WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives opened historic impeachment hearings on Wednesday and heard a senior American diplomat reveal startling new testimony that drew President Trump closer to the center of the effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
In a nationally televised hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee room across from the Capitol, William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, brought to life Democrats’ allegations that Mr. Trump has abused his office by trying to enlist a foreign power to help him in an election. Mr. Taylor testified to the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the inquiry, that he was told in July that Mr. Trump cared more about “investigations of Biden” than he did about Ukraine.
The revelation, as Congress embarked on only the third set of presidential impeachment hearings in modern times, tied Mr. Trump more directly into what Mr. Taylor described in vivid detail as a “highly irregular” effort to place the president’s political interests at the center of American policy toward Ukraine.
“I don’t think President Trump was trying to end corruption in Ukraine,,” said Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, encapsulating Democrats’ case. “I think he was trying to aim corruption in Ukraine at Vice President Biden and at the 2020 election.”
The proceedings pushed into the public gaze an epic clash between Mr. Trump and Democrats over impeachment that has shifted into high gear less than a year before the presidential election. In the first impeachment hearing on Capitol Hill in more than two decades, Mr. Taylor and another veteran diplomat, George P. Kent, sketched out, in testimony by turns cinematic and dry, a tale of foreign policymaking distorted by a president’s political vendettas with a small country facing Russian aggression caught in the middle.
“If this is not impeachable conduct,” demanded Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the committee, “what is?”
Democrats toiled to make their case to a deeply divided nation that Mr. Trump had put the integrity of the 2020 election at risk — by withholding vital security assistance for Ukraine’s war with Russia to try to extract a political advantage for his re-election campaign.
Showing no sign of doubts, Mr. Trump’s Republican defenders raged against an impeachment process they called unfair and illegitimate, dismissing Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent — who between them have 70 years of experience as public servants under presidents of both parties — as part of a “politicized bureaucracy” who were offering nothing more than hearsay and supposition, rather than evidence of impeachable conduct.
“The American people see through all this,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio. “They understand the facts support the president. They understand this process is unfair. And they see through the whole darn sham.”
At the White House, Mr. Trump sought to project an air of confidence in the face of an existential threat to his presidency. Before a working meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Mr. Trump told reporters of the impeachment hearing: “It’s a witch hunt. It’s a hoax. I’m too busy to watch it.”
But even so, Mr. Trump was busy all day retweeting allies commenting on the proceedings and defending him. His re-election campaign blasted out a fund-raising solicitation accusing Democrats of “playing a sick game.” And the Republican National Committee circulated memes making fun of the witnesses as gossips who lacked firsthand information.
Even as the public recitation of facts unfolded in the hearing room, there were signs that Democrats’ investigation was still expanding. Investigators scheduled depositions with David Holmes, an official in the United States Embassy in Kiev, and Mark Sandy of the Office of Management and Budget for Friday and Saturday. According to an official involved in the inquiry, Mr. Holmes was the aide Mr. Taylor referred to in his new testimony, who informed Mr. Taylor about Mr. Trump’s singular interest in investigating the Bidens.
Mr. Taylor said a member of his staff overheard a telephone conversation in which the president mentioned “the investigations” to Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, who told Mr. Trump “that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” The conversation took place just one day after Mr. Trump personally pressed Ukraine’s new president in a phone call to investigate the Bidens and unproven allegations that Ukraine conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 election.
When the staff member inquired after the call what the president thought about Ukraine, Mr. Sondland “responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” in Mr. Taylor’s telling. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, led what Mr. Taylor called a “highly irregular” policymaking channel on Ukraine that ran counter to goals of longstanding American policy.
The episode was not included in Mr. Taylor’s interview with impeachment investigators last month because, he said, he was not aware of it at the time. But the new disclosure promises to figure prominently when Mr. Sondland appears for his own public testimony next week.
The revelation came as Mr. Taylor recounted publicly what he had already told impeachment investigators privately about how he had discovered that Mr. Trump was conditioning “everything” about the United States relationship with Ukraine — including needed military aid and a White House meeting for Ukraine’s president — on the country’s willingness to commit publicly to investigations of his political rivals. His testimony made it clear that the Ukrainians were well aware of the prerequisite at the time.
