Closed First public Trump impeachment hearing — as it happened

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A live blog from FT.com


Trump starts day with anti-Democrat Twitter storm

Donald Trump has started the day in the same way he has during many of the highest-drama periods of his presidency: an early morning Twitter storm. Hours before Capitol Hill hearings are due to begin, Trump quoted talking heads on his favourite morning show, Fox and Friends, who claimed Democrats have turned their constitutional responsibilities for impeachment “into a political cudgel”.

The seven-tweet morning tirade was rounded out by two of the president’s signature all-caps rallying cries: a general cri de coeur against “Never Trumpers” and a demand that everyone “read the transcript”, which Trump continues to believe exonerates him despite the fact it includes his overtly pressuring Ukraine’s president to investigate political rivals.


Taylor arrives on Capitol Hill

William Taylor has arrived on Capitol Hill ahead of the hearing, which starts at the top of the hour.

As a reminder, here’s a summary the FT prepared on his written testimony delivered behind closed doors last month, which changed the direction of the impeachment investigation by accusing the White House of connecting Ukrainian military aid to an investigation into Trump’s political rivals.

How Ukraine envoy’s testimony shook up Trump impeachment probe

The key quote in the testimony is here:

During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election . . . in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, “everything” was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky “in a public box” by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.


Who is William Taylor?

As credentials go for a Congressional witness, William Taylor’s are fairly sterling. He is a second-generation West Point graduate, who finished in the top 1 per cent of his class and then earned a Master’s degree at Harvard. Taylor fought in Vietnam, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star, and then began a long career in government service.

His diplomatic posts included Brussels, where he helped to coordinate assistance to former Soviet republics, and later Afghanistan, Israel and Iraq. He was ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009 before being dispatched again earlier this year to replace Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled early by the Trump administration. Taylor has testified that, at the time, he feared he was heading into a “snake pit” in Kyiv.


George Kent arrives on Capitol Hill

The other top US diplomat testifying today has arrived ahead of today’s hearing. George Kent is deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, where he is responsible for overseeing diplomacy in Eastern Europe.

The House intelligence committee released the transcript of his closed-door testimony last week. Although Kent’s testimony has bolstered the case against Trump, it has been less explosive because most of it relates to incidents he learned of only second hand rather than directly from Trump or his inner circle.


Who is George Kent?

The dapper George Kent is a longtime state department hand with deep experience in Eastern Europe. After studying Russian literature at Harvard and then earning a Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins Kent entered the foreign service in 1992. He was stationed in Warsaw in the mid-1990s, working on economic and trade issues.

He was deputy chief of mission in Kyiv from 2015 to 2018 — a key focus of today’s hearing. He is currently deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, one of the state department’s most senior posts.


Emoticon Schiff gavels hearing to order


Schiff suggests impeachment charges on abuse of power and obstruction

Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, has opened the hearing by suggesting the investigation is looking at two impeachable offenses: abuse of power, for attempting to coerce Ukraine into investigating Trump’s political rivals, and obstruction, for his refusal to cooperate with the impeachment investigation.

Schiff noted that Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, has challenged Americans to “get over it” — a demand that Schiff insists would be wrong headed. Schiff rounds out his opening statement by insisting it is Congress’s duty to not “get over it”:

If we find that the president of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections, or if he sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection 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?” Is that what Americans should now expect from their president? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is? Does the oath of office itself – requiring that our laws be faithfully executed, that our president defend a constitution that balances the powers of its branches, setting ambition against ambition so that we become no monarchy – still have meaning?


Nunes accuses Democrats of ‘scorched earth’ campaign against Trump

Devin Nunes, the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee, dismissed the hearings as an “impeachment process in search of a crime” and a “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” to the Mueller report into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.

Nunes also insisted that Repubicans would seek to turn the focus back on Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president, and his lucrative assignment as a board member for Ukrainian gas company Burisma. “They are trying to impeach the President for inquiring after Hunter Biden’s activities — yet they refuse our request to hear from Hunter Biden, himself,” Nunes said. The Democrats, he also claimed, had carried out their closed-door hearings in a “cult-like atmosphere” in the basement of the Capitol.

Lauren Fedor, the FT’s US political correspondent, notes that Republicans circulated talking points ahead of today’s hearing that attacked Schiff and the way he has conducted the impeachment inquiry so far. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, said on Fox News this morning that the probe was a “pure Schiff set up”.


Kent takes swipe at Giuliani

George Kent delivered his opening statement with a full-throated defence of the US diplomatic corps. Although he did not mention Rudy Giuliani by name, he suggested Trump allies with personal agendas in Ukraine worked with “corrupt Ukrainians” to attack and undermine US diplomats working on regional issues — a not-so-subtle swipe at Trump’s personal lawyer and former New York mayor.

