The House impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump entered a new phase Wednesday: public hearings.
Two Trump administration officials testified before the House Intelligence Committee, as Democrats who control the House begin to more publicly press their case that Trump abused his power by pressing Ukraine to investigate his political rivals while withholding congressionally approved military aid. Trump has denied any wrongdoing, and Republicans used the hearing to mount a vigorous defense that his actions were legitimate — and that the inquiry is not.
The public hearings followed weeks of closed-door testimony, including from the two witnesses who appeared Wednesday. And they marked a shift from the initial fact-finding phase toward building a public case. Democrats hope that public hearings, carried live on TV, will help convince Americans that Trump crossed a line in his actions.
Testifying Wednesday were William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and George P. Kent, a career diplomat and top State Department official managing Ukraine policy. The updates below, which were published live during the hearing, are presented in reverse-chronological order so the most recent updates are at the top.
After hours of back-and-forth questioning, the two witnesses were dismissed and committee members took up a motion made by Rep. Mike Conaway (R., Tex.) to subpoena the anonymous whistle-blower to testify.
Democrats have resisted those calls, in part because of concern about the whistle-blower’s identity becoming public. Federal government whistle-blower complaints are anonymous.
In a party-line vote, 13 Democrats voted to table that motion, against nine Republicans.
And with that, the first public hearing was adjourned.
In remarks to close the round of questioning, Schiff thanked the two witnesses and said he appreciated his colleagues’ good behavior during the hearing.
He also tried to refocus attention on the question the Democrats say is the ultimate question of the inquiry: Did Trump abuse his official powers for his own reelection bid, and if so, is it OK for presidents to do that?
Responding to Republican questions about Schiff’s handling of the whistle-blower complaint, Nunes said in his closing statement that the hearings should be suspended until three questions are answered, including whether Democrats had “prior coordination” with the whistle-blower. Schiff noted that the intelligence community’s inspector general had informed Congress on Sept. 9 that the complaint existed and that it was being withheld by the administration.
Less than 48 hours later, the military aid to Ukraine was released.
Even though Wednesday’s witnesses had already testified behind closed doors, one reason for a public hearing is to build a case in the open. And, for the lawmakers who get to ask questions, it’s also a chance to perform.
And perform they did.
In the five-minute lightning round, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle gave thinly veiled monologues, asked rhetorical questions meant to frame the narrative for the public, and took potshots at each other.
Over and over, they posed questions that Taylor and Kent couldn’t answer, and it’s not clear that they really were supposed to.
Ratcliffe and Jordan — who led the charge to attack Democrats’ inquiry and to defend Trump — repeatedly sought to discredit the investigation and in particular called for the whistle-blower to testify.
At one point, Ratcliffe tried to ask Schiff directly whether the whistle-blower would testify, and whether Schiff would answer questions about Democrats’ interactions with the whistle-blower.
Schiff, smiling, told him to get back to questioning the diplomats: “Mr. Ratcliffe, your time is dwindling. I suggest you use it.”
Later, in what amounted to a closing speech, Jordan railed against the impeachment investigation.
“This is a sad day for this country. You think about what the Democrats have put our nation through for the last three years,” he said.
He echoed Ratcliffe’s request: Why can’t we hear from the whistle-blower? The members of Congress, Jordan said, should hear from the person who “started it all.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.), who was next in line to ask questions, responded.
“I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify,” he said. “President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.”
In five-minute question-and-answer rounds alternating between the two parties, GOP representatives picked away at the Democrats’ case.
Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and John Ratcliffe of Texas in particular took aggressive stances in their questioning, focusing on the limitations of what Kent and Taylor knew. Other Republican members several times yielded their time to the two prominent Trump supporters.
Jordan and Ratcliffe reinforced the hearsay nature of the testimony presented by the witnesses, insinuating that their knowledge is unreliable.
Jordan said that the case being built was fundamentally wrong: Trump ultimately provided the military aid to Ukraine, even without a public promise of investigations from Zelensky. But Trump released that aid only after pushback from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Ratcliffe, a former trial lawyer, noted that Zelensky told reporters that he felt no pressure and denied having military aid leveraged against him. If Democrats impeach Trump, he said, they would essentially be calling the Ukrainian president a liar.
“Where is the impeachable offense in that call? Are either of you here to assert there was an impeachable offense in that call?” he said, his voice raised. “Shout it out. Anyone?”
