WASHINGTON, D.C. (WWNY) - The first day of historic impeachment hearings involving President Trump and Ukraine wrapped up late Wednesday afternoon, with the promise of more to come on Friday.
Top diplomat William Taylor revealed for the first time Wednesday new evidence of Presidend Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate political rivals.
Among the members of congress asking questions Wednesday, north country congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who was among the Republicans who challenged the basis for the impeachment hearings.
The House intelligence committee is investigating whether President Trump improperly delayed military aid to Ukraine in an effort to secure a public promise from Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden, one of the president’s rivals in the 2020 election.
Stefanik is a member of the intelligence committee and, as such, gets to ask questions of the witnesses called.
Stefanik made the argument Wednesday that what President Trump did was normal, and in keeping with what the Obama administration had done. She has said the impeachment hearings are a political attack on President Trump.
Here’s one exchange Stefanik had with State Department official George Kent:
Stefanik: And broadly, this is very important, you testify in your deposition that when the State Department evaluates foreign assistance, it is appropriate for them to look at levels of corruption in countries.
Kent: That’s correct.
Stefanik: And lastly, you also testified that, this is your quote, issues of corruption have been part of high level dialog between U.S. leaders and Ukrainian leaders regardless of who is the U.S. leader and who is the Ukrainian leader. And that is a normal issue of diplomatic discussion at the highest level, end quote. Is that correct?
Kent: That’s correct.
In another exchange, Stefanik asked Kent about Burisma, the Ukrainian company which placed Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, on its Board of Directors. Republicans have been trying to make the case that because Burisma is famously corrupt, it was proper for President Trump to seek an investigation into the company and the roles of both Bidens.
Stefanik: And you testified that the issue of corruption in Burisma was in the U.S. interest because - quote - and this is from your deposition - We had made a commitment to the Ukranian government in 2014 to try to recover an estimated tens of billions of stolen dollars, of stolen assets, out of the country. Is that correct?
Kent: That is stolen assets that were in the name of the owner of Burisma, Mykola Zlochevsky, he was the one who we believed had stolen the money.
Stefanik: So the first case, this was the first case that the U.S., U.K. and Ukraine investigators worked on was against the owner of Burisma?
Kent: That’s correct.
Stefanik: And this was during the Obama administration?
Kent: That’s correct.
Stefanik: So for the millions of Americans viewing, the first investigation against the owner of Burisma was under President Obama’s administration.
Kent: That’s correct.
During testimony Wednesday, William Taylor, the highest-ranking U.S. official in Ukraine, said for the first time that Trump was overheard asking another ambassador about “the investigations” he’d urged Ukraine’s leader to conduct one day earlier. Taylor said he learned of Trump’s phone call with the ambassador only in recent days.
Republicans retorted that the Democrats still have no more than second- and third-hand knowledge of allegations that Trump held up millions of dollars in military aid for the Eastern European nation facing Russian aggression. Trump is accused of trying to trade that aid for Ukrainian investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee.
The hearing, the first on television for the nation to see, provided hours of partisan back-and-forth but so far no singular moment etched in the public consciousness as grounds for removing the 45th president from office. Trump, who was meeting at the White House with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared he was “too busy” to watch.
The long day of testimony unfolded partly the way Democrats leading the inquiry wanted: in the somber tones of two career foreign service officers who described confusion both within the U.S. government and in Ukraine about what Trump wanted from Kyiv. Taylor testified alongside George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department.
Taylor said his staff recently told him they overheard Trump’s phone call with another diplomat, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with the new leader of Ukraine that sparked the impeachment investigation. The staffer explained that Sondland had called the president and Trump could be heard asking about “the investigations.” Sondland told the president the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Taylor testified.
The impeachment inquiry was launched after an anonymous whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, including a July phone call in which he urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate unfounded corruption allegations into Biden and Biden’s son -- all while the U.S. was holding up U.S. military aid.
At the start, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, outlined the question at the core of the impeachment inquiry -- whether the president used his office for personal political gain.
“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” said Schiff of California. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander in chief.”
Republicans lawmakers immediately pushed Democrats to hear in closed session from the anonymous whistleblower. Schiff denied the request at the time but said it would be considered later.
“We will do everything necessary to protect the whistleblower’s identity,” Schiff declared.
The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said Trump had a “perfectly good reason” for wanting to investigate the role of Democrats in 2016 election interference, giving airtime to a theory that runs counter to mainstream U.S. intelligence which found that Russia intervened and favored Trump.
Nunes accused the Democratic majority of conducting a “scorched earth” effort to take down the president after the special counsel’s Russia investigation into the 2016 election failed to spark impeachment proceedings.
“We’re supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out new allegations?” said Nunes, a top Trump ally.
Nunes called the Ukraine matter a “low rent” sequel to the Russia probe. “Democrats are advancing their impeachment sham,” he said.
Both Taylor and Kent defied White House instructions not to testify. They both received subpoenas to appear.
The veteran foreign service officers delivered heartfelt history lessons about Ukraine, a young and hopeful democracy, situated next to Russia but reaching out to the West.
Asked about a text message released earlier in the probe in which Taylor called it “crazy” to withhold the security aid to a foreign ally, he said, “It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy."
Kent, in his opening remarks, directly contradicted a core complaint against Joe Biden being raised by allies of the White House, saying he never heard any U.S. official try to shield a Ukraine company from investigations.
Kent acknowledged that he himself raised concerns in 2015 about the then vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, being on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine gas company. 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.
Whether Wednesday’s proceedings begin to end a presidency or help secure Trump’s position, it was certain his chaotic term had finally arrived at a place he could not control and a force, the constitutional system of checks and balances, that he could not ignore.
Unlike the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon, there is not yet a "cancer-on-the-presidency" moment galvanizing public opinion. Nor is there the national shrug, as happened when Bill Clinton's impeachment ultimately didn't result in his removal from office. It's perhaps most like the partisanship-infused impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War.