WASHINGTON – Two top US diplomats delivered gripping testimony Wednesday about Donald Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden, as the impeachment inquiry into the president shifted into a new phase of high-stakes televised hearings.
Trump dismissed the probe in the Democratic-led House of Representatives as a “witch hunt” and said he was “too busy” to watch the first public hearings, during which he received staunch backing from Republican lawmakers.
William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, began his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee with a new revelation about Trump’s efforts to pressure Kiev — the main issue of just the fourth impeachment process in US history.
Democrats accuse Trump of abusing his power by using US military assistance and a possible White House meeting to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky into opening a probe into the Democrat Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
The key evidence is the official White House transcript of a July 25 telephone call between Trump and Zelensky in which the US president asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the Bidens.
Taylor testified that he was told Trump cared more about the probe than he did about Ukraine.
The grey-haired former Army officer and veteran diplomat, who testified in a closed hearing last month, said he had since become aware of a telephone call between Trump and the US’s EU ambassador Gordon Sondland, which a member of Taylor’s staff overheard.
The staffer asked Sondland after the call what Trump thought about Ukraine and was told that “President Trump cared more about the investigations of Biden,” Taylor said.
Freshman House Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken Trump critic, said the new Taylor comment added “a layer of proximity” for the president.
“(Trump) himself was making and partaking in some of these phone calls… And that really adds a much more disturbing degree of the involvement that he had in using the powers of government to create politically motivated investigations,” the New York representative told CNN.
Asked about the new allegations, while hosting his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House, Trump replied: “First time I’ve heard it.” Sondland “did speak to me for a brief moment, and I said no quid pro quo under any circumstances.”
Republicans sought to undercut the witnesses’ testimony by focusing on Hunter Biden’s role on the Burisma board, pointing out that he was paid 50,000 a month and questioning his qualifications.
They also stressed that the Ukrainians were not aware for months that the White House had put a hold on the nearly 400 million in military assistance and that it was eventually released in September.
“What did President Zelensky actually do to get the aid?” asked John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican congressman. “The answer is nothing. He didn’t open investigations.
“He didn’t do any of the things that House Democrats say that he was being forced and coerced and threatened to do.” In his opening statement, Taylor recalled opposing making US military aid to Ukraine or a White House visit by Zelensky contingent on Kiev investigating the Bidens.
“Withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be crazy,” he said. “I believed that then and I believe it now.”
Taylor said an “irregular policy channel” involving former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, was pushing for the Ukrainian probe into the Bidens.
Fellow witness George Kent, a career diplomat, was asked what interests Giuliani was promoting.
“I believe he was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival in the next election cycle,” said the deputy assistant secretary of state.
“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.”
If the House impeaches Trump, it would then go to trial in the Senate, where Republicans enjoy a 53-47 majority.
The next hearing is scheduled for Friday, featuring the US ambassador to Ukraine who Kent said was recalled by Trump after being subjected to a “smear campaign” by Giuliani.
Eight more witnesses, including Sondland, are to appear next week, the second of several planned weeks of hearings.
The investigation threatens to make Trump the third US president to be impeached, after Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, although the Senate would need to convict him to remove him from office.
Neither Johnson nor Clinton was convicted. But in 1974, Richard Nixon resigned in the face of certain impeachment and removal from office for the Watergate scandal.
In his opening statement, committee chairman Adam Schiff, the California congressman overseeing the probe, said the proceedings will examine “whether President Trump sought to exploit (Ukraine’s) vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections.” “If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the panel, hit back by accusing Democrats of a “carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.”
“It’s nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime.” Coming just one year before elections, the hearings carry great risks for both parties and no certain reward, with a divided US electorate weary of Washington infighting. (AFP)
Impeachment proceedings a ‘sham and should not be allowed’: Trump
US President Donald Trump has said that the impeachment proceedings against him in the Democratic-led House of Representatives are a “sham and should not be allowed.”
The public hearing of the probe kicked off on Wednesday as William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, testified for more than five hours before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Trump is facing allegations of using his office to pressure Ukraine officials for personal political gain against Democratic presidential aspirant Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
This is a sham and shouldn’t be allowed. It was a situation that was caused by people that shouldn’t have allowed it to happen, Trump told reporters at the White House during a joint press conference with the visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Trump, who was in meetings with Erdogan for most of the day at the White House said that he did not watch the public hearing on his impeachment.
Are you talking about the witch hunt? Is that what you mean? Is that what you’re talking about? I hear it’s a joke, he said when a reporter asked about his general reaction to the impeachment hearing.
I haven’t watched. I haven’t watched for one minute because I’ve been with the (Turkish) President, which is much more important, as far as I’m concerned, Trump said, adding that he would want to find out who is the whistleblower.
It is the whistleblower, he said, who gave a lot of very incorrect information, including that of his call with the President of Ukraine in July, which he asserted was a perfect call and highly appropriate.
He wrote something that was much different than the fact. I want to find out why the IG — why would he have presented that, when, in fact, all he had to do was check the call itself and he would have seen it, he said.
Trump said that he would be releasing transcripts of another call with the Ukrainian President on Thursday.
I’m going to be releasing — I think, on Thursday — a second call, which actually was the first of the two. And you’ll make a determination as to what you think there. But I’ve heard — just a report — they said it’s all third-hand information. Nothing direct at all. It can’t be direct because I never said it, he said.
And all they have to do is look very, very simply at the transcript. If you read the transcript — this was analyzed by great lawyers. This was analyzed by Gregg Jarrett. It was analyzed by Mark Levin. It was analyzed by everybody. They said this statement that I made — the whole call that I made with the President of Ukraine was a perfect one, he said.
I hear that it’s a hoax, and it’s being played as a hoax. That’s what I hear, but you’ll have to tell me, Trump said.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the witnesses said there was little merit to the investigations the president sought.
Kent, asked for the basis for allegations by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani against Biden and his son Hunter, saying he had none whatsoever.
He also said the former vice president’s anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine while he was in office were important, though he acknowledged that the reputation of a Ukrainian company whose board Hunter Biden served on was mixed.
He also said there was no factual basis for allegations of Ukrainian election interference, the daily reported.
Taylor reiterated that he saw a link between the aid to Ukraine and investigations Trump wanted the country to pursue.
In a new disclosure, Taylor said that since testifying behind closed doors, he had heard from a member of his staff who was present for a July 26 call between Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and the president, the daily said.
The White House later alleged that the Democrats in Congress have been selling their far-left base on impeachment since Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential race.
After nearly 3 years of coming up empty including USD32 million of taxpayer money spent on the Russia collusion hoax Democrat leaders knew they needed to do something to appease their party’s left fringe.
House Democrats are effectively shutting down Congress yet again over their impeachment sham. Nothing substantive can get done while the left remains fixated on undoing the 2016 election. They have repeatedly ignored opportunities to work with President Trump and take action on issues that will help the very people they represent, The White House alleged.
According to The Hill, the Democrats entered Wednesday hoping to manage the tone, and they largely succeeded.
But there were no real fireworks or bombshells during the 5 1/2 hours of testimony. Taylor and Kent are obscure figures, unknown in most households. And the issue involves Ukraine, a country that most Americans couldn’t find on a map, it said.
All of that explains why Wednesday’s hearing isn’t likely to move sceptical Republicans or public opinion in favour of impeachment, The Hill reported.
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