Diplomat ties Trump closer to Ukraine furor

The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine on Wednesday offered a long and intricate account of President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE’s “highly irregular” foreign policy in Kyiv, providing new details of the episode — ones that appeared to boost Democrats’ case — in the first public hearing of their impeachment inquiry.

House Democrats left the open hearing buzzing about the new developments provided by William Taylor, U.S. chargé d'affaires for Ukraine, during his nearly five-hour appearance on Capitol Hill.

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In measured and detailed testimony, Taylor more strongly tied Trump to the push for investigations meant to benefit the president, revealing that a member of his staff overheard a conversation between Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland the day after the president’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

The staffer said Trump was interested in the news on “the investigations,” Taylor testified, referring to the probes sought by Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiNunes: 'Sickening' that Schiff obtained his phone records Meadows: 'I don't see a single Republican defecting on impeachment' Inventing the 'Deep State' and draining the real one MORE, Trump’s personal attorney, into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: Buttigieg 'doesn't have significant black support even in his own city' Biden: 'I'd add' Warren to my list of potential VP picks How can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? MORE and 2016 election interference. Sondland replied that the Ukrainians “were ready to move forward,” he said.

Taylor said that after the conversation, the staffer asked Sondland what the president thought about Ukraine, to which the diplomat replied: “President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.” 

Taylor had not relayed that episode during his closed-door deposition on Oct. 22 because, he said, he simply wasn’t aware of it. The news quickly prompted Democrats to summon Taylor’s staffer to testify, as well. In the midst of the hearing, an official involved in the impeachment inquiry announced that David Holmes, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine under Taylor, is expected to testify in closed session on Friday.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Top Republican: Democrats' weekend document dump shows impeachment inquiry is a 'farce' Nunes: 'Sickening' that Schiff obtained his phone records MORE (D-Calif.) said the new information supports the Democrats’ suspicions that Giuliani’s shadow foreign policy in Kyiv was not a rogue venture, but official marching orders coming from Trump himself. 

“What this call indicates, as other testimony has likewise indicated, is that the instructions are coming from the president on down,” Schiff said. “I think this witness is potentially very important. And of course we are moving to depose this witness [Holmes] and we have already scheduled their deposition.”

Trump later on Wednesday denied knowledge of the call. 

“First time I heard it,” Trump told reporters in the East Room during a press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He dismissed details about the alleged call as both “secondhand” and “thirdhand information.”

Democrats say Taylor’s testimony further supports their case that Sondland was operating at Trump’s behest when he pushed Zelensky’s aides to open investigations into Biden and the 2016 election.

Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing More than 100 Democrats sign letter calling for Stephen Miller to resign Diplomat ties Trump closer to Ukraine furor MORE (D-N.J.), a former National Security Council (NSC) and State Department official who took part in the closed-door depositions, described the Sondland-Trump phone call as straying from the normal protocol, particularly because the NSC typically briefs the president on calls with foreign leaders. 

“It is even more clear that Trump was running this play through Sondland and that Sondland was operating under Trump’s direction when he told the Ukrainians no aid without investigations,” Malinowski told The Hill, reacting to the new details.

Democrats say Taylor’s testimony raises the stakes for next week’s open hearing with Sondland, who initially testified that Trump had not dangled U.S. aid to Ukraine in return for political favors. He later amended his testimony to say that he “presumed” aid to Kyiv to be linked to Ukraine making a statement about investigations. 

While Democrats crowed over that information, Republicans also found ammunition for one of their central arguments: that Taylor’s testimony is unreliable since it hinges on secondhand accounts.  

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) asked Taylor whether it was possible he could have been “mistaken” about his view on the investigations, while pointing out that the other people he talked to could have been wrong as well.

“So you could be wrong,” Turner said, after Taylor replied generally that “people make mistakes.”

“I was not wrong about what I told you, which is what I heard. That is all I have said. I have told you what I heard,” Taylor responded.

Taylor, who emphasized his years of government service in his introduction and denied the president’s claims he is a “Never Trumper,” remained adamant when Republicans sought to poke holes in his testimony that it was his “clear understanding” U.S. aid was contingent on investigations. 

Conducted by the House Intelligence Committee, Wednesday’s hearing marked the first public testimony in the Democrats’ hard-charging impeachment inquiry. Featuring testimony from Taylor and George Kent, another top State Department official, it follows roughly seven weeks of closed-door depositions with 15 top diplomats and national security officials who shared insights into Trump’s Ukraine dealings, despite an effort by the White House to impede cooperation with the investigation. Like Taylor, Kent had also testified previously in a private deposition.

Democrats, who announced eight additional public hearings next week, are hoping that the next set of witnesses will build off of the testimonies given by Kent and Taylor.

For the most part, Republicans focused their arguments on what they claimed was a lack of evidence that Trump had committed an impeachable offense. 

In particular, they emphasized that neither Taylor nor Kent could directly link the president to a quid pro quo because neither had direct contact with Trump, and that both Trump and Zelensky have claimed that there was no pressure for such a transaction on the July 25 phone call.

Because there is no smoking gun, Republicans say there is no linkage between the nearly $400 million in U.S. financial aid to Ukraine, which Trump froze temporarily over the summer and later released, and the investigations Trump sought from Zelensky.

“The Ukrainians didn't even know the aid was withheld at the time of the phone call and, most importantly — this has been pointed out — the Ukrainians didn't take any specific action relative to the investigations to get the money released,” said Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTrump, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ohio), who was recently tapped to serve temporarily as a House Intelligence member. 

And Republicans like Jordan sought to undermine Democrats’ argument by claiming Taylor was Democrats’ “star witness,” who lacked firsthand knowledge of key events.

“I don't consider myself a star witness for anything,” Taylor replied, while reiterating that he is not advocating “any particular outcome.”

Republicans made calls for the whistleblower — who first raised allegations of the president’s contacts with Ukraine — to come forward. An effort to subpoena the whistleblower failed in a committee vote, and Democrats quipped back that this all started with the president.

“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,” said Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchProviding more information on the prescription drug supply chain will help lower costs for all Impeachment hearing breaks into laughter after Democrat contrasts it to Hallmark movie Diplomat ties Trump closer to Ukraine furor MORE (D-Vt.).