The impeachment investigation burst into the open Wednesday, as the first of a series of public hearings began in Congress.
America and the rest of the world are getting a chance to see and hear for themselves the evidence on Republican President Donald Trump’s actions toward Ukraine and consider whether he committed impeachable offenses.
The Democratic House is investigating whether Trump abused his power by asking Ukrainian officials for investigations to damage his political opponent Democratic candidate Joe Biden, while withholding US military aid from the country, which is fighting incursions by its neighbor Russia.
Here’s what you missed from the hearing, in which two top American diplomats, William Taylor and George Kent, testified for more than five hours:
Schiff says the facts are not seriously contested
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, in his opening statement, outlined the case being developed by Democrats. The facts are not “seriously contested,” he said.
He said the question at the core of the impeachment inquiry was whether the president used his office to pressure Ukraine officials for personal political gain.
“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” Schiff said. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander in chief.”
Nunes launches a wide-ranging attack
US Representative Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the committee, didn’t attack the specifics of the Democrats’ case but generally lambasted the probe, calling it a “scorched earth” effort to take down the president after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which meddled in the 2016 election, failed to spark impeachment proceedings.
“We’re supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out new allegations?” said Nunes, a fervent Trump ally. He derided what he called the ‘‘cult-like atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol” where investigators have been interviewing witnesses behind closed doors for weeks. Transcripts of those interviews have since been released.
Nunes called the Ukraine scandal a “low-rent” sequel to the Mueller probe. “Democrats are advancing their impeachment sham,” he said.
He lashed out not only at Democrats, but at the “corrupt media and partisan bureaucrats,” saying the FBI and the State and Justice departments had “lost the confidence of millions of Americans.” He also raised a debunked conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians, not the Russians, meddled in the 2016 election.
Taylor makes news
William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, whose testimony behind closed doors had already made headlines, reiterated his startling story of how he discovered that Trump was pressuring Ukraine, apparently working through a “highly irregular channel” different from normal diplomatic means.
The gray-haired, avuncular West Point graduate and Vietnam infantry veteran also brought forward new evidence that appeared to bring President Trump closer to the scandal.
Taylor said that on July 26, US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland spoke with Trump at a restaurant in the presence of a member of Taylor’s staff. That was a day after Trump’s controversial phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, which is at the heart of the probe.
The member of Taylor’s staff could hear Trump on the phone “asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations,’” Taylor said. “Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.”
When Trump referred to “investigations,” that was understood to refer to a Ukrainian probe of the 2016 election and of a Ukrainian company whose board included Joe Biden’s son, Taylor said.
“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” Taylor said. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump lawyer Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.”
Regarding Sondland’s statement that Trump cared more about the investigation of Biden, Schiff asked whether that meant “he cares more about that than he does about Ukraine.”
“Yes, sir,” Taylor said.
Taylor said he didn’t know about his staff member hearing the phone call when he first testified behind closed doors Oct. 22.
Explanations of why Ukraine is important to the US
Taylor spent time explaining the importance of the withheld security assistance to Ukrainian and US national security.
Taylor told Schiff, “The Russians are violating all of the rules, treaties, understandings that they committed to that actually kept the peace in Europe for nearly 70 years.”
“Until they invaded Ukraine in 2014, they had abided by sovereignty of nations, inviolability of borders. That order that kept the peace in Europe and allowed for prosperity, as well as peace in Europe, was violated by the Russians,” he said.
“And if we don’t push back on those violations, then that will continue, and that, Mr. Chairman, affects us, it affects the world that we live in, that our children will grow up in, and our grandchildren,” he said.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, who also testified at the hearing, also spoke about the importance of US support of Ukraine.
He said a Europe “truly whole, free, and at peace” would not be possible “without a Ukraine whole, free, and at peace.”
Kent, a career diplomat, did not go into much detail about the issues central to the impeachment inquiry — Trump’s pressuring of the Ukraine government — but he voiced his concerns with them.
“I do not believe the United States 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,” he said.
