The first public hearings in the impeachment of Donald Trump began on Wednesday in a historic test for Democrats as they try to convince more Americans that the US president extorted his Ukrainian counterpart for domestic political gain.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House intelligence committee who has led the impeachment efforts, cast the impeachment as a question of whether the US could remain a republic if it tolerated what he called Mr Trump’s abuse of power and obstruction of justice.
“Is that what Americans should now expect from their president? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” said Mr Schiff as he opened the hearing.
The hearing follows weeks of closed-door testimony and kicks off a new public phase of the impeachment inquiry, which will help determine whether Democrats can build enough support for their case to chip away at Republican backing for the president in the House and Senate. So far, Republicans have all but uniformly stood fast behind Mr Trump.
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William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a senior state department official, appeared side-by-side on Wednesday morning to testify about Mr Trump’s efforts to force Volodymyr Zelensky, the newly elected Ukrainian president, to announce investigations that would help Mr Trump win re-election in 2020.
Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, staked out the conservative defence of Mr Trump as he decried the impeachment inquiry as merely an attempt by Democrats to smear the president after claiming for years that he was a Russian agent.
“They turned on a dime, and now claim the real malfeasance is Republicans’ dealings with Ukraine,” said Mr Nunes. “We’re supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out a new batch of allegations.”
Mr Trump is the fourth US president to face an impeachment inquiry. Richard Nixon was forced to resign before he was impeached when Republicans finally turned on him. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both impeached but survived trials in the Senate.
In their opening statements, Mr Kent and Mr Taylor portrayed a scheme led by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, to withhold Congressionally-approved military aid to Ukraine to secure personal favours for Mr Trump.
They described a scheme that included withholding a White House meeting from Mr Zelensky until he announced investigations into Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company with ties to the son of former vice-president Joe Biden, a leading Democratic candidate for president, and into claims that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
Mr Trump himself pressed the Ukrainian leader for assistance in a July 25 phone call in which he responded to Mr Zelensky’s comments about the need for military assistance by saying: “I would like you to do us a favour though.”
The officials, who have served both Republican and Democratic presidents, recounted much of their previous closed door testimony, but Mr Taylor added additional details about the role of Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union.
He said he heard from a member of his staff that on July 26, the day after the infamous phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky, the US president spoken with Mr Sondland on the phone and asked about “the investigations”.
“Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward,” said Mr Taylor, who testified that his staff member had been at a restaurant with Mr Sondland when he spoke with Mr Trump following a meeting with Andrey Yermak, a top adviser to the Ukrainian president.
“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” Mr Taylor added. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”
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