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Democrats target Trump defenses in first impeachment hearing

Two articulate and polished career diplomats lend gravitas to much-anticipated public event

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, joined by other House Democrats, speaks to reporters Wednesday's hearing. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, joined by other House Democrats, speaks to reporters Wednesday's hearing. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats used the first day of impeachment hearings to take aim at the various defenses President Donald Trump and his congressional allies have raised during the inquiry into his Ukraine dealings — a strategy that allows them to advance their case alongside a drumbeat of witness testimony over the next two weeks.

The House Intelligence Committee started that push Wednesday with two articulate and polished veteran diplomats, whose deep knowledge of Ukraine turned into succinct explanations of the unusual circumstances surrounding how the Trump administration handled almost $400 million in military aid to the country.

Democrats say their inquiry shows Trump abused the power of his office when he conditioned that aid on Ukraine’s president publicly announcing investigations into former vice president and potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden, his son Hunter and an energy company called Burisma.

To bat away arguments that such actions are common in foreign relations, Democrats asked questions that got acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, a Trump appointee, to say he had never seen another example of such an arrangement.

Taylor also later told California Democrat Eric Swalwell that the “holding up of security assistance that would go to a country that is fighting an aggression from Russia, for no good policy, no good substantive reason, no good national security reason, is wrong.”

Taylor said suspending or threatening to suspend security assistance sends an important message to the Russians, “who are looking for any sign of weakness or any sign we are withdrawing our support of Ukraine.”

“It’s hard to draw any direct lines between any particular element of security assistance and any particular death on the battlefield, but it is certainly true that assistance had enabled Ukrainian armed forces to be effective, and deter, and take countermeasures to the attacks that the Russians have,” Taylor said.

To fend off arguments that Ukraine got the money without having to make any announcement about the investigations, Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi asked questions that pointed out that the funds were released two days after House Democrats launched a probe based on a whistleblower.

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And to counterarguments that Trump was only acting to clamp down on corruption in Ukraine in the same way that Biden did, Democrats got George Kent to explain that the two scenarios were not the same.

Biden was requesting the removal of a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor as part of a broader and long-running international effort to fight corruption, said the deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs who has worked on anti-corruption for years. Trump was not.

Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes then replied that he didn’t think Trump was “trying to end corruption in Ukraine. I think he was trying to aim corruption in Ukraine at Vice President Biden and at the 2020 election.”

Republican counterpoints

For their part, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee used their questions to point to what they see as shortcomings in the Democrats’ rush to conclude Trump had done something wrong.

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who joined the panel for the upcoming series of impeachment hearings, was among those who pounded on the idea that Taylor and Kent might not have a clear understanding of what happened because their information was only from other people.

“I don’t consider myself a star witness to anything,” Taylor replied at one point. “I’m not here to take one side or the other or advocate any outcome. My understanding is only coming from people I talked to.”

“We got that,” Jordan replied.

[GOP relies on familiar defenses as impeachment hearings open]

Ohio Rep. Michael R. Turner pointed out that neither Taylor nor Kent had any conversations with Trump, let alone about Ukraine. He got Taylor to say that people sometimes make mistakes.

“So you could be wrong,” Turner said.

And Republicans pointed out that Ukrainians were not even aware that military aid was being withheld at the time of the July 25 phone call in which Trump told the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, “I would like you to do us a favor” and announce investigations.

Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe noted how Zelenskiy said repeatedly and consistently that he was not aware of a hold during that call and there was no pressure or threats.

“That was his direct testimony,” Ratcliffe said. “Ambassador Taylor, do you have any evidence to assert that Mr. Zelenskiy was lying to the world press when he said those things?” Taylor responded that he didn’t.

“So, in this impeachment hearing today, where we impeach presidents for treason or bribery or other high crimes, where is the impeachable offense in that call?” Ratcliffe said. “If House Democrats impeach President Trump for a quid pro quo involving military aid, they have to call President Zelenskiy a liar.”

The back-and-forth continued through nearly six hours of testimony that produced few heated partisan moments or procedural hurdles from Republicans, in part because of the professionalism and gravitas brought by Kent and Taylor.

The duo, in opening statements, laid out in painstaking detail much of what they had said in closed-door depositions.

Kent said Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was trying to “gin up” politically motivated probes. Taylor said the odd push for investigations showed how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Giuliani.

“I think I’m a pretty good lawyer and can defend a lot, but I have no idea how I could defend Trump given the testimony today,” tweeted Neal Katyal, a Supreme Court lawyer who has fought Trump policies in court and has been an outspoken critic of the president.

Tailoring the message

Democrats on the committee, in other ways, tailored their message for the public. Chairman Adam B. Schiff, a former prosecutor, focused his opening statement on Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, the 14,000 Ukrainians who have died defending the country, and how much Ukraine depends on the United States.

Then Schiff turned to whether Trump had exploited that vulnerability and conditioned military aid or a White House visit on assistance with two political investigations.

“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” the California Democrat said. “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.”

Schiff’s lawyerly statement was starkly different from the way he opened a hearing in September, when he gave what he later called a “parody” account of Trump’s phone call, at one point purposely misquoting the White House-released account of the conversation. That portrayal became a Republican talking point to attack Schiff.

On Wednesday, it was House Intelligence ranking member Devin Nunes who struck a mocking tone, blasting the hearing as a “televised, theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.” The entire impeachment inquiry, the California Republican said, was a “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” to the special counsel investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 elections.

The hearings continue Friday, with testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine.

House Democrats announced Tuesday night that they want to hear from eight witnesses over three days next week. All have given depositions to investigators in the closed portion of the inquiry.

The schedule appears designed to get in as much public testimony as possible before the Thanksgiving holiday. The House is scheduled to recess next Thursday through the holiday and will not return until December.

Two more closed-door depositions were added to the impeachment schedule for later this week. David Holmes, an official working at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, is scheduled to testify Friday, and Mark Sandy, an official working in the Office of Management and Budget, is scheduled to testify Saturday.

Patrick Kelley and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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