Nunes returns to the debunked Ukraine election meddling theory
Nunes later in the hearing raised again the debunked conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians, not the Russians, interfered in the 2016 election.
He suggested that Trump was concerned by “numerous indications of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections” in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton and against Trump.
He also charged, “The Democrats cooperated in Ukrainian election meddling.”
It’s a key part of the Republican defense to suggest Trump had legitimate reasons to seek investigations by Ukraine and was not simply pursuing his personal political interests.
“I think one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories is that somehow the president of the United States would want a country that he doesn’t even like, he doesn’t want to give foreign aid to, to have the Ukrainians start an investigation into [the] Bidens,” Nunes said.
The Ukraine election meddling theory is unsubstantiated. If US officials showed a lack of interest in pursuing the matter, it’s because they considered it “fiction,” as one put it.
Trump himself was told by his officials that the theory was ‘‘completely debunked’’ long before the president pressed Ukraine to investigate it anyway, said Tom Bossert, Trump’s first homeland security adviser.
GOP committee members try different defenses
Republican committee members were generally respectful to the witnesses as they tried to poke holes in their story. As expected, they tried a variety of defenses.
GOP US Representative John Ratcliffe pointed to multiple statements by Zelensky that he did not feel pressured by his July 25 phone call with Trump.
But Schiff noted that Zelensky might have feared retribution from Trump if he acknowledged he had felt pressure. Under questioning by Schiff, Taylor also said that Zelensky needed to worry about how he would be perceived domestically.
“He cannot afford to be seen to be deferring to any — any — foreign leader. He is very confident in his own abilities, and he knows that the Ukrainian people expect him to be clear and defend Ukrainian interests,” Taylor said.
GOP US Representative Jim Jordan also highlighted the fact that, in the end, the aid was released and Zelensky did not make a statement promising the investigations Trump wanted.
“What you heard did not happen,” Jordan said.
The aid was released in September, after the White House had become aware that an intelligence whistleblower had filed the complaint that would eventually ignite the Ukraine scandal.
Skepticism about Giuliani’s role
Kent and Taylor were both skeptical of the role Giuliani — the former New York mayor and Trump’s personal attorney — was playing in the “irregular channel” on Ukraine policy.
“In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting US engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelenskiy’s desire for a White House meeting,” Kent said.
Kent said Giuliani was engaged in an effort to “smear” the former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and other US diplomats.
Democratic US Representative Val Demings asked Kent and Taylor if they believed that Giuliani, on behalf of Trump, sought to get dirt for political ends through his shadow diplomacy in Ukraine.
“I believe he was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival in the next election cycle,” Kent said of Giuliani.
“I agree with Mr. Kent,” Taylor said.
Both said they could not rule out whether similar “irregular channels” were taking place regarding diplomacy with other countries.
Both Taylor and Kent come off as straight shooters
Both Taylor and Kent appeared to be unflappable under the glare of the national spotlight, even as Republicans sometimes became animated in their questioning. The diplomats projected an air of helpfulness and emphasized they were there to testify about the facts they knew, not opinions.
Ratcliffe demanded that Taylor and Kent weigh in on whether the president should be impeached for what he said on the July 25 call.
“Are either of you here to say there was an impeachable offense in that call?” Ratcliffe demanded. “Shout it out — anyone?”
Taylor reiterated a statement he had made earlier, saying he was not there to take sides, but to share what he knew.
“I’m not here to do anything having to do with deciding about impeachment,” the ambassador said. “That is not what either of us are here for. This is your job.”
Kent said later in his testimony, “I’m here as a fact witness to answer your questions. Your constitutional obligation is to consider the evidence before you.”
A moment of humor
A rare moment of levity occurred after Jordan complained that the “anonymous” whistle-blower is the one witness Democrats won’t bring in to testify before the committee and the American public. “And that’s the guy who started it all, the whistleblower,” he said.
Jordan said only Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff knows who the whistleblower is.
Moments later, Democratic US Representative Peter Welch: “I say to my colleague, I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify.”
“President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there,” he said, referring to the witness chairs.
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.