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Trump impeachment inquiry hears new claims

November 14, 2019

Lawmakers were told of an overheard phone call in which US President Donald Trump seemed preoccupied with an investigation into his domestic political rival. They also heard about "irregular" Ukraine policy channels.

George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, are sworn in during a House Intelligence Committee public hearing in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 13, 2019.
Image: Reuters/E. Scott

The top US diplomat in Ukraine and a senior State Department official on Wednesday testified at the first public hearing in the House of Representatives' impeachment probe into US President Donald Trump.

A whistleblower's complaint about a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 25 sparked the impeachment investigation.

Lawmakers on Wednesday heard details of a separate phone call in which Trump was said to be preoccupied with an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden. 

What we knew about the original call

  • In an abridged call transcript. Zelenskiy expressed a desire for military aid for Ukraine, which was on hold at the time.  
  • The US president later said: "I would like you to do us a favor though."
  • Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate a debunked right-wing conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.
  • He went on to ask Zelenskiy to investigate the activities of Democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden's son, Hunter, in Ukraine.
  • The Democrats allege Trump used his office to pressure a foreign government to help him politically — threatening to withhold military aid amid Ukraine's domestic conflict.

Trump has said the call was "perfect" and contained no explicit "quid pro quo."

Tying US aid to certain conditions is by no means uncommon; tying it to such overtly domestic party political issues is rarer, with the Democrats seeking to demonstrate it's not legal in this case.

Read more: Donald Trump impeachment drama hits prime-time TV

Who we heard from this time

William Taylor: The US' highest diplomat in Ukraine. He's officially the Chargé d'Affaires for Ukraine, which is basically the acting US ambassador in Kyiv. 

George Kent: The deputy assistant secretary of state overseeing European and Eurasian affairs.

Both men  spoke in the earlier proceedings — but behind closed doors. 

Kent — Politically associated investigations

Kent said on Wednesday he did not believe the US should ask other countries to engage in "selective, politically associated investigations" and that such "selective actions'' undermine the rule of law regardless of the country.

USA Impeachment öffentliche Anhörung
US diplomat George Kent was the first to speakImage: Reuters/J. Ernst

Kent said he never saw any efforts by US officials to shield from scrutiny a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma, where Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden, sat on the board. Kent also said he raised concerns in 2015 that Hunter Biden's role at the company could create the perception of a conflict of interest.

Taylor — 'Regular' and 'irregular' Ukraine policy channels

In his first comments, Taylor told House lawmakers that he noticed there were two policy channels operating with Ukraine: a "regular'' and an "irregular'' one.

Read more: Donald Trump impeachment drama hits prime-time TV

Taylor said the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was guiding requests through the irregular channel. He said it slowly became clear to him that conditions were being placed on Ukraine's new president and that he was told to look into possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election and Hunter Biden's role at Burisma.

Taylor also said his staff had recently told him that they overheard Trump speaking on the phone to another diplomat about investigations the day after the July 25 phone call.

Overheard call at a restaurant

Taylor also said some of his staff were at a restaurant with Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and that Sondland called Trump from the restaurant and the staff could hear Trump on the phone asking about "the investigations.''

Sondland told the president that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Taylor said. Following the call, the staff member asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine.

"Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for," Taylor testified.

Asked by Adam Schiff, the committee's Democratic chairman, if that meant Trump cared more about the investigations than about Ukraine, Taylor said, "Yes, sir."

Speaking ahead of the impeachment probe, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it was "a sad day, which I wish we [had] never had to face."

In a video released by the White House, Trump said the impeachment probe was "the single greatest scam in the history of American politics."

It is the fourth time in US history that Congress has launched impeachment proceedings against a sitting president.