Asked by a Democratic lawyer if he had ever seen “another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States,” Mr. Taylor, in a deeply sonorous voice that echoed through the hearing room as he delivered his remarks, said: “I have not.”
In his opening statement, Mr. Kent said he had concluded by mid-August that Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to open investigations into Mr. Trump’s rivals “were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting.”
Mr. Kent also assailed what he called a “campaign to smear” American officials serving in Ukraine, which succeeded with the ouster of Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former United States ambassador to Ukraine.
“It was unexpected, and most unfortunate, however, to watch some Americans — including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas — launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine,” Mr. Kent said in his opening statement. “In my opinion, those attacks undermined U.S. and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship.”
The mere presence of Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent before impeachment investigators was exceptional in the annals of modern American history: two active American diplomats testifying against the president of the United States under oath and in defiance of orders from the State Department and the White House.
In personal but understated terms, both men framed their testimony as a continuation of the duty to the United States and its interests around the world that has defined their careers. Mr. Taylor, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, served for decades in high-profile posts in Washington, the Middle East and Kiev under Democrats and Republicans before reluctantly agreeing to return to Ukraine this summer at the request of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Mr. Kent has been a member of the Foreign Service since 1992, including in senior posts in Kiev and as State Department’s senior anti-corruption coordinate for Europe.
Over the coming 10 days, Democrats hope to lay out a case that will capture the public’s attention and convince a majority of Americans that Mr. Trump’s actions are worthy of the Constitution’s gravest reprimand, possible removal from office.
Determined to seize what is plainly their best chance to capture the attention of the American public, Mr. Schiff, the committee’s chairman, laid out the stakes. He invoked the words of Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who defiantly told reporters to “get over it” when questioned about conditioning military aid to Ukraine to investigations Mr. Trump wanted.
“If he sought to condition, coerce, extort or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his re-election campaign, and did so by withholding official acts — a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid — must we simply ‘get over it’?” Mr. Schiff asked. “Is this what Americans should now expect from their president?”
Mr. Schiff gaveled in Wednesday’s hearing exactly 50 days after Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened the impeachment inquiry.
The public hearings marked a turning point for House Democrats from which they are unlikely to turn back. After months of pursuit of Mr. Trump and years of Democratic agony over his flouting of political norms, the Ukraine inquiry now appear to have too much momentum to be turned back short of impeachment, even if it means muscling through a partisan vote akin to Republicans’ impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Indeed, whether the inquiry has any chance of penetrating the intense partisan polarization that has gripped the country in recent years remains the central question for Democrats and Mr. Trump. Public polling suggests a slight majority of the country supports the inquiry, but Democratic leaders privately concede that given Mr. Trump’s fervent base of support, almost no scenario could tip the country against Mr. Trump more decisively.
The inquiry, which has produced a rapid succession of disclosures in the past seven weeks, may only accelerate from here. The Intelligence Committee has scheduled another public hearing for Friday with Ms. Yovanovitch, and will hear testimony from eight more witnesses next week, including several requested by Republicans.
By the time lawmakers leave for a weeklong Thanksgiving recess, staff for the Intelligence Committee may begin drafting a formal report of its findings to present to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration in early December. Some Democratic leaders hope that the House could vote on articles of impeachment by the year’s end.
Republicans cannot stop Democrats from impeaching Mr. Trump, but they appear to be determined to ensure that any vote to do so is partisan. Their strategy is multipronged. It includes defending Mr. Trump’s interest in Ukrainian corruption as legitimate, and portraying Democrats as desperate to find something, anything, to take out Mr. Trump.
“The main performance, the Russia hoax, has ended, and you’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel,” said Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, said in an opening statement.
He spoke of a “politicized bureaucracy,” working against Mr. Trump, saying that diplomats in the State Department had worked to undercut the president. In the process, Mr. Nunes said, they had “lost the confidence of millions of Americans who believe that their vote should count for something.”
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