Democrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing

House Democrats got what they wanted out of their first impeachment hearing on Wednesday: testimony from witnesses outlining how President TrumpDonald John TrumpMilitary personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has total of 20 patients: report Fauci says that all states should have stay-at-home orders MORE pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate his political opponents. 

Democrats said putting the two career State Department officials on the record lays the groundwork for building their case that Trump abused his office for his own political gain.

And they secured new evidence at the start of the hearing as William Taylor, the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine, testified that his staffer had overheard Trump asking U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland about the “investigations” in a July phone call.

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Those investigations, Taylor said, were regarding former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims The Memo: Scale of economic crisis sends shudders through nation The Hill's Campaign Report: Coronavirus forces Democrats to postpone convention MORE and the business dealings of his son, as well as 2016 election interference. And Democrats seized on it as further proof that Trump himself was overseeing the effort.

“What this call indicates, as other testimony has likewise indicated, is that the instructions are coming from the president on down,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffPelosi forms House committee to oversee coronavirus response 5 reasons Democrats fear Trump's coronavirus briefings Democrats introduce bill to set up commission to review coronavirus response MORE (D-Calif.) said after the hearing.

After six weeks of closed-door depositions, Democrats are using the open hearings to air out their findings in the public sphere by displaying what they believe are the most damning lines of testimony.

“I think the game changer is that the American people get to hear for themselves the evidence,” said Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroTexas House Dems ask governor to issue stay-at-home order ICE under pressure to release detainees threatened by coronavirus Latinos projected to bear economic brunt of coronavirus MORE (D-Texas), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Democrats aren’t quite done with the closed-door sessions, though. They have scheduled testimony from David Holmes, the staffer who overheard Trump’s phone call with Sondland, on Friday, as well as Office of Management and Budget official Mark Sandy on Saturday.

But after former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s testimony in July initially fell flat for impeachment backers, Wednesday’s hearing offered Democrats a platform to help build their impeachment case against Trump.

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Taylor, in particular, delivered a lengthy opening statement that offered a richly detailed timeline of his worries that the president’s policy in Ukraine had become inappropriate and focused on securing investigations into domestic political rivals. 

He later said he had not seen another example of a president conditioning foreign aid on delivering investigations — a key part of the Democrats’ investigation into whether the Trump administration made military aid dependent on Ukraine starting the investigations into the Bidens.

Kent also testified that “as a general principle, I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country.” 

And in sharp contrast to Mueller, who repeatedly referred lawmakers to his report on Russia’s election interference and deprived them of sound bites, Taylor complied with lawmakers’ requests to read aloud text messages he had sent expressing his concerns about the Trump administration holding up military aid to Ukraine. 

Republicans, meanwhile, stressed that the witnesses on the stand didn’t interact directly with the president and argued that the hearing was “boring.”

“The ultimate judge will be the American people, and I think most of them will see what I’m seeing in that room. It’s reporters and people in the audience who are yawning because this is all about a policy difference between the president of the United States and a few people in the State Department,” Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMeadows sets up coronavirus hotline for members of Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report: McConnell, Pelosi at odds over next relief bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump blends upbeat virus info and high US death forecast MORE (R-N.C.) told reporters midway through the hearing. 

The White House’s impeachment response efforts have been scattered for weeks, left largely to the whims of a mercurial president who has careened from talking point to talking point as new evidence emerged.

At first, it appeared Trump’s allies were grasping for a clear way to rebut allegations from Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent.

But toward the end of Wednesday’s hearing, a clearer line of defense came into view.

Trump and his allies seized on acknowledgements from both Taylor and Kent that they had never spoken directly with the president and the fact that some of Taylor’s most damning allegations were based on secondhand or thirdhand information.

“Dems star witnesses can’t provide any firsthand knowledge of any wrongdoing by [Trump]. Their own testimony contradicts the Dems false quid pro quo narrative,” White House press secretary Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamOAN says it will attend briefing as White House guest after violating social distancing rules UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tests positive for coronavirus White House press secretary to return to work after negative virus test MORE tweeted.

The Trump campaign issued a statement dismissing the testimony as “thirdhand hearsay” and ridiculing Kent and Taylor as “unelected, career government bureaucrats who think they know best.”

In his only public comments after the conclusion of Wednesday’s hearings, Trump argued that there was nothing to directly implicate him.

“They said it’s all thirdhand information. Nothing direct at all. Can’t be direct because I never said it,” Trump said during a news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claiming that he had only heard about the hearings through reports.

“That this country gets put through that, that we have to waste this gentleman’s time by even thinking about it, talking about it — I’d much rather focus on peace in the Middle East,” Trump said, motioning to Erdogan. “I hear that it’s a hoax. And it’s being played as a hoax. That’s what I hear.”

Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanJustice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court The relief bill and public broadcasting: A missed opportunity Meadows joins White House in crisis mode MORE (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee who was added to the Intelligence panel last week, similarly stressed that neither of the witnesses on Wednesday had “ever talked” to Trump.

Yet Jordan defended the White House efforts to block testimony from officials with firsthand knowledge of the push for the Ukrainian government to open the investigations requested by Trump.

“These are close advisers to the president. The long history of our country is they don’t have to testify,” Jordan said.

Democrats maintained that they have nevertheless been able to corroborate the allegations in the intelligence community whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment inquiry. And they argue their best piece of firsthand evidence is from Trump himself in the rough transcript of the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“We have first-person information by the president releasing the summary of the telephone call. And you can look at that telephone call and then look at actions that happened after that telephone call and see what the president was doing,” said Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOvernight Defense: Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with outbreak | Trump to expand use of defense law to build ventilators | Hospital ships receiving few patients Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with coronavirus outbreak House Democrats eyeing much broader Phase 3 stimulus MORE (D-Calif.). “And then there’s all kinds of circumstantial evidence to prove that what they laid out was actually happening.”