It was unexpected, and most unfortunate, to watch some Americans — including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas — launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing US interests in Ukraine. In my opinion, those attacks undermined US and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship.

Kent has also accused Giuliani of orchestrating “politically motivated investigations” that undermined the US relationship with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

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 Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting.

He also delivered some bad news for Joe Biden, the former vice-president who is now a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, saying he was troubled in February 2015 when Biden’s son Hunter took a board seat on a Ukrainian energy company: “I raised my concern that Hunter Biden’s status as a board member could raise questions of a conflict of interest.”


Taylor presents new details on Trump efforts to push ‘investigation’

Lauren Fedor, the FT’s US political correspondent, reports that Taylor’s opening statement largely mirrored his initial closed-door deposition on October 22. But the career diplomat also revealed new information that he said he only learned about from a member of his staff last week.

The staff member accompanied Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, on July 26 to a meeting with Andrey Yermak, a top adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelensky. The meeting was one day after the now-infamous July 25 phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky.

Mr Taylor told the intelligence committee that after the July 26 meeting, Mr Sondland called Mr Trump. Mr Taylor’s staffer said they could hear Mr Trump on the phone, asking the ambassador about “the investigations”, and that Mr Sondland said the Ukrainians were “ready to move forward”.

Mr Taylor’s comments are significant because no other witness has drawn such a clear line between the US president and the demands for Ukraine to open investigations into the Bidens or alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

Here is the testimony:

Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26. While Ambassador Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr Yermak. Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for. At the time I gave my deposition on October 22, I was not aware of this information.I am including it here for completeness.

Adam Schiff, the Democrat chairing the hearing, seized on the revelation at the start of his questioning, noting that “the import” of the testimony is that it shows Trump “cares more about that [the investigations] than Ukraine.”

Taylor noted that upon arriving in Kyiv earlier this year to lead the US diplomatic mission he was alarmed to discover a “highly irregular” policy-making channel that was unaccountable to Congress guided by Giuliani.

He also described his surprise to learn at a July NSC meeting that security aid was being withheld from Ukraine, even as its soldiers were dying in the field.

Taylor emphasized Ukraine’s strategic importance for the US on the “front line” of conflict with “a newly-aggressive Russia.”

To withhold security aid from Kyiv for domestic political purposes, he argued, “would be crazy. I believe that then – and I believe that now.”


‘Businessman Trump’ wanted to get paid, Taylor claims

William Taylor has testified that Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU and the central figure in Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, rebuffed his concerns in September that security assistance was being withheld until the Ukrainians committed to a Biden investigation.

Said Taylor:

Ambassador Sondland responded…that I was ‘incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quos of any kind.’

But later, Sondland used language that indicated otherwise, according to Taylor’s testimony:

Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman. When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.


Taylor explains his text calling White House efforts ‘crazy’

The first the general public knew about how much US diplomats worried about the White House effort to pressure Kyiv into digging up dirt on Donald Trump’s political rivals was a text message from William Taylor made public last month. In the text, Taylor described the effort as “crazy”.

Under questioning from the Democrats’ legal counsel, Taylor expanded on what he meant by that text, arguing that military aid to Ukraine was essential to both Ukrainian and US national security interests.

“Because of the importance of security assistance…because that was so important for Ukraine as well as our own national interest, to withhold that assistant for no good reason other than to help with a political campaign made no sense,” Taylor testified. “The US was trying to help Ukraine as a front-line state against Russian attack.”

He said it was no secret that Trump was seeking the Ukrainian investigations to help his re-election campaign because of the very public statements by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney: “The investigation of Burisma and the Bidens was clearly identified by Mr Giuliani in public for months as a way to get information on the two Bidens.”


White House says Trump not watching hearings

According to a pool report from the White House press corps, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham has told reporters that Donald Trump is not watching the proceedings on Capitol Hill.

“He’s in the Oval in meetings. Not watching. He’s working,” Grisham said, according to the report from Michael Crowley, White House correspondent of the New York Times.

But Lauren Fedor, the FT’s US political correspondent, reports that Trump has also put out a video on Twitter, calling the hearings “the single greatest scam in the history of American politics”.

Here’s the text of what Trump says in the video:

What’s going on now is the single greatest scam in the history of American politics. The Democrats want to take away your guns, they want to take away your healthcare, they want to take away your vote, they want to take away your freedom, they want to take away your judges, they want to take away everything. We can never let this happen. We’re fighting to drain the swamp, and that’s exactly what I’m doing, and you see why we have to do it, because our country is at stake like never before. It’s all very simple: they’re trying to stop me, because I’m fighting for you. And I’ll never let that happen.

