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Diplomat testifies Trump overheard demanding ‘investigations’

Updated November 13, 2019 - 3:17 pm

WASHINGTON A key witness in the impeachment hearing testified before a House committee Wednesday that President Donald Trump wanted the Ukrainian president in “a public box” and pressured the foreign leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden while withholding military aid.

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, told the House Intelligence Committee that his aide overheard a conversation Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had on a cellphone with Trump, who could clearly be heard demanding an investigation into Biden and son Hunter Biden.

Taylor said he pressed Sondland on the investigation and urged him to push back on Trump’s request because it wasn’t “good for either president.”

“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor said he told Sondland.

The testimony came on the first day of public hearings that could lead to a House vote on the impeachment of Trump. It is the fourth time in U.S. history the House has taken up impeachment proceedings.

Republicans immediately attacked Taylor’s testimony, saying it was based on hearsay, and charged that Democrats had partisan motives and no facts in seeking to remove Trump from office.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, predicted the impeachment hearings will amount to “so and so said such and such to so and so” without Democrats ever proving any wrongdoing.

But Democrats were eager to hear the testimony from Taylor, a West Point graduate and decorated Vietnam veteran.

Taylor said it was clear Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani was running a back-channel operation to coerce Ukraine to conduct political investigations while the administration withheld needed military aid as Ukrainian soldiers died in battles with Russia-backed separatists.

Alarmed, Taylor said he was assured by Trump appointees that the administration was not seeking a quid pro quo in exchange for the investigations. But Taylor said he was also told that if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy didn’t clear things up soon, there would be a stalemate over the aid.

“I understood a ‘stalemate’ to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance,” Taylor said at the hearing.

Rogue operation

Foreign service officer George Kent also testified Giuliani was running a rogue operation in Ukraine to “gin up politically motivated investigations” that were infecting U.S. engagement in Ukraine.

He said he also became aware of a smear campaign by Giuliani against Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, to run off the career diplomat in a push for the political investigation.

Democrats and Republicans declared victory after the acrimonious, daylong televised spectacle.

House Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry to determine whether Trump abused his office by seeking foreign intervention in the 2020 election. The historic proceedings could have political ramifications for Democrats and Republicans, with voters largely split along party lines on the issue of impeachment.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the hearings explain what the House has learned over the past month about the president’s request for Ukraine to investigate a political rival.

“If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” Schiff asked.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the committee, called the hearing an attempt by Democrats and the “corrupt media” to overturn the results of the 2016 election with an unfounded attack on the president.

“Anyone familiar with the Democrats’ scorched-earth war against President Trump would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign,” Nunes said.

Too busy to watch

A rankled Trump fumed in his comments to reporters at the White House.

“It’s a witch hunt. It’s a hoax,” Trump said. “I’m too busy to watch it.”

The hearing was held in a packed Ways and Means Committee hearing room. It lasted throughout the day and was dominated by questions hurled at the witnesses from lawyers for both Democratic and Republican staff.

Committee members were also given five minutes each for questions. Democrats attacked, while Republicans defended the president by attacking the process and trying to poke holes in witness testimony.

“There were more yawns than gotcha moments,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told reporters in the hall outside the hearing room.

Democrats took a different view of the testimony.

“Using military aid to extort and bribe a foreign country to win reelection is impeachable,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas. Castro’s brother, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump.

Phone call leads to hearings

The charges of possible abuse of office stem from a July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy. In a rough transcript of the call, Trump asked Zelenskiy for “a favor,” which included an investigation of the Bidens. Hunter Biden served on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma for $50,000 per month.

Trump and Republicans want Hunter Biden to testify in the hearings. Schiff has so far ruled that out, saying the hearing is focused on the president’s actions, which were first brought to light by a whistleblower who raised concerns about the phone call seeking a probe.

Kent in his testimony acknowledged that he raised concerns in 2015 about Hunter Biden being on Burisma’s board. He warned that it could give the “perception of a conflict of interest.” But Kent indicated no one from the U.S. was protecting the company from investigations in Ukraine, as Republicans have implied.

“Let me be clear, however. I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny,” Kent said.

More than a dozen foreign service and State Department officials have testified behind closed doors to House committees about the call and Trump administration dealings in Ukraine. The testimony corroborates the whistleblower.

Taylor and Kent told the committee Wednesday they raised red flags about Giuliani’s involvement in Ukraine and the conditioning of military aid on a political investigation.

On Friday, Yovanovitch will testify about her concerns about Giuliani, whose dealings she said ran counter to U.S. policy. Her disagreements with Giuliani led to her ouster.

On the call with Zelenskiy, Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news” and indicated she would soon be “going through some things.”

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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