Taylor, who was subject to the bulk of the questioning, sat calmly throughout, responding when asked but otherwise appearing unflappable.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the head of the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, introduced the idea that Democrats were working with Ukraine in the lead-up to the 2016 election, and that Trump’s seeking of investigations was appropriate.
After a brief scuffle over procedures between Schiff, Nunes, and Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Republican from Texas, Nunes handed things off to Steve Castor, the lead lawyer for Republicans on the committee.
A Philadelphia-area native, Castor received his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and his MBA from Lehigh University. He spent several years practicing law in Philadelphia and Washington in private practice.
Castor, in his questioning, sought to cast doubt on portions of witnesses’ accounts, including demonstrating that Taylor and Kent were not directly connected to many of the decisions being made and may not have had the true inside account of what occurred.
He also sought to create a defense for Trump’s pushing the pursuit of investigations, asking Kent to confirm that Ukraine has a history of corruption and that the U.S. has an interest in rooting it out, and in encouraging the new president to pursue it.
Furthering the attempt to build the case that Trump’s concerns were appropriate, Castor then turned his attention to Hunter Biden and Joe Biden, trying to raise questions about their actions in Ukraine.
Did Hunter Biden speak Ukrainian? What were his credentials? Why was he on the Burisma Holdings board? Kent and Taylor essentially had no response to those questions, saying they did not know the answers. Still, with the line of questioning, Castor managed to put those issues in the minds of the audience watching.
After Castor finished, Schiff said he would open the hearing to a “lightning round” of committee members’ questions, with each being allotted five minutes.
Trump met with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Wednesday morning during the hearing. He told reporters he had not watched the testimony.
“I’m too busy to watch it. It’s a witch hunt. It’s a hoax,” he said. “I’m too busy to watch it, I’m sure I’ll get a report.”
Taking a dig at Democratic committee counsel Daniel Goldman, who was once a legal analyst for MSNBC, Trump said: “I see they’re using lawyers that are television lawyers.”
At the end of his questioning, Daniel Goldman, the lead lawyer for the Democratic majority on House Intelligence, asked a series of quick questions of George Kent that address Republican arguments that it was legitimate for Trump to pursue the two investigations with Ukraine.
First, Goldman asked whether the U.S. had evidence that Ukraine had interfered with the 2016 election.
No, Kent said: “I think it’s amply clear that Russian interference was at the heart” of the meddling.
As for Hunter Biden and the role of former Vice President Joe Biden in Ukraine, Kent said things appeared to be above-board. Biden, he said, had acted in accordance with official United States foreign policy.
Trump and his allies assert Biden was trying to protect a lucrative director’s job his son, Hunter, had with Burisma, a Ukranian gas company that was once subject of an investigation by that nation’s chief prosecutor.
It was a problem that Trump was withholding the prospect of a White House meeting would have given more clout to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky in his country’s dealings with Russia and strengthened the country’s relations with the U.S., Taylor said.
But the real problem, he said, was Trump freezing the military aid that Ukraine needed to battle Russia-backed militias.
“The White House meeting was one thing, the security assistance was much more alarming,” Taylor said, because it directly threatened Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, which itself threatens the security of the region.
"The Russians are violating all of the rules, treaties, understandings that they committed to that actually kept the peace in Europe for nearly 70 years, until they invaded Ukraine in 2014,” Taylor said.
Starting off Democrats’ 45-minute round of questions, Schiff immediately turned to the new information presented by Taylor.
Taylor repeated what he had said earlier: Trump was focused only on securing Ukraine’s public commitment to investigations of the Bidens and a discredited conspiracy theory that its government’s had interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats — not on changing Ukraine’s approach to corruption in general.
That’s hugely important to the case against Trump because, as Taylor described, Ukraine is critical to U.S. national security as a buffer against Russian military and political influence in the region. If the president was focused on the investigations he wanted, undercutting foreign policy by withholding military assistance, America’s national interest was being subverted for Trump’s personal interests and to the benefit of Russia.
Schiff then handed his time over to Daniel Goldman, Democrats’ lead lawyer in the investigation, to question the ambassador.
After his earlier testimony, Taylor said, one of his staffers reported overhearing Trump, on a July 26 call with Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, asking about “the investigations.”
That’s new information, and could strengthen the case that Trump was focused entirely on forcing investigations into the Bidens and a conpsiracy theory that Ukraine was helping the Democratics in 2016.
After the call, Taylor said, his aide asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” he said.
Taylor testified that he was given the information from a staffer following his initial deposition, which was offered behind closed doors on Capitol Hill on Oct. 22. Taylor told lawmakers he reported the information to the State Department’s legal advisor and both political party’s legal counsel on the Intelligence Committee. (edited)
Following Kent’s opening statement, and echoing many of its themes, Taylor said he was testifying to provide apolitical facts and analysis.