Grisham has added a tweet of her own, hurling one of the biggest insults in Trump land: that the hearings are “boring”.


It wasn’t just arms to fight the Russians…

The Ukrainians were also desperate for Trump to grant a White House meeting, according to Taylor and Kent, to bolster the fledgling Zelensky administration.

Such a meeting, Kent (above) explained, would be “the ultimate sign of endorsement and support” from the US.

Officials in Kyiv and Washington discussed such a visit throughout June and July, including a meeting presided over by John Bolton, then national security adviser.

Bolton has so far refused to appear before Congress to offer his version of events but Taylor gave a flavour of the testimony he might provide. During that July 10 gathering, he recalled, Bolton took umbrage at Sondland’s suggestion to the Ukrainians that the Biden and Burisma investigations were a key condition for any meeting.

Bolton, said Taylor, halted the meeting and told his staff to report it to the lawyers. He also made clear he did not want to be associated with it.


Hearing in recess: a quick morning recap

The hearing is in a brief recess. The main things we’ve learned this morning:

• An US diplomat overheard a phone call between Donald Trump and the US ambassador to the EU in which the president discussed “the investigations”. William Taylor testified that Trump had related how he “cares more about the investigations of Biden” than Ukrainian security.

• The Democrats are considering three possible impeachment charges: abuse of power; seeking to “coerce, extort, or bribe an ally”; and obstruction through his refusal to cooperate with the congressional investigation.

• Republicans continue to attack Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, and the impeachment process, but have been less vocal in defending the president’s actions.


Trump attacks ‘witch hunt’ at appearance with Turkey’s Erdogan

Donald Trump briefly appeared alongside Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the White House ahead of the two men’s scheduled Oval Office meeting.

Trump repeated that he was not watching the impeachment hearings, calling them a “witch hunt” and “a hoax”. “I’m too busy to watch it,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll get a report…I see they’re using lawyers that are television lawyers. I’m not surprised to see it because Schiff can’t do his own questions.”

Trump will appear for a full-scale press conference with Erdogan later this afternoon.


We’re back, and Nunes counter-punches

Nunes has launched the Republican counter-offensive. The take-away is that Ukraine actually got more — not less — military aid under Trump. And there is no evidence that they ever delivered any of the goodies the Democrats claim the president sought as payback for it. No victim, no crime.

“We’re supposed to believe President Trump committed a terrible crime that never actually happened,” Nunes said.

The Congressman also sought to flip the narrative about Russian interference in the 2016 election. There was ample evidence of Ukrainian meddling — against candidate Trump — and so it was entirely understandable, Nunes argued, that President Trump would later dispatch his personal lawyer to try to get to the bottom of it.

Nunes peppered Taylor with possible evidence of anti-Trump bias on the part of the Ukrainians, and sought to establish that he was either unaware of it — or simply did not care about it.

Many of his claims appear to have been harvested from a Politico article about a woman named Alexandra Chalupa who is described as a Ukrainian activist and longtime Democratic consultant.


Republican counsel Steve Castor gets mixed reviews

We’re in the middle of extended questioning by Steve Castor, who is the Republican counsel on the House intelligence committee. Thus far, most of his questions have been on issues beyond the central events of the Ukraine controversy, generating a bit of opprobrium on social media — including from Ari Fleisher, George W Bush’s former press secretary.

Among his questions that have garnered tut-tuts from tweeting heads is suggestion that Taylor and Kent were cut out of prepping Trump for his now-infamous phone call with Ukraine’s president for nefarious reasons; it is the job of the National Security Council, not the state department, to prep a presidential phone call. Mike McFaul, an NSC official and Russian ambassador under Barack Obama, highlighted that point.

Susan Glasser, a Washington correspondent for the New Yorker and a former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post, singled out Castor’s lack of understanding of how presidential phone call readouts work.


The CNN ‘almost’ interview…

Under questioning from Schiff, Taylor challenged the Republican idea that there was no crime because the Ukrainians never made good on Trump’s demands. In fact, Taylor said, Zelensky was preparing to announce an investigation into Biden and Burisma during a CNN interview that was apparently being arranged for September — during the UN General Assembly in New York.

“I wanted to be sure that didn’t happen,” Taylor said, noting that Zelensky and his advisers were reluctant to make such an announcement, and thus become mired in US domestic politics, but also desperate for Trump’s support. The aid was restored, and the interview never occurred.


Republicans hit at witnesses for lack of direct contact with Trump

Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, pressed Taylor and Kent about the quality of their testimony, arguing that they were recounting beliefs and impressions that, while critical in the diplomatic world, would be considered inadmissible in a court of law, Khadim Shubber reports from Washington.

