Updated at 1:30 pm on Nov. 13
Two U.S. diplomats told the impeachment investigation targeting U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday that he created an “irregular channel” to deal with Ukraine, headed by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, in hopes of getting Kyiv to open investigations to help Trump politically.
The State Department officials — William Taylor, the current top American diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, who oversees Ukraine affairs — said that over time they came to realize that Giuliani, a former New York mayor, was acting at Trump’s behest outside normal State Department confines, sidelining normal relations between Washington and Kyiv.
The diplomats said Giuliani was pushing Kyiv to open an investigation of a chief Trump 2020 political challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden’s work for the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma. They said Guiliani also was pushing a probe into a debunked theory that Ukraine — and not Russia — meddled in Trump’s 2016 election campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The investigations Trump wanted Ukraine to open came at a time he was blocking the release of $391 million in military aid Kyiv wanted for its fight against pro-Russian separatists it was fighting in the eastern part of the country.
Taylor told the House Intelligence Committee, “More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance.”
LIVE: Watch the hearing
However, Trump, under pressure from U.S. lawmakers to release the assistance, eventually dispatched the aid on Sept. 11 even though Ukraine had not opened the investigations of the Bidens. Republicans defending Trump say the fact the aid was eventually released is key evidence to support the president’s claim there was no quid pro quo — the military aid in exchange for the investigations of the Bidens.
As the dramatic hearing unfolded before a nationally televised audience – only the fourth time in U.S. history that an American leader is facing an impeachment inquiry – the White House pushed back against the testimony and the proceeding that threatens Trump’s three-year presidency.
“This sham hearing is not only boring, it is a colossal waste of taxpayer time & money,” Trump spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said. “Congress should be working on passing (a new trade treaty with Canada and Mexico), funding our govt & military, working on reduced drug pricing & much more. @realDonaldTrump is working right now-the dems should follow his lead!”
In the Oval Office, Trump told reporters “I’m too busy to watch it. It’s a witch hunt it’s a hoax.”
Congressman Adam Schiff, the leader of the Democratic effort to impeach Trump, accused the president in his opening statement of pressuring Ukraine for the politically-tinged investigations while withholding the military aid.
“The matter is as simple, and as terrible as that,” said Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence panel. “If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?”
But a staunch Trump defender, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, called the hearing a “televised theatrical performance” and an “impeachment process in search of a crime.” He belittled secret hearings over the last several weeks and called the release of transcripts of officials who have testified against Trump a “carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.”
Taylor and Kent were testifying publicly after weeks of behind-closed-doors hearings.
More than a dozen current and former diplomatic and national security officials, including Taylor and Kent, laid out the case in private testimony that Trump temporarily withheld the military aid to Ukraine to fight the pro-Russian separatists unless Zelenskiy publicly promised to open the Biden investigations.
In the hours ahead of the testimony, Trump railed against the Democratic-led impeachment effort that threatens his presidency, quoting one supporter as noting that he eventually released the U.S. assistance to Kyiv in September without the investigations of the Bidens being opened.
Trump said the witnesses expected to testify about his actions involving Ukraine are “NEVER TRUMPERS!”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019
However, almost uniformly, they are career diplomats and national security officials who have worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations or in the case of one key witness next week, Sondland, appointed to his ambassadorship in Brussels by Trump.
Trump has described his late July call with Zelenskiy as “perfect” and urged Americans to “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!”
READ THE TRANSCRIPT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019
Trump’s supporters say that Trump never specifically mentioned a quid pro quo in the call – the military aid in exchange for the politically tinged probes that would help Trump as he seeks re-election in November 2020.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Schiff said Taylor, Kent and a third witness set to testify Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, “bring decades of dedicated and exemplary service to our nation,”
But Republicans, according to memos circulating Tuesday to party members ahead of the hearings, plan to sharply question Taylor’s and Kent’s understanding of Trump’s intent in dealing with Ukraine and insist that Trump had a “deep-seated, genuine and reasonable skepticism” about corruption in Ukraine and that his withholding aid was “entirely reasonable.”
The House Intelligence Committee will also hold three days of hearing next week. Among the witnesses scheduled to appear then are Sondland, Ambassador Kurt Volker, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former National Security Council senior director Fiona Hill.