“I am not here to take one side or the other, or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings,” he said. “My sole purpose is to provide facts as I know them about the incidents in questions, as well as my views” on them.
Taylor said he was alarmed by what he saw in dealings with Ukraine.
“There appeared to be two channels of U.S. policymaking and implementation: one regular and one highly irregular,” he said. As ambassador, he heads the regular channel.
But that irregular channel — “well-connected in Washington” — did not operate normally, within the State Department. And while at first their interests were aligned, it became clear that the irregular, political channel had different goals from the normal foreign policy and diplomacy arm of the state, Taylor said.
Taylor said he later found out that the back-channel operation was led by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a personal lawyer to Trump.
In his opening remarks, Kent, a career diplomat, noted his family’s long history of diplomatic service and explained the strategic importance of Ukraine to the United States and global order.
Kent said it is appropriate for the U.S. government to fight corruption in other countries, but that he does not believe requesting specific, selective investigations is appropriate when done for the purpose of the president’s personal political benefit.
“Such selective actions undermine the rule of law,” he said, “regardless of the country.”
Asking process questions, several Republican representatives said they want to question their own set of witnesses, including the whistle-blower whose identity has remained unknown even to them. Schiff tabled the request and said he himself does not know who the whistle-blower is. He said he considers the whistle-blower’s anonymity and security to be a top priority.“We will do everything necessary to protect the whistle-blower’s identity,” he said.
Setting the tone for the Republican response, Nunes argued not with the facts of the investigation but instead with the process of it, saying Democrats were themselves guilty of inappropriately seeking to use their constitutional powers to benefit themselves.
He argued that the real investigation should be into the Democrats’ coordination with the whistle-blower who first brought the July phone call to Congress’ attention; alleged Ukrainian election meddling against Trump in 2016; and why Hunter Biden was hired by Burisma Holdings Ltd, the Ukrainian company that Trump sought an investigation into.
The impeachment inquiry, he said, was but a performance put on by Democrats.“What we will witness today is a televised, theatrical performance, staged by the Democrats,” Nunes said.“This spectacle is doing great damage to our country,” he said. “It’s nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime.”
The California representative said that Trump has been subject to a "3-year long operation by the Democrats, the corrupt media and partisan bureaucrats to undo the results of the 2016 election. Nunes argued that Democrats’ attempts to pin collusion with Russia on the election on the president, so they had to go searching for a new allegation.
“We’re supposed to forget Democrats saying they had evidence of collusion between President Trump and Russia,” Nunes said. “Countless deceptions large and small make them the last people on earth with the credibility to hurl allegations against their opponents….This is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.”Republicans interrupt: We want to question the whistle-blower
Asking process questions, several Republican representatives said they want to question their own set of witnesses, including the whistle-blower whose identity has remained unknown even to them.Schiff tabled the request for now and said he himself does not know who the whistle-blower is.But, he said, he considers the whistle-blower’s anonymity and security to be a top priority.“We will do everything necessary to protect the whistle-blower’s identity,” he said.
In his opening remarks, Schiff sought to make a plain case to the American people: Trump pressured Ukraine to help himself, illegitimately bending American foreign policy to benefit himself in his 2020 reelection campaign.
“The facts in this inquiry are not seriously contested,” he said: Trump and his allies, especially his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, pressured the new Ukrainian president to investigate the 2016 election and Hunter Biden, the son of political rival Joe Biden. They threatened to withhold key military aid if the investigations weren’t conducted.
“Is this what Americans should now expect from their president? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” Schiff said, closing his remarks. “Does the oath of office itself requiring that our laws be faithfully executed … still have meaning? These are the questions we must ask and answer, without rancor if we can, without delay regardless, and without party favor and without prejudice if we are true to our responsibilities.”
Taylor and Kent will appear together.
After they delivered opening statements, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic committee chairman, and Rep. Devin Nunes, his Republican counterpart, had control of 45-minute question-and-answer blocks. (They handed off much of the time to the staff lawyers who have been handling much of the private hearings: Daniel Goldman for the Democrats and Steve Castor for the Republicans.)
(Asked at the start of the hearing, Schiff said he had not yet decided whether there would be additional 45-minute rounds of questioning.)
Questioning began after opening statements from Kent and Taylor.
Now, Democrats and Republicans are asking questions in five-minute alternating rounds.