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Impeachment hearings open with revelation on Trump’s Ukraine pressure

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives opened historic impeachment hearings on Wednesday and took startling new testimony from a senior US diplomat that further implicated President Trump in a campaign to pressure Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating former vice president Joe Biden.

In a nationally televised hearing from a stately committee room across from the Capitol, William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, brought to life Democrats’ allegations that Trump had abused his office by trying to enlist a foreign power to help him in an election.

Taylor testified to the House Intelligence Committee that he learned only recently of a July telephone call overheard by one of his aides in which the president was preoccupied with Ukraine’s willingness to say it would look into Biden and work by his son Hunter Biden for a Ukrainian energy firm. Immediately afterward, Taylor said, the aide had been informed that Trump cared more about “investigations of Biden” than he did about Ukraine.

Taylor was a powerful witness for Democrats as Congress embarked on the third set of presidential impeachment hearings in modern times. Forceful, detailed, and unflappable in the face of Republican taunts, the veteran diplomat delivered a rebuke of the actions taken by the president and his allies inside and outside of the government who placed Trump’s political objectives at the center of US policy toward Ukraine.

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“Security was so important for Ukraine, as well as our own national interests,” Taylor testified, describing his growing sense of alarm at learning that $391 million in vital military aid for the former Soviet republic had been held up. “To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense. It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”

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The proceedings pushed into the public gaze an epic impeachment clash between Trump, his Republican allies, and Democrats 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, Taylor and another seasoned diplomat, George P. Kent, sketched out, in testimony by turns cinematic and dry, a tale of foreign policy making distorted by a president’s political vendettas with a small country facing Russian aggression caught in the middle.

Democrats toiled to make their case to a deeply divided nation that Trump had put the integrity of the 2020 election at risk — by withholding the security assistance for Ukraine’s war with Russia to try to extract a political advantage for his reelection campaign.

“If this is not impeachable conduct,” said Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the committee, “what is?”

Trump’s Republican defenders raged against an impeachment process they called unfair and illegitimate. They dismissed Taylor and 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.”

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At the White House, 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, 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, Trump was busy all day retweeting allies commenting on the proceedings and defending him. His reelection 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.

Asked for his reaction after the hearing ended, Trump said he had heard “it is a joke” and insisted that he had not watched it “for one minute.”

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 US Embassy in Kyiv, and Mark Sandy of the Office of Management and Budget for Friday and Saturday. According to an official involved in the inquiry, Holmes was the aide Taylor referred to in his new testimony, who told Taylor about Trump’s singular interest in investigating the Bidens.

Taylor said a member of his staff overheard a telephone conversation in which the president mentioned “the investigations” to Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, who told Trump “that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.”

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The conversation took place in a restaurant in Kyiv one day after the July 25 phone call in which Trump personally pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and unproven allegations that Ukraine conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 election.

When Holmes inquired after the call what the president thought about Ukraine, Sondland “responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” in Taylor’s telling. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, led what Taylor called a “highly irregular” policy making channel on Ukraine that ran counter to goals of long-standing American policy.

The episode was not included in 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 Sondland appears next week for his own public testimony.

Asked Wednesday afternoon about the call, Trump said, “I know nothing about that.”

Both witnesses forcefully rejected attempts by Republicans and Democrats to draw them into a partisan drama over the impeachment inquiry, declaring they are not “Never Trumpers.” Responding to Jordan’s assertion that he was the star witness for the Democrats, Taylor insisted that he was not a political pawn of either party.

”I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” he said. “I think I was clear I’m not here to take one side or the other.”

And Taylor refused to take a position on whether Trump’s actions were impeachable, telling Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas: “That is not what either of us are here for. This is your job.”

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Even so, with the help of another nine public witnesses 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 Trump’s actions are worthy of the Constitution’s gravest reprimand, possible removal from office.