WASHINGTON – During the first public hearing of the House impeachment inquiry, Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor revealed Wednesday that his aide overheard Donald Trump asking about “the investigations” in a July 26 phone call with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Taylor said he only learned of the new evidence on Friday.
The call involving Trump and Sondland came one day after the infamous call between the president and Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky, during which Trump asked for “a favor” – investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and alleged Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election – in exchange for American military aid.
Taylor said of the July 26 call, in a Ukraine restaurant: “Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which (Rudy) Giuliani was pressing for.”
That staffer, David Holmes, will testify before the committee behind closed doors on Friday, the panel announced during the hearing.
Taylor testified beside George Kent, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, during the nearly six-hour hearing Wednesday.
Both witnesses have already testified behind closed doors, as Democrats have been building evidence for weeks that the president abused his powers of office by withholding critical military aid to Ukraine for his own personal political gain.
“Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander in chief,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, said.
The July 26 conversation was an additional event added into Taylor’s already damning chronology, in which he said was prepared to resign after a series of conversations made him fear that the long-standing U.S. foreign policy with Ukraine was changing. Taylor took detailed notes about each incident.
But Republicans hounded Taylor for not having firsthand knowledge of Trump’s decision to halt military aid.
“And you’re their star witness,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, taunted.
Those that might have firsthand knowledge, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, have refused to cooperate with the probe. Both Taylor and Kent went against White House instructions not to testify.
Before testimonies began, Republican members of the committee pressed Schiff to hear directly from the whistleblower in closed session.
The impeachment inquiry was launched after an anonymous whistleblower revealed that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, a board member of Burisma, a Ukranian energy company. At the time, lawmakers later learned, Trump had put a hold on military aid to Ukraine.
A transcript released from the White House confirmed the allegations, but Trump denied any wrongdoing, repeatedly saying it was “perfect.”
Schiff insisted that he will do everything necessary to protect the whistleblower’s identity. Republicans wanted to halt hearings until they could question the whistleblower, but a motion to subpoena the witness to testify failed to pass through the committee.
Jordan said the nation should hear from the whistleblower “who started it all.”
To which Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, replied: ”I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.”
In his testimony, Kent said that he was concerned about Biden’s status as a board member, but that he didn’t witness any efforts by U.S. officials to shield Burisma from scrutiny.
The two diplomats faced 45-minute rounds of questioning from Daniel Goldman, legal counsel for Schiff, and Steve Castor, legal counsel for the ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California.
Nunes opened the hearing by calling the inquiry a “carefully orchestrated media smear campaign” and a “low rent Ukrainian sequel” to the Russia Probe.
The GOP counsel suggested that the Trump administration’s interactions with Ukraine were not as “outlandish” as they could have been, to which Taylor agreed.
Voices were raised when Democratic and Republican members of the committee took turns asking questions in five-minute rounds.
Jordan said Taylor was “wrong” about the military aid being conditioned on Zelensky’s announcement of Ukraine’s investigation into the Bidens, since it didn’t end up happening, and Trump released the hold on the aid.
But the hold was released only after the whistleblower revealed details of the July 25 call and after many lawmakers, including Republicans, objected to the administration’s action.
Republicans continually emphasized that the Trump administration has given more defensive lethal aid to Ukraine than the Obama administration did.
Trump said he didn’t watch the impeachment hearing, saying he was “too busy,” but has called the probe a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.” While the hearing continued through the afternoon, Trump held a press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several Republican senators.
“Today we heard from Democrats’ hand-picked star witnesses who together were not on the Ukraine phone call, did not speak directly to President Trump, got third-hand hearsay from one side of a different phone call in a restaurant, and formed opinions based on stories in the pages of the New York Times,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager said in a statement after the hearing ended.
Two new closed-door depositions were announced Wednesday morning, signaling that the fact-finding stage of the inquiry is ongoing, despite the probe entering its public phase. Besides Holmes testifying Friday, Mark Sandy, an Office of Management and Budget official, is scheduled to appear on Saturday. Sandy failed to appear last week.
Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted from her post as ambassador to Ukraine in May, will testify publicly on Friday in the second open hearing of the probe.