Wednesday’s start of public impeachment hearings unfolding in the U.S. Congress marked the first time that the American public could watch and listen to the witnesses whose testimony is at the centre of the Democrats’ investigation.
Over several hours of testimony, punctuated by occasional bickering among lawmakers, some memorable moments emerged.
Here are some key takeaways from the first public witnesses: chargé d’affaires for Ukraine William Taylor and deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs George Kent.
Trump pushed for Biden investigation
Hearings like this one can be scripted affairs. But there was an early surprise.
Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, revealed for the first time that his staff members overheard U.S. President Donald Trump speaking on the phone to another diplomat about investigations.
Taylor said some of his staff were at a restaurant with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, the day after the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Watch Taylor talk about that call:
Sondland called Trump from the restaurant, and Taylor’s aides could hear Trump on the other end of the phone asking about “the investigations” he had asked Zelensky to pursue the day before.
Taylor took that to mean investigations into former vice-president and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, his son Hunter and the Burisma Group, the Ukrainian firm that had hired Hunter Biden as a director in 2014, he told lawmakers.
“Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said in his opening statement.
“I take it the import of that is that he cares more about that than he does about Ukraine?” the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, asked Taylor.
“Yes, sir,” Taylor responded.
Taylor said he only learned about the call last Friday and didn’t know about it when he appeared for a closed-door deposition with House investigators conducting the impeachment inquiry.
Bribery or quid pro quo?
The impeachment inquiry in many respects is about controlling the narrative. On Wednesday, Democrats seemed to begin to pivot, framing the actions of Trump as possible “bribery” and “extortion” rather than emphasizing a quid pro quo.
Schiff introduced the notion of bribery into the debate when he criticized acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney for saying that people concerned about Trump’s requests that Ukraine conduct political investigations should “get over it” and that there is political influence in all foreign policy.
If the investigation finds that Trump “sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his re-election campaign and did so by withholding official acts — a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid — must we simply get over it?” Schiff said in his opening statement Wednesday, referencing Mulvaney’s quip.
Democratic staff lawyer Daniel Goldman, who was questioning the witnesses, also talked of possible “extortion and bribery” — a gradual change in wording that could preview Democrats’ approach going forward.
Later, Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas questioned the witnesses about the idea of bribery and noted that merely attempting the act could be considered a crime.
Watch that exchange:
Taylor testified that even though Sondland had told him in a Sept. 8 phone call that there was no quid pro quo, Taylor didn’t believe it.
During questioning from Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman, Taylor said Sondland used the word “stalemate,” which Taylor took to mean, if there were no investigation, there would be no financial aid.
Watch that exchange between Goldman and Taylor:
Republicans dismissed the testimony of the witnesses as mere “hearsay” and said the witnesses didn’t provide firsthand knowledge of suspected back-door dealings on Ukraine and did not speak directly with Trump.
Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, suggested the Taylor’s understanding was basically a bad game of telephone.
“We’ve got six people having four conversations in one sentence, and this is where you told me you got your clear understanding,” Jordan said.
Taylor and Kent said their understanding of the issues were sound, gathered from their own knowledge and conversations with trusted staff.
But Democrats had another argument for Republicans: Trump could clear up the ambiguity by allowing those with firsthand knowledge to testify, such as Mulvaney, Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and former national security adviser John Bolton.
Taylor and Kent stood by their understanding of the phone calls, the status of the security aid to Ukraine and the push to get Zelensky to commit to a public statement that he was investigating the issues Trump asked him to look into.
Taylor is a Vietnam War veteran and West Point graduate. Kent is a career foreign service officer with a history of public service in his family going back generations.
Their words laid bare the stakes of the proceedings even as some Republicans sought to minimize them. Their references to serving under presidents of both parties were aimed at pre-empting Republican attacks on them as political partisans. That didn’t stop Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican member on the intelligence committee, from deriding the witnesses as being part of a smear campaign.
Watch Nunes open his remarks by deriding the inquiry:
Taylor capped his opening statement with an ode to how Americans feel in their best moments about their country: “less concerned about what language we speak, what religion, if any, we practice, where our parents and grandparents came from; more concerned about building a new country.”