In one of the most effective Republican questioning in the hearing thus far, Turner (pictured below) forced the diplomats to concede that neither had spoken directly with Donald Trump, who is the target of the impeachment probe. “You both know this impeachment proceeding is about the president of the United States? The man that neither one of you have had any contact with,” he asked.

Turner targeted in particular Taylor, who testified earlier that a member of his staff had overheard a phone call between Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, and Trump where the president pressed for updates on the investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election.

“You testified about a number of things that you heard. Isn’t it possible that the things you heard were not true?” he asked. “People make mistakes,” Mr Taylor conceded.

The White House quickly amplified the attack line on Twitter:

Almost all of those who have first-hand knowledge of White House pressure efforts have been blocked form testifying by the White House itself.


Republicans summon the whistle-blower ‘who started it all’

The anonymous whistle-blower who first reported concerns about President Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has moved to the centre stage of today’s hearing. Republicans have stepped up calls for that person to appear before the intelligence committee and for any ties they might have to Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair, to be revealed.

“There is one witness they won’t bring in front of us, won’t bring in front of the American people. That’s the guy who started it all: the whistle-blower,” fumed Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican. Jordan demanded that the committee be able to examine the biases and motivations of a person whose actions might lead to the impeachment of a president.

Earlier, Jordan’s colleague, Texan John Ratcliffe, made a similar appeal directly to Schiff. “When are House Republicans going to find out what House Democrats already know?” he demanded in a particularly testy moment. (Ratcliffe has had a few).

The plea fell on deaf ears. Schiff has denied even knowing the whistle-blower’s identity. Democrats have cast Republican efforts to scrutinise that person as a form of intimidation and witness tampering.

“Every time Republicans continue to harp on the whistle-blower is simply and solely and clearly an attempt to not only intimidate this whistle-blower, but to intimidate others from coming forward. I think it’s despicable,” Stenny Hoyer, the House majority leader, told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, according to The Hill.

Back in the hearing room, Peter Welch, the Vermont Democrat, took a lighter approach: If Republicans wanted to question the man who started it all, Welch offered, “then President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.” It got one of the day’s rare laughs.


Hearing wraps with Schiff and Nunes sticking to their guns

After five-and-a-half hours, the first public impeachment hearing has wrapped up. Both Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House intelligence committee, and Devin Nunes, his Republican counterpart, used their closing statements to reiterate their main points of attack.

Nunes complained that the Democratic majority was not allowing Republicans to pursue lines they believe are more important than Donald Trump’s attempts to pressure Kyiv into digging up dirt on political rivals. He delineated three areas he wanted to investigate:

• what, if any, contact Democrats had with the whistle-blower who triggered the impeachment proceedings before his complaint was made public

• whether Hunter Biden did anything wrong by serving on the board of the Ukrainian energy group Burisma while his father was vice-president (the FT had a look at Hunter Biden’s business interests last month)

• the already discredited conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians somehow worked to undermine the Trump campaign in 2016.

Schiff closed by saying to the witnesses: “The story that you have shared with us, and your experiences, is a deeply troubling one.”

He summarised the testimony as a tale that started with a “smear campaign” against the sitting US ambassador in Kyiv and eventually became a full-fledged coercion effort against the new Ukrainian government aimed at getting them to dig up dirt on Trump’s political rivals.

Schiff promised more public hearings and warned his fellow committee members they would soon have to decide whether conditioning “militarily aid, diplomatic meetings or…other official acts in order to get help in [Trump's] reelection” were impeachable offenses.


Another Ukraine call and a fresh witness enter the frame

The first day of public testimony in the Ukraine hearings was barely over when Donald Trump announced he would soon be dropping a fresh piece of evidence: a transcript of a second phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky.

“I’m going to be releasing, I think on Thursday, a second call, which actually was the first of the two, and you’ll make a determination as to what you think there,” the president said during a White House news conference with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Trump has previously teased the possibility of releasing the second transcript. The call in question took place in April, shortly after Zelensky was elected. It was their second discussion, in July, that prompted concern the US president was coercing the Ukrainians to investigate his political opponents, including former vice-president Joe Biden, by threatening to withhold desperately-needed security aid.

Trump also told reporters he did not “recall” a conversation with Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, that became a focal point in Wednesday’s hearings. William Taylor, the senior US diplomat in Ukraine, testified that a member of his staff overheard a phone conversation in which Trump pressed Sondland for “investigations” of the Bidens. The call had not previously been disclosed.

The diplomat who overheard that call, a Taylor aide, is expected to be deposed by the House intelligence committee in a private session on Friday. That testimony could provide a direct link to the president — something that Republicans have noted has so far been lacking.

After closing the hearing, Adam Schiff, the committee chair, told reporters the witness was “potentially very important,” adding: “What this call indicates, as other testimony has likewise indicated, is that the instructions are coming from the president on down.”