(Bloomberg) -- An explosive, previously unknown account of President Donald Trump stressing his desire for Ukraine to investigate a political rival marked the opening hearing of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, as Republicans gave speeches dismissing the testimony as irrelevant hearsay.
William Taylor, the U.S. envoy to Ukraine, disclosed that a U.S. embassy staffer said he overheard Trump in a July phone conversation personally asking about “investigations.” That could be the most direct evidence yet that the president was focused on pressuring Kyiv to launch a politically motivated investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Seeking to obtain that staffer’s story first-hand, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee invited David Holmes, the U.S. political counselor in Ukraine, to testify in private on Friday. A House official confirmed that Holmes is the staff member who overheard Trump’s call with a top U.S. diplomat.
Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said the phone call shows that “instructions are coming from the president on down.”
Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that he didn’t recall having the phone conversation that Taylor said the aide overheard. “I know nothing about that,” Trump said.
Taylor and George Kent, another State Department official, described coming to the realization in recent months that Trump’s allies were leading a “highly irregular” channel of parallel diplomacy that diverged from established U.S. policy approved by Congress.
Taylor said the call overheard by Holmes came the day after Trump spoke with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 25. The diplomat said when he gave his private deposition he wasn’t aware of the later call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
“The member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” Taylor testified. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”
Taylor had already testified that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was part of an “irregular, informal channel” for U.S. policy regarding Ukraine, which also included Sondland.
The account contradicts Sondland’s closed-door testimony to the impeachment inquiry. Sondland, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, said he hadn’t known until after August about the pressure to investigate Biden and his son’s involvement with Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings while the Trump administration was withholding aid to Ukraine.
The statements from Wednesday’s witnesses are central to Democrats’ case that Trump pressured Zelenskiy to conduct investigations targeting Biden, a potential 2020 challenger to the president, as well as a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
While Taylor’s new testimony offers potentially damaging information indicating the president’s direct involvement in a pressure campaign against Ukraine, it comes from second-hand knowledge, a point that Republicans have hammered home as they defend Trump.
“Taylor is telling us about a conversation he had with someone who supposedly overheard a conversation,” Representative Mark Meadows, a close Trump ally, said outside the hearing room.
Republicans also argued that Trump could not have demanded a quid pro quo since the aid was eventually released and Zelenskiy did not order the investigations.
“You had a clear understanding that aid will not get released unless there was a commitment” by Ukraine to conduct investigations,” GOP Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio said to Taylor. “Those two things didn’t happen, so you had to be wrong.”
Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, described his shock when he was informed on July 18 that the president, through acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, ordered a hold on assistance to Ukraine. That realization came a week before a telephone call between Trump and Zelenskiy that has become a central focus of the House impeachment inquiry.
“I and others sat in astonishment -- the Ukrainians were fighting the Russians and counted on not only the training and weapons, but also the assurance of U.S. support,” Taylor said. “In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened.”
Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, testified that Giuliani was working with corrupt Ukrainians and their proxies to attack U.S. diplomats as well as to pressure Zelenskiy.
“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 Zelenskiy’s desire for a White House meeting,” Kent said.
Kent testified that the pressure point for Ukraine was a White House meeting for Zelenskiy, as well as aid that had been approved by Congress but delayed by the Trump administration.
Kent said countries want White House meetings because that is “the ultimate sign of endorsement and support” from the U.S.
Taylor called the withholding of aid “alarming,” because it undermines Ukraine’s negotiating position and war effort against Russia, which annexed Crimea and is backing separatists fighting the government in Kyiv.
Russians “are looking for any sign of weakness” in U.S. support for Ukraine, Taylor said.
The aid was released Sept. 11, following questions to the president from Republicans in Congress and days after lawyers for a whistle-blower who raised concerns about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s president informed the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees that the intelligence community’s inspector general didn’t intend to send the complaint to Congress.
‘Conflict of Interest’
The two witnesses were questioned closely by the lead counsel for Republicans about what they knew about Hunter Biden’s work on Burisma’s board and the actions by the former vice president to press Ukraine on corruption. Both said they knew little about Hunter Biden or his work.
Kent said he became aware that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma, and in February 2015 raised the concern with national security staff in the Office of the Vice President “that Hunter Biden’s status as a board member could create a perception of a conflict of interest.”
“Let me be clear, however, I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny,” he said. In fact, he said he and other officials have consistently advocated reinstituting a scuttled investigation into Burisma’s founder, and “the corrupt prosecutors who closed the case to account.”
Schiff opened the hearing by laying out a case he said would show a serious abuse of power by Trump in which the president sought to exploit an ally’s vulnerability to Russian aggression and aid his re-election campaign.
“The facts in the present inquiry are not seriously contested,” Schiff said as he presented a timeline of events at the center of the investigation. “Is that what Americans should now expect from their president? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?”
was followed by Representative Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, who countered by characterizing the Democratic-led impeachment effort as part of “a scorched earth war against President Trump” and a made-for-TV spectacle.
Nunes called the hearings an extension of previous Democratic attempts to politically damage Trump. He said it started with the investigation into Russian election interference that has turned into “a three-year-long operation by the Democrats, the corrupt media, and partisan bureaucrats to overturn the results of the 2016 presidential election.”
Even as public hearings continue, the committees leading the investigation have invited two additional officials to testify behind closed doors. In addition to Holmes, requested to appear on Friday, Mark Sandy, the associate director for national security programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget, was invited for Saturday, an official said.
On Friday, former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed from her post in May, is set to testify at an open hearing. She is expected to recount a pressure campaign spearheaded by Giuliani that led to her ouster.
Schiff has announced that eight more witnesses would appear at open hearings before the committee next week, starting on Tuesday. Three of them -- Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker; David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs; and Tim Morrison, who served on the National Security Council -- were among the witnesses requested by House Republicans, though all have given depositions that were sought by Democrats.
Schiff’s list did not include others that the GOP wanted, including Hunter Biden and the whistle-blower who first raised concerns about Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine.
--With assistance from Erik Wasson and Evan Sully.
To contact the reporters on this story: Billy House in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at email@example.com
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