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WASHINGTON (CN) – The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee kicked off the long-awaited open hearings in President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry on Wednesday with the stark message that democracy hangs in its balance.
"If the president of the United States can simply refuse all oversight, particularly in context of impeachment, the balance of power between the two branches of government will be irrevocably altered,” said Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the committee.
“That is not what the founders intended,” he added.
Representative Devin Nunes, the ranking member for the Republicans, meanwhile launched a full-bore attack against U.S. diplomats who testified last month in closed-door depositions, saying they passed the “Star Chamber auditions.”
Describing the open proceedings as a “televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats,” Nunes claimed: “The Democrats cooperated in Ukrainian election meddling."
There is no evidence that the Ukrainian government interfered in U.S. elections, a point made by every U.S. diplomatic and military official who testified privately last month.
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, came prepared for attacks on U.S. diplomats.
“Such attacks came from the Russians, their proxies and corrupt Ukrainians,” Kent told the committee today, calling it “most unfortunate to watch some Americans” indulge in similar smears.
During his private testimony on Oct. 15, Kent skewered what he called Rudy Giuliani’s “campaign of slander” against U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovich on Trump’s behalf.
Kent in his opening remarks also threw cold water on insinuations by Republicans that Hunter Biden’s activities on the board were corrupt.
When Kent first raised concerns in 2015 with Ukraine’s prosecutor general about why the investigation of Burisma’s owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, was nixed, he speculated that the prosecutors who closed the investigations had been bribed to do so.
It wasn’t until long after he raised those concerns that Kent even learned Hunter Biden sat on the board, he said. Once armed with that knowledge, he made a call. Kent reached out to national security staff in former Vice President Joe Biden’s office at the time and said he expressed concerns over the “perception of conflict of interest.”
“Let me be clear,” Kent said. “I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny. In fact, I and other U.S. officials consistently advocated reinstituting a scuttled investigation of Zlochevsky, Burisma’s founder, as well as holding corrupt prosecutors who closed the case to account.”
William Taylor, the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine tapped as Yovanovich’s successor, had previously described Giuliani as a participant in the “irregular, informal channel of U.S. policymaking with respect to Ukraine.”