WASHINGTON — President Trump may want to find something else to do during his “executive time,” because he’s not going to like what he sees on TV Wednesday.
Democrats spent weeks preparing for their televised impeachment proceedings, grilling over a dozen current and former Trump administration officials behind closed doors. Now, they’ve rolled out two men widely considered among the most credible — and dangerous — witnesses against the president, to help build public support for booting Trump from office.
Trump stands accused of overseeing a shadowy diplomatic pressure campaign aimed at pushing Ukraine to gin up investigations against his Democratic enemies in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in vital military aid.
At the witness table are Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, the State Department official responsible for overseeing Ukraine policy.
Both have already provided explosive testimony linking Trump and his top officials to that backdoor diplomatic outreach outside the usual State Department channels — involving White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Trump’s private attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Here are the major moments from today’s events on Capitol Hill:
Devin Nunes calls diplomats “remarkably uninformed” about Ukraine conspiracy theories
House Republicans confused the top diplomats who weren't exactly well versed in the theory that it was Ukraine — not Russia — that meddled in the 2016 election.
House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said Trump was right to push Ukraine’s government to look into what happened in that election because some senior Ukrainians slammed Trump’s pro-Russia 2016 campaign message. And he blasted career diplomats Kent and Taylor for being “remarkably uninformed about these indications of Ukrainian election meddling and why the president may have been concerned.”
Their line of questioning veered to the conspiratorial, and confusing for those who aren’t devoted Fox News late night watchers. Both Taylor and Kent had to repeatedly ask for questions to be repeated, struggling to understand what the Nunes and GOP counsel Steve Castor were talking about.
Like many conspiracy theories, there’s a kernel of truth in their claim. One Democratic National Committee adviser was reportedly in touch with Ukraine’s U.S. embassy about Trump during the campaign and shared concerning information about then-Trump campaign adviser Paul Manafort, who has since gone to jail.
But there is also no evidence that Ukraine systematically meddled in the 2016 U.S. election in the same way that Russia did. And Taylor and Kent often seemed dumbfounded and confused by the conspiratorial tone of the questions, repeatedly asking Castor to repeat himself.
Even some top Republicans were scratching their heads.
“Whatever the GOP counsel is doing, it's not working. I don't understand where he's going,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, a Trump ally and former White House chief of staff under George W. Bush.
— Cameron Joseph
Ratcliffe sorta melted down while questioning Taylor
Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Republican, used his time to question the acting ambassador to Ukraine to shout him down.
Ratcliffe chased a line of questioning that attempted to prove the Trump administration didn’t threatened to withhold financial assistance from Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into the Bidens. It went rapidly downhill.
— Morgan Baskin
GOP defense: Let’s put the Bidens on trial
He took a long, circuitous route, but everyone knew where GOP counsel Steve Castor was going: what the hell was Hunter Biden doing on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma?
Castor asked the two witnesses whether they saw anything wrong with the fact that Joe Biden’s son was earning $50,000 a month serving on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice president.
“Do you know whether Hunter Biden offers anything, other than… his father at the time was vice president?” Castor asked Kent.
Kent acknowledged that he’d raised with the Obama administration concerns about Hunter Biden’s work with Ukrainian energy giant Burisma, warning of a “perception of a conflict of interest.” But he didn’t confirm Republicans’ insinuations that Biden himself had done anything wrong in his actions in the country.
The House GOP goal here is clear — and the same goal Trump and Giuliani had when they allegedly started pushing the Burisma attack: To drag Biden into the mud with Trump.
— Cameron Joseph
Rep. Mark Meadows just called a CBS reporter “biased” to her face
It's getting spicy outside the hearing room.
Republican Rep. Mark Meadows used his lunch break on Wednesday to berate reporters who asked him questions about the impeachment testimony.
Calling CBS News reporter Nancy Cordes “biased,” he implied that she hasn’t read enough witness testimony to make a judgment about whether Trump has abused his office for personal gain.
“For the case you’re making to be true, every single witness who has testified, more than a dozen of them, would have to be lying or mistaken,” Cordes said to Meadows, referring to his assertion that much of Wednesday’s testimony was second- or third-hand.
“Your characterization is so inherently wrong and biased,” he told Cordes in a House hallway. “How many hours have you been in, sitting in these depositions? How many hours? I haven’t seen you, you — you have not read all the depositions.”
Taylor just dropped a bombshell
Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor just added a new bombshell to his earlier testimony.
Taylor said he learned last Friday that one of his aides overhead U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland call Trump, who then asked about “the investigations.”
The aide told Taylor the conversation took place at a restaurant with staffers on July 26 — one day after Trump pressed Ukrainian president Zelensky to “look into” the Bidens. Sondland then told Taylor’s staff that Trump “cares more about the investigations of Biden” than about Ukraine, Taylor said.
Moments after that revelation, a new witness deposition was announced for this Friday — from a staffer working for Taylor at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine.
So much for the idea that these public hearings would produce no new information.
— Cameron Joseph and Greg Walters
Taylor calls swapping aid for investigations “crazy”
Taylor also laid out what he described as a “crazy” policy of withholding security assistance from Ukraine in exchange “help with a domestic political campaign in the United States” — an allegation of the quid pro quo that House Democrats are digging for.
