Two top foreign-service officers on Wednesday laid out a damning portrait for the public of President Donald Trump’s efforts to strong-arm a critical US ally into delivering political dirt while holding up military aid and a White House meeting.
Bill Taylor, the US’s chief envoy in Ukraine, and George Kent, a top State Department official overseeing Ukraine policy, were the first two witnesses to testify in Congress’ bombshell impeachment hearings into whether Trump abused his public office for private gain.
Kent testified on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s efforts on Trump’s behalf to get dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden from Ukraine. Kent told lawmakers Giuliani’s campaign was not part of official US foreign policy but instead a personal mission to get the president damaging information on a political rival ahead of an election.
Taylor, meanwhile, directly confirmed a quid pro quo in which Trump withheld security assistance and a White House meeting while demanding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly commit to investigating the Bidens and baseless allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Ambassador Bill Taylor during the House Intelligence Committee hearing.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Wednesday’s impeachment hearing:
The Democrats’ lawyer ran circles around the Republicans’ lawyer.
Daniel Goldman, a veteran former federal prosecutor who asked questions for the Democrats, used the 45 minutes allotted to him to draw out a cohesive line of questioning and a vivid narrative from Kent and Taylor of Trump’s pressure campaign in Ukraine.
Goldman’s performance contrasted starkly with that of Steve Castor, the lawyer for the Republican side who veered off course, was unable to establish a clear line of inquiry, and often tried — and failed — to bait the witnesses into caving to GOP talking points.
Goldman kept his questions short and sharp, and let Taylor and Kent do all the talking.
The result was a dramatic and lucid account of Trump’s conduct from the two career officials, both of whom have no skin in the game and have a decades-long history of nonpartisan public service.
The Republican strategy: Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. The following is a sample of the various defenses GOP lawmakers trotted out.
There was no quid pro quo.
Even if there were a quid pro quo, countries do that all the time.
It doesn’t matter that Trump initially withheld military aid because Ukraine eventually received it.
Trump was justified in holding up the aid because he wanted Ukraine to investigate itself for corruption.
The Democrats colluded with Ukraine.
The witnesses have never spoken directly with Trump, so they’re not credible.
The entire impeachment inquiry is a sham.
(Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)
Giuliani was thrown under the bus.
Both Kent and Taylor detailed at length Giuliani’s close involvement in getting Ukraine to give Trump what he wanted, as well as his smear campaign against Marie Yovanovitch, the US’s former ambassador to Ukraine.
Republicans have recently begun defending Trump by saying Giuliani went rogue and was acting on his own accord with respect to Ukraine. This defense is bogus for a few reasons:
Giuliani has said he was acting as Trump’s agent: “The investigation I conducted concerning 2016 Ukrainian collusion and corruption, was done solely as a defense attorney to defend my client against false charges, that kept changing as one after another were disproven,” he tweeted.
When Trump asked Zelensky during a July 25 phone call to investigate the Bidens, he specifically told Zelensky to work with Giuliani.
Taylor said he’d never seen anything like this in his decades of public service.
“Ambassador Taylor, in your decades of military service and diplomatic service representing the United States around the world, have you ever seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States?” Goldman asked.
“No, Mr. Goldman, I have not,” Taylor replied.
Taylor: Leveraging a White House meeting to get what you want is one thing. Withholding military aid puts “lives at stake.”
At one point, Taylor highlighted that there’s a difference between leveraging a White House meeting to force the Ukrainians to publicly commit to investigating the Bidens and using military aid for that same reason.
“The White House meeting was one thing,” Taylor said. “The security assistance was much more alarming” because withholding that money puts “lives at stake.”
Taylor described details of a previously unknown phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the US’s ambassador to the EU.
Taylor said in his opening statement that he recently learned a member of his staff overheard a conversation between Trump and Sondland on July 26.
During that conversation, Taylor said, his staff member heard Trump ask Sondland about the status of “the investigations” after Sondland met with a Ukrainian government official in Kyiv, the country’s capital.
Sondland said the Ukrainians were “ready to move forward,” according to Taylor. After the call, Taylor’s staff member asked Sondland what Trump thought of Ukraine.
Sondland replied that Trump “cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”
Kent blew a hole through all of Trump’s talking points.
In a telling exchange with Goldman, Kent emphasized that there was “no factual basis” to support allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
He reiterated that it was Russia, not Ukraine, that meddled in the race.
He also said there was no evidence “whatsoever” backing up Trump’s allegation that Biden got a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son from being investigated.
Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio was Trump’s biggest attack dog.
Jordan is not a member of the intelligence committee but was temporarily placed on the panel because of his long record of going to bat for the president.
His questions on Wednesday had no factual basis and contained little substance. But he likely won Trump’s approval with his sharp attacks on Taylor and Kent and his demand that the whistleblower be hauled in to testify.
Democratic Rep. Peter Welch landed a huge zinger at the end of the hearing.
Jordan went on a lengthy rant against the whistleblower and said Congress would never get to question the person “who started it all.”
Welch hit back: “Thank you, 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.”