The impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump will enter a new public phase on Wednesday as two career diplomats testify before Congress in a televised hearing that Democrats hope will convince Americans that the US president is not fit for office.
William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a senior state department official specialising in eastern Europe, will appear before the House intelligence committee in a session chaired by Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who has become the de facto leader of the impeachment probe. The session is set to start at 10am EST, and is expected to finish between 5pm and 6pm.
The inquiry — the fourth such action against a US president — was triggered by a complaint from a whistleblower who alleged that in a July 25 phone call, Mr Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on former US vice-president Joe Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
House Democrats have pinned their hopes on Mr Taylor, a West Point graduate who has reportedly maintained detailed notes of his tenure in Kyiv, being a star witness. The diplomat has been the US chargé d’affaires to Ukraine since June, after Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador in Kyiv, was abruptly removed from her post. Ms Yovanovitch will testify in a second public hearing on Friday.
In his closed-door deposition last month, Mr Taylor said the release of US military aid to Ukraine earlier this year had been contingent on Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, publicly opening an investigation into the Biden family as well as alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
In a text message to Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU, on September 8 — which was published by the committees leading the impeachment inquiry — Mr Taylor said: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Mr Kent, a senior state department official specialising in Ukraine, testified in a separate closed-door deposition that Mr Taylor told him Mr Trump wanted “nothing less” than Mr Zelensky “to go to the microphone and say, ‘investigation,’ ‘Biden’ and ‘Clinton’”.
Recent opinion polls have shown a modest increase in support for impeaching Mr Trump. The latest average from the website Real Clear Politics shows 48.5 per cent of Americans support impeaching Mr Trump and removing him from office, with 45.7 per cent opposed.
The House intelligence, oversight and foreign affairs committees have interviewed more than a dozen witnesses behind closed doors since Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the Democratic-controlled House, opened the impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump in late September.
The committees began publishing transcripts of depositions last week, after the House voted in favour of a resolution to open the public phase of the investigation. The resolution passed on party lines, supported by all but two Democrats and opposed by nearly all 197 Republicans.
Mr Schiff has drawn ire from Republicans, including Mr Trump, who have accused him of leading a partisan “witch hunt” against the president. Republicans were present at all the closed-door depositions and given the same time as Democrats to ask questions.
Wednesday’s hearing is expected to start with questioning split among Mr Schiff, the Republican ranking member Devin Nunes and committee staffers. Junior members of the committee will then be given five minutes each to question the witnesses.
In a letter to fellow members of Congress on Tuesday, Mr Schiff said: “We intend to conduct these hearings with the seriousness and professionalism the public deserves. The process will be fair to the president, the committee members and the witnesses.
“Above all, these hearings are intended to bring the facts to light for the American people,” he added.
Mr Schiff said in Tuesday’s letter that more public hearings would be announced later this week. Live televised hearings were central in House Democrats’ efforts to build a case against Richard Nixon in the Watergate era. Mr Nixon ultimately resigned before he could be impeached.
The impeachment process is expected to eventually move from the intelligence committee to the House judiciary committee, which will draft articles of impeachment to be voted on by the entire House.
While Mr Trump is expected to be impeached in the Democrat-controlled House, Republicans on Capitol Hill say it remains unlikely he will be removed from office following a subsequent trial in the Senate. More than 20 Republican senators would have to vote to convict the president in order for him to be removed from office.