The first public hearings in the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry will kick off at 10 am ET Wednesday, when Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee call their first two witnesses: William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a State Department official. You can watch them testify on CSPAN or other major networks, and we’ll embed a livestream here once it’s available.
Led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the hearings are intended to publicly spotlight evidence and testimony Democrats believe is quite damning for President Donald Trump — evidence that Trump tried to urge or coerce the government of Ukraine into investigating Trump’s rivals for political reasons.
Both witnesses, Taylor and Kent, extensively testified behind closed doors to the committee last month and are now expected to reiterate their accounts for the American public.
Taylor had a front-row seat for events at the heart of the scandal as he was working with State Department officials who were trying to get Ukraine to commit to the investigations Trump wanted