WASHINGTON (CN) – Wednesday marks the start of televised testimony as lawmakers work to impeach President Donald Trump, ramping up public scrutiny on an administration that has seen its share of closely watched hearings in Congress.
When former special counsel Robert Mueller testified about his findings on Russian interference in the 2016 election and instances of obstruction into that probe perpetrated by Trump, some 13 million spectators viewed the broadcast, according to Nielsen television ratings.
Another 15.8 million viewers tuned in when Trump’s personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen testified publicly — just before beginning a prison sentence for making hush-money payments at Trump’s direction to women who alleged affairs with Trump.
But the most viewers — some 19.5 million Americans — were drawn in 2017 when former FBI Director James Comey testified that the reason he believed he was fired was so the Trump administration could undermine an effort by the FBI to probe possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Those records will likely be smashed Wednesday as the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees kick off the first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry with testimony from George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
Given his role at the State Department and his senior tenure on all matters Ukraine, Kent is widely expected to be a star witness for Democrats. In private testimony, Kent said he was worried about the growing and influential role Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, had on foreign-policy issues relevant to Ukraine.
Kent also corroborated accounts from other officials who testified about a disturbing conversation held in September between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the diplomatic neophyte who was tapped as ambassador to the EU after donating $1 million to the Trump campaign.
According to Kent, Trump told Sondland the U.S. needed Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to make a public statement about launching investigations former Vice President Joe Biden — considered a likely opponent of Trump in the 2020 election, as well as Biden’s son Hunter and Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy firm where Hunter Biden once sat on the board.
(Interactive timeline by Courthouse News reporters Adam Klasfeld and Brandi Buchman)
The White House had specific ideas about the Zelensky’s announcement, Kent said, including that it mention the start of an investigation of Democratic efforts to undermine the 2016 election, a long-debunked conspiracy theory floated daily by the White House — and some Republican members of Congress.
“POTUS wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to the microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton,” Kent testified privately.
Clinton was a reference to Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton, Kent explained, and was also shorthand for investigations into the 2016 election.
This testimony is considered critical evidence for Democrats because they argue it indicates Trump was less concerned about handling general “anti-corruption” matters than he was about pursuing matters that would mostly benefit him personally and politically.
Amid tweets Tuesday morning lamenting the inquiry, Trump recalled a September interview where Zelensky defended Ukraine’s independence.
“He and others also stated that there was ‘no pressure’ put on him to investigate Sleepy Joe Biden,” Trump wrote, referring to Zelensky, “even though, as President, I have an ‘obligation’ to look into corruption, and Biden’s actions, on tape, about firing the prosecutor, and his son’s taking millions of dollars, with no knowledge or talent, from a Ukrainian energy company, and more millions taken from China, and now reports of other companies and countries also giving him big money, are certainly looking very corrupt (to put it mildly!) to me. Both Bidens should be forced to testify in this No Due Process Scam!” [Punctuation in original.]
Also testifying Wednesday is William Taylor, the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine whom the State Department tapped to replace Marie Yovanovitch after the ambassador was abruptly removed from her post at the president’s urging and after what many officials have so far described to lawmakers as a smear campaign run against her by Giuliani.
According to transcripts of his private testimony with Democratic and Republican lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry, Taylor said he was alarmed by the dynamic unfolding around Ukraine and by his discovery that Giuliani was running “irregular” back channels on policy.
Taylor also told lawmakers there were several officials in and out of the White House and State Department who understood the issue at hand clearly: If Ukraine wanted military aid and a coveted, highly visible meeting in the Oval Office, then President Zelensky would have to publicly agree to investigating Democrats.
Taylor’s testimony has been corroborated by other officials including members of the National Security Council like Tim Morrison. Ambassador Gordon Sondland also went on to revise his testimony after Taylor met with lawmakers, saying Taylor helped “refresh” his recollection of events.
Indeed, Sondland has since testified that he did tell Ukraine military assistance would be delayed unless it agreed to investigate the Democrats.
Yovanovitch will testify publicly Friday. A career diplomat, Yovanovitch told lawmakers she could feel the pressure to oust her building and was warned to “watch her back. Like Taylor, Yovanovitch too testified about backchannels into policy involving Ukraine that seemed “irregular” and spearheaded by Giuliani.
The process for hearings will follow standards laid out in the resolution authorizing the impeachment inquiry passed by the House last month. As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Democrat Adam Schiff will have the right to pose as many questions as he likes to witnesses for up to 45 minutes at a time. The same privilege is afforded to the ranking Republican member of the committee, CaliforniaRepresentative Devin Nunes. During each 45-minute segment, only Schiff, Nunes or staff they have specifically selected to lead questions will be permitted to speak.
Other lawmakers on the committee will have the right to ask questions too. They will be allotted five minutes per lawmaker, a tradition for congressional hearings.
Lawmakers are expected to lean on staff counsel to conduct much of the day’s questioning. For Democrats, House Intelligence Committee counsel Daniel Goldman, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, will likely lead the charge.
Another senior counselor on the House Intelligence Committee Daniel Noble, will also assist lawmakers with questioning.
Republicans are expected to call on attorney Steve Castor for their rounds. Castor’s placement during the inquiry is strategic. He currently serves as head counsel for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee. Castor was pulled into House Intelligence Committee-led hearings after GOP leader Kevin McCarthy swapped out a less-senior Republican on the committee for another lawmaker sure to trigger headlines: Ohio Republican Jim Jordan.
Jordan is one of Trump’s most staunch supporters and has been vocal about his rejection of the inquiry since it first began. Since Jordan was only assigned to the House Intelligence Committee in a swap, he will receive the usual five minute rounds for questioning. Given Jordan’s penchant for remaining at the center of the anti-impeachment inquiry message, it is likely ranking member Nunes will rely on Jordan often.