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.”
The ambassador stuck to that messaging to today, telling legislators in a passionate address that nothing less than a “rules-based order in Ukraine” hung in the balance.
In a bombshell revelation, Taylor testified that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told him that Trump “cared more about investigations into Biden and Burisma” than he did about preserving Ukraine’s national security or sovereignty. Taylor underlined that point again under follow-up questioning by Chairman Schiff, saying the remark occurred on July 26, one day after the phone call between Trump and Zelensky that set the wheels of the impeachment probe in motion.
Taylor noted that, during his call with Sondland, Trump could be heard talking loudly on a cellphone, saying he wanted “investigations.” There was no doubt, Taylor emphasized, that term was mere shorthand for investigations into the 2016 election, Burisma and the Bidens.
The pressure on Ukraine mounted steadily after military aid was delayed. When Taylor said Ukrainian officials called him often, asking when it would finally be released, the Democrats’ general counsel Daniel Goldman launched into a deft line of questioning.
“Did Ukraine owe anything to the United States?” Goldman asked.
Emphatically no, Taylor explained. But Taylor said it was also his understanding that Trump believed Ukraine owed him “something personally.”
“It’s hard to understand, but there was a feeling by President Trump — and this came out in the discussion with the inaugural delegation when they came back on May 23 — he had a feeling of being wronged by the Ukrainians,” Taylor said. “This was something he thought they owed him to fix that.”
Goldman pressed: Did Trump believe he was owed investigations into the Bidens and Burisma in exchange for the security aid?
“That would have been it, to fix that wrong exactly,” Taylor said.
Republicans like Texas Representative John Ratcliffe and Ohio Representative Jim Jordan hammered Kent and Taylor repeatedly, lamenting the absence of “firsthand” knowledge they said the witnesses could offer on the July 25 call as well as other conversations that occurred among members of the State Department.
The criticism was expected from Jordan, who was specifically swapped onto the committee with a less senior Republican lawmaker so he could deliver questions during inquiry hearings.
Jordan, often incredulous, needled Taylor as he referred to him as the Democrats’ “star witness.”
Taylor was unruffled.
“I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” Taylor said. “I think I was clear. I’m not here to take one side or the other. My understanding is only coming from people that I talked to.”
The combative Ohio Republican, with his voice ringing out through the chamber, then told Taylor “what he heard did not happen.”
Everything to which Taylor attested to thus far, however, is corroborated in the whistleblower complaint that triggered the impeachment inquiry.
One topic that emerged continually Wednesday was the national-security implications from delaying military aid to Ukraine. For Democrats, the act of the U.S. withholding aid from an ally for political favors — especially when that ally shares a border with a frequent and longtime aggressor — is an unconscionable abuse of power.
Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas didn’t mince words as he elaborated. What Trump did was akin to extortion and bribery, he said. When Trump got Zelensky on the phone, Trump was talking to a “desperate man” who needed foreign assistance.
The assistance doesn’t just give Ukraine weapons. It gives them a position of power at a negotiating table with Russia. And if the aid would have never come, Taylor said it would have made Zelensky “much weaker on the battlefield.”
“Would Russia use this vulnerability as a means to attack Ukraine?” Castro said.
In the realm of possibilities, it would fall in line with Russia’s stance toward Ukraine in the past, Taylor said.
Democrats and Republicans remained just as polarized on the question of impeachment over at the Senate, but on one issue the parties agreed: There will be a trial in their branch of the Legislature once the House proceedings have ended.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any question that we have to take up the matter,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell remarked at a press conference. “The rules of impeachment are very clear that we must have a trial. My own view is that we should give people an opportunity to put the case on.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declined to speculate on what that future trial might look like. “I’m just going to tell you what I said before,” he told reporters. “We need a fair, open, not a truncated proceeding, where all the facts can come out.”
Schumer also revealed that there have not been any meetings with McConnell but added, “I don’t take any umbrage at that.”
“The next two weeks will be very important, and the week after, before we can have any serious discussion,” he said.
McConnell and Schumer share another point of agreement: Neither had wanted Trump to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the White House today, but the huddle went ahead despite both of their objections. McConnell ignored a question from a reporter as to why the president did not take his advice.
Some Democrats suspect that Trump’s personal real estate interests in Istanbul were at play. On Tuesday, the Trump Organization blew a deadline set by lawmakers demanding records on the president’s admitted interest in Trump Towers Istanbul.
“No, we have not received any responses, but we are not going to stop,” Senator Tammy Duckworth, one of four senators leading that investigation, told Courthouse News.
Senator Tom Udall, Duckworth’s colleague in the probe, released a statement.
“Given the president’s surprising approach to U.S.-Turkey policy and unusual personal relationship with President Erdogan, it’s only logical to ask for information to determine the full extent of President Trump’s financial interests in Turkey that could be influencing his policy decisions — including on matters of sensitive foreign policy,” Udall said.
On Friday, the House will take public testimony from another star witness for the Democrats, Yovanovich, the ex-ambassador who reported feeling threatened by Trump’s statement from his call with Zelensky that “she’s going to go through some things.”
“I hate to be repetitive, but I was shocked,” Yovanovich remarked during closed testimony. “I mean, I was very surprised that President Trump would — first of all, that I would feature repeatedly in a presidential phone call, but secondly, that the President would speak about me or any ambassador in that way to a foreign counterpart.”
Schiff released a lineup Tuesday night of additional hearings. On Nov. 19, Vice President Mike Pence’s top adviser for Europe and Russia Jennifer Wiliiams will testify. Williams was one of several people who was on the call with Trump and Zelensky in July. Also on Nov. 19, Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman, director of European Affairs on the National Security Council, testifies. During closed hearings last month, Vindman told lawmakers he was deeply troubled by the Trump-Zelensky call and the national-security implications for Ukraine. Wrapping up testimony that day will be former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and former National Security Council official Tim Morrison.
Then on Nov. 20, the committee will hear from U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Pentagon official Laura Cooper. Cooper oversees processing of military assistance packages for the Department of Defense. David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, will follow Cooper.
And on Nov. 21, Fiona Hill, a former senior Russia policy official for the National Security Council, will testify.
(Interactive timeline by Courthouse News reporters Adam Klasfeld and Brandi Buchman)