In the first public hearing for the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, the House Intelligence Committee heard testimony from George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state, and William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, on Wednesday morning.
The hearings are further examining whether Trump sought to use a foreign power to influence the upcoming 2020 election by withholding critical military assistance to the Ukrainian government in exchange for a Ukrainian investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D. – Mass.) and ranking member Devin Nunes (R. – Calif.) both used staff attorneys — Daniel Goldman for the Democrats, Steve Castor for the Republicans — to conduct the majority of their 45-minute questioning.
Here are five takeaways from Wednesday’s hearing, where Kent and Taylor testified for roughly five and a half hours.
1. “President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden” than about Ukraine
William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, added new information to his testimony regarding a phone call that he said President Donald Trump had with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, one day after his White House call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that sparked the impeachment inquiry.
During the newly disclosed July 26 call, which was overheard by one of Taylor’s staff members, Trump had asked Sondland about the “investigations” — which Taylor said he understood to mean formal inquiries into Burisma Holdings and Hunter Biden for which Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had been advocating.
Based on Taylor’s retelling, the staff member overheard Sondland tell Trump that the “Ukrainians were ready to move forward” with the investigation into Biden and Burisma. “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, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said.
Later, during questioning, Schiff returned to the overheard phone call. “I take it the import of that is he cares more about that [the Biden investigation] than he does about Ukraine?” Schiff asked.
“Yes, sir,” Taylor responded.
2. A tale of two opening statements
Schiff and Nunes began Wednesday’s hearing with widely differing opening statements. Schiff, a Democrat, emphasized the historical significance of the impeachment inquiry’s findings on the future of the American presidency.
“The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit [Ukraine’s] vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference into our elections; whether President Trump sought to condition official acts, such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance; or Ukraine’s willingness to assist in two political investigations that would help his re-election campaign. And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency,” Schiff said. “Our answer to these questions will not only affect 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.”
“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 said later in his statement. “That is not what the founders wanted.”
Nunes, a Republican, in turn cast the impeachment inquiry hearing as a “televised, theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.”
“You’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel,” Nunes said to Kent and Taylor. “This spectacle is doing great damage to our country. It is nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime.”
3. Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to “gin up politically motivated investigations” were “infecting” U.S.-Ukraine relations, Kent says
During his opening statement, Kent said that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was conducting a “campaign to smear” former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and that his efforts to induce a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens was impacting U.S. and Ukraine relations.
“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, leveraging President Zelenskyy’s desire for a White House meeting,” Kent said.
4. Rep. Jim Jordan (R.-Ohio) attacks Taylor’s testimony: “I’ve seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this”
GOP Rep. Jim Jordan scored points by noting that Taylor’s testimony was based in part on second- and third-hand accounts: “Ambassador Taylor recalls that Mr. Morrison told Ambassador Taylor that I told Mr. Morrison that I conveyed this message to Mr. Yermak on Sept. 1, 2019 in connection with Vice President Pence’s visit to Warsaw and a meeting with President Zelensky.”
“We got six people having four conversations in one sentence and you just told me this is where you got your clear understanding,” Jordan said to Taylor at one point. “I’ve seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.”
He scoffed that Taylor, who was not on Trump’s telltale July 25 call with the Ukrainian president, was presented as, in his words, a “star witness” for the Democrats.
5. The White House says Trump wasn’t watching the hearing — but his Twitter feed suggests otherwise
At the same time, Trump’s personal Twitter account began retweeting videos of House Republicans criticizing the inquiry. Grisham also tweeted that the “sham” hearing was “boring.”
During the hearing Trump’s 2020 campaign also sent out an email to supporters:
“The Impeachment Scam hearings begin today! This is a complete Fake Hearing (trial) to interview Never Trumpers and a Pelosi-Schiff SCAM against the Republican Party and me. It’s obvious they hate me, but more importantly, they HATE YOU. The Democrats know they can’t win in 2020, so they want to rip the power from your hands by ERASING your VOTE, ERASING your VOICE, and ERASING your FUTURE! BOTTOM LINE: THIS WITCH HUNT SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO PROCEED. The Radical Left and Lamestream Media are just trying to make it hard for TRUE AMERICANS, including YOUR PRESIDENT, to win in 2020. We can’t let them get away with this.”
Watch Wednesday’s hearing in full above. The next hearing will take place on Friday.