his counterpart to launch investigations into his political rivals, including Joe Biden — a close aide overheard Trump asking another diplomat about the status of his desired investigations, Taylor said.

“This is obviously very important because there is an effort apparently to, by the president’s allies, … throw anybody under the bus in an effort to protect the president. But what this call indicates, as other testimony has likewise indicated, is that the instructions are coming from the president on down,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Wednesday after Taylor and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of State, testified for more than five hours.

Taylor testified that his aide overheard Trump asking Gordon Sondland — the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a top donor to Trump’s presidential campaign — about “the investigations” during a phone call. According to Taylor, the aide said Sondland responded to the president by indicating the Ukrainians were ready to move forward with the investigations.

“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” Taylor added. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”

Schiff, the lead impeachment investigator, later asked Taylor whether he understood Sondland’s response to mean that Trump cares more about the Biden probes than he does about Ukraine.

“Yes, sir,” Taylor responded.

The exchange was among the hearing’s most powerful moments — in part because it was a brand-new development — and it punctuated Democrats’ efforts to keep the camera on Trump.

But even before Wednesday’s revelation, Democrats believed they had enough evidence to connect Trump to the behind-the-scenes effort — and they spent the hearing hammering on those examples.

Lawmakers pointed to Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky, during which Trump asked his counterpart for a “favor” and mentioned Biden specifically.

They have also noted Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff who takes his orders straight from Trump, admitted during an Oct. 17 news conference that $ 400 million in military aid was conditioned on Ukraine launching Trump’s preferred investigations. Mulvaney later walked back those remarks.

And Democrats are set to bring in Sondland himself on next Wednesday and ask him on national television about his direct conversations with Trump — which Sondland now says he views as part of an effort by Trump to withhold Ukraine’s military aid unless the country launched investigations targeting Trump’s political rivals.

Even the areas in which Democrats lack evidence became a chance to connect Trump directly to their impeachment case. While Republicans hammered them for relying on second- and third-hand evidence from witnesses — other than Sondland — who weren’t in the room with Trump, Democrats reminded them that Trump has directly blocked most witnesses with firsthand evidence, including Mulvaney, from testifying.

Trump was pressed about the Sondland call as he stood alongside Turkey’s president at the White House on Wednesday. Trump told reporters he knows “nothing about that” and said it was the “first time” he was hearing about it.

Democrats will test that denial almost immediately.

State Department official David Holmes is scheduled to appear Friday for a closed-door deposition, a sign Taylor’s evidence has breathed new life into Democrat’s fact-finding investigation, even as the public sales pitch has begun. A source familiar with the matter told POLITICO that Holmes is the aide who overheard the conversation between Trump and Sondland.

And Sondland himself will be able to speak to the phone call when he testifies next week. His lawyer declined to comment on Taylor’s testimony, adding only that his client plans to address the issue when he returns to the Capitol.


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