By Evan Halper, Jennifer Haberkorn and Noah Bierman
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Democrats succeeded Wednesday in more directly connecting President Donald Trump to alleged misconduct related to Ukraine as they opened historic public impeachment hearings with two career U.S. diplomats who solemnly testified about watching American policy hijacked for Trump's personal benefit.
The witnesses described a scheme by administration officials and Trump's personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to push Ukraine's president to launch investigations of political opponents that would help the president in the 2020 election. One of them revealed a previously undisclosed cellphone call in which Trump appeared to personally push a senior State Department official to pressure the Eastern European nation.
The witnesses, both of whom have served many years under Republican as well as Democratic presidents, provided compelling testimony, presenting as distinguished public servants driven to sound the alarm out of concern that the Trump administration's hunt for political dirt was undermining U.S. interests.
Selected by Democrats to begin laying out the public case against Trump, the men held their ground throughout questioning that stretched through the day. Republican lawmakers worked to undermine the legitimacy of the hearings and repeatedly noted that neither man had personally spoken with Trump and neither had firsthand knowledge of his motivations.
The stark divide — in Congress and among the broader electorate — over Trump's alleged misdeeds was on full display. The committee members snapped at one another about the way Democrats were managing the proceedings and their decision to shield an anonymous whistleblower from public hearings.
William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified about a shadow diplomacy effort in the country led by Trump loyalists looking to damage the reputation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Taylor recalled a text message he sent after learning that nearly $400 million in sorely needed U.S. aid to Ukraine was being held up until Ukrainian officials agreed to announce the politically motivated investigations that Trump wanted.
"I wrote that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be 'crazy,'" Taylor said. "I believed that then, and I believe it now." Taylor recalled sitting in "astonishment" when he first learned in a security briefing that the assistance had been put on hold.
Taylor also revealed new information about Trump's apparent ongoing eagerness for Ukraine to open the investigations.
He said he learned Friday for the first time about a July 26 cellphone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Taylor testified that he learned about the conversation from a staff member who was at a restaurant with Sondland and could hear Trump's voice coming through the phone.
It was the day after a July 25 call in which Trump personally pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open investigations into Biden and his son Hunter, as well as into debunked allegations that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
The staffer said Sondland phoned Trump to update the president about some meetings with Ukrainians and heard Trump ask Sondland about "the investigations." After the call was over, the staff member, who has been identified by the State Department as David Holmes, then asked Sondland about the conversation.
Taylor said Sondland "responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden" then he does about Ukraine.
Taylor told lawmakers he did not know about the July 26 call when he gave a sworn deposition Oct. 22. Trump told reporters Wednesday that he remembers no such call.
Republicans dismissed Taylor's account as secondhand. But it will put even more heat on Sondland, who has changed his testimony during the course of the investigation and is due to testify publicly Nov. 20. Lawmakers also announced plans to depose Holmes.
The account raised national security concerns since it describes Trump discussing a sensitive matter on a phone line that is unlikely to be protected from spies all over the world. And it reinforces the narrative that Trump freelances on U.S. policy in a way that his predecessors did not, issuing direct orders to a small circle of confidants, bypassing formal diplomatic channels.
Taylor's concerns were echoed by a fellow State Department veteran. "In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani's efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine," said George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department. "I don't believe the U.S. 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."
While the opening hearing enabled Democrats to move the ball forward on impeachment as television cameras rolled, it also highlighted the heavy lift they have before them.
Even as Republican lawmakers struggled during questioning to develop a consistent and coherent defense of the president, there were no signs that anything that transpired in the hearing room had moved any of them to reconsider their loyalty to Trump. The president and his allies taunted the proceedings from outside the hearing room as boring and irrelevant.
Republican counsel Steve Castor, who was tasked with much of the initial questioning, drew criticism from his own GOP colleagues for a sometimes meandering and unhelpful line of inquiry. At one point he challenged Taylor's account of the "irregular channel of diplomacy" that Giuliani led on Trump's behalf by asking: "It is not as outlandish as it could be, is that correct?" The question drew a chuckle from Taylor, who responded that, yes, it could have been even more outlandish.
Some prominent Republicans watching from the outside chafed. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said on Twitter that Castor was "not making a case." But Castor got on firmer footing when quizzing the witnesses about Hunter Biden's position on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma during the Obama administration. Though there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Hunter Biden, the arrangement raised concerns about conflicts of interests, including by Kent at the time.
"My concern was that there was the possibility of a perception of a conflict of interest," Kent said. Pressed later on whether there was ever any evidence of wrongdoing, Kent replied, "None whatsoever."
GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a firebrand who was added to the House Intelligence Committee in recent days in preparation for the impeachment hearings, took aim at those affiliations and at Taylor, mocking his standing as the Democrats' "star witness."
Jordan tried to undercut Taylor's statement that he had a "clear understanding" that security assistance funding would not come until the president of Ukraine committed to an investigation into the Bidens and the 2016 election.
He suggested that the understanding rested on a lengthy exchange among Taylor, Sondland and several other people — not a direct line to the White House or a direct comment from Zelenskiy. Taylor met with Zelenskiy three times during the period in which the aid was held up, and the issue of the aid was not brought up — although it's unclear when Ukrainians learned about the delay, and Taylor testified he didn't believe the Ukrainians knew about the hold at the time of the first two meetings
Jordan said it was surprising that Zelenskiy did not bring up the aid suspension, "even though you have three opportunities with President Zelenskiy for him to tell you ... we're going to do these investigations to get the aid."
Jordan also noted that Taylor was not on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy at the center of the inquiry and had never spoken to Trump or White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
In later questioning, Jordan road-tested a new defense of Trump's withholding of the aid — one that Trump and the GOP had not previously argued. He made the case that withholding aid from Zelenskiy was sound policy, as the White House tried to sort out whether the newly elected president was a true ally in the fight against broader corruption that had plagued Ukraine for years.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-California, succeeded in keeping the hearing on track, without the partisan antics and unceremonious outbursts that have characterized other recent Democratic-led proceedings focused on Trump. He opened what is only the fourth impeachment proceeding ever brought against a U.S. president by distilling the case down to what he argues is its essence.
"If we find that the president of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections, or if he sought to condition, coerce, extort or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection campaign and did so by withholding official acts ... must we simply 'get over it?'" Schiff said, referring to Mulvaney's comment last month at a news conference.
"Is that what Americans should now expect from their president?" Schiff asked. "If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?"
(Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.)
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