By Jennifer Haberkorn and Evan Halper
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Historic public impeachment proceedings got underway Wednesday, as career diplomats delivered solemn testimony about the Trump administration’s alleged misconduct in Ukraine that they found bewildering and at odds with U.S. interests.
As they described a scheme by administration officials and President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to pressure the Eastern European nation’s president to launch investigations against Democrats that would help Trump in 2020, GOP lawmakers worked to undermine the legitimacy of the hearings.
The stark divide — in Congress and among the broader electorate — over Trump’s alleged misdeeds was on full display in the House hearing room. The committee members snapped at one another about the way Democrats are managing the proceedings and their decision to shield an anonymous whistleblower from public hearings.
As they did, the invited witnesses girded for a rough day.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., kicked off the hearing by expressing concern at Trump’s admonishment that Democrats should drop the hearings.
“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 a comment last month by Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
“Is that what Americans should now expect from their president?” Schiff said. “If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?”
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, objected to how Democrats were running the impeachment inquiry.
“This is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign,” he said.
The dismissive posture of the GOP — toward Democrats and the witnesses — stood in contrast to the weighty testimony presented in opening statements by the diplomats, who outlined how the White House leveraged its power over a small nation to score political points at home.
“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.”
His opening remarks were followed by those of William B. Taylor, the top U.S. official in Ukraine who had previously outlined for investigators a shadow diplomacy effort in Ukraine led by Trump loyalists looking for political dirt. He recalled the text message he sent after learning that $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.” And Taylor also recalled sitting in “astonishment” when he first learned in a security briefing that the assistance had been put on hold.
Taylor also revealed some of the only new information that emerged Wednesday, involving Trump’s ongoing eagerness for Ukraine to open the investigations.
Taylor recounted that a member of his staff overheard Trump ask Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, about “the investigations” during a July 26 telephone conversation, overheard by the staffer. It was the day after Trump personally pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son and false allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
The staff member, who was not identified by Taylor, then asked Sondland about the call.
“Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said.
Taylor told lawmakers that he did not know of the incident when he gave a sworn deposition on Oct. 22.
The comment as relayed by Taylor is secondhand — a point that Republicans are likely to make to try to undermine it. But it will probably also 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.
Even in this era of political chaos and theatrics in Washington, Wednesday stood out for the intensity of the drama and what was at stake. Democrats were for the first time televising their case before a nation largely unfamiliar with the detailed evidence.
It was only the fourth time in the history of America that impeachment proceedings have been brought against a president. Trump started the day with a signature string of angry tweets, accusing Democrats of a “witch hunt” and the day’s witnesses — who had notched years of service under Republican administrations — of being aligned with the “never Trump” movement. Both witnesses are career diplomats who have worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
At the center of the inquiry is the pressure Trump put on Zelenskiy to publicly launch an investigation into the Ukrainian business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter, during the Obama administration. As Trump and his surrogates demanded the investigation, the Trump administration withheld nearly $400 million in aid and delayed scheduling an Oval Office meeting Zelenskiy desperately sought.
The high stakes of the moment were top of mind on both sides of the aisle. A persuasive performance by Democrats on live television held the promise of pushing the large swath of voters currently undecided on impeachment into their corner. Such a shifting of public opinion would intensify pressure on GOP lawmakers to break with the White House.
Public airing of evidence loomed large in shifting voter opinions in the impeachment proceedings of both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
Among the most damning witnesses Democrats have in their arsenal is Taylor, a Vietnam veteran who was first appointed ambassador to Ukraine by George W. Bush. He had threatened to resign over the White House pursuit of political dirt, warning it would embolden Russia. The West Point graduate took copious notes of everything he observed in Ukraine in a little green notebook.
Taylor’s background with the GOP makes it difficult for Republicans to brand him a tool of the Democrats.
“I am not here to take one side or the other,” Taylor said Wednesday. “Or to advocate for any particular outcome. … I am nonpartisan and have been appointed to my position by every president from President Reagan to President Trump.”