Taylor testified that there was a “confusing and unusual arrangement for making U.S. policy toward Ukraine, with Giuliani leading a “highly irregular channel.” That second channel “diverged” in its interests and efforts from official U.S. policy to push Ukraine to do Trump’s political bidding, Taylor said.
By mid-July, Taylor said it was clear to him that the meeting Zelensky wanted with Trump was conditioned on launching an investigation of the Bidens and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
— Cameron Joseph
The Trump campaign wants to raise $3 million off today’s hearings
Meanwhile … the president’s re-election effort has already begun barraging supporters with texts, emails, and digital ads to turn the supposed witch hunt into cold hard cash.
“This is a complete Fake Hearing (trial) to interview Never Trumpers and a Pelosi-Schiff SCAM against the Republican Party and me,” the campaign wrote to supporters soon after Wednesday’s hearing began. “It’s obvious they hate me, but more importantly, they HATE YOU.”
A text message added that the Trump campaign hopes to raise $3 million in the next 24 hours “to send a message.” Like many other similar messages, it promised supporters a “2X-MATCH” on their donations, but it’s unclear who’s doing the matching, or if it even happens.
- David Uberti
Kent: I warned Hunter Biden’s Ukraine gig might look bad
Democrats’ first impeachment witness gave Republicans an opening for one of their preferred lines of attack by mentioning Hunter Biden in a less-than-totally-favorable light.
Kent, repeating previous testimony, said he raised concerns that Hunter’s paid board seat on a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma might look sketchy and raise questions — a fear that proved well-founded years later.
“In a briefing call with the national security staff in the office of the vice president, in February 2015, I raised my concern that Hunter Biden’s status as board member could create the perception of a conflict of interest,” Kent said.
“I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny.”
But in the next breath, Kent also pushed back against accusations made without evidence by members of Trump’s circle that former Vice President Joe Biden tried to protect his son from corruption investigations.
The Ukrainian oligarch behind Burisma should have been investigated, Kent said, but nobody on the U.S. side was arguing otherwise.
“I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny,” Kent said. “In fact, I and other U.S. officials consistently advocated reinstituting a scuttled investigation of Zlochevsky, Burisma’s founder, as well as holding the corrupt prosecutors who closed the case to account.”
He essentially said: Yeah, sure, Hunter’s Ukrainian gas gig might not have looked great — but Joe Biden wasn’t out to do anything improper to protect his son.
Joe Biden did help try to push out a Ukrainian prosecutor named Viktor Shokhin who has been widely accused of being easy on corrupt businesses and tycoons in Ukraine. In his earlier testimony, Kent blasted Shokhin as someone “very unfavorably known” to the State Department.
— Greg Walters
“I do not believe the U.S. should ask other countries to engage in selective politically associated investigations”
George Kent, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, began his Intel Committee testimony with a brief history lesson about Ukraine’s search for independence. But he soon made one thing clear: that the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy threatened to undermine the decades of progress the country made to stave off Russian aggression.
“As a general principle, I do not believe that the U.S. should ask other countries to engage in selective politically associated investigations, or prosecutions against opponents of those in power,” Kent said of Trump’s infamous request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “Such selective actions undermine the rule of law.”
— Morgan Baskin
“The low-rent Ukrainian sequel”
Trump’s public impeachment inquiry hearing is underway — and the GOP came out swinging in his defense.
Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, dismissed the proceedings as the freak stepson of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which he likewise described as much ado about nothing.
“This is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign,” he said, while pointing to Republicans’ lockstep opposition to impeachment as proof that Democrats are operating with partisan bias.
Nunes, who is famous for trying to sue the operator of a spoof Twitter account pretending to be his cow, also accused Democrats of “hypocrisy” and an “impeachment sham.”
— Greg Walters
Schiff: “I do not know the identity of the whistleblower”
House Intel Committee Rep. Adam Schiff said he doesn’t know who wrote the original anonymous complaint that got Trump’s big impeachment ball rolling.
Schiff pushed back against what has already emerged as a key anti-impeachment GOP talking point, which is to make dark accusations of anti-Trump bias and cast the impeachment inquiry as some kind of twisted deep state plot helped along by sneaky Democrats.
House Democrats have said the anonymous intelligence whistleblower did reach out to the House Intelligence Committee staff to ask about the procedure for flagging a complaint. But Schiff said plainly today that doesn’t mean he spoke to the person, or knows who he or she is.
Republicans have frequently accused Schiff of being in person contact with the whistleblower, but there’s no real evidence for that claim.“
— Greg Walters
Here's Rep. Adam Schiff's stunning indictment of Trump
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) laid out a detailed, troubling case against President Trump in his opening statement, framing the key questions he argued should determine whether Trump remained in office.
“The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections? Whether President Trump sought to condition official acts, such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance, on Ukraine’s willingness to assist with two political investigations that would help his reelection campaign? And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency?”
The chairman then laid out Democrats’ case, backed up by multiple witnesses: That Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani began pressing Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden, and that after ousting a career diplomat that push became central to the Trump administration’s efforts towards the country, with military aid withheld to pressure Ukraine. Read the full statement here.
— Cameron Joseph
Cover: Collage by Hunter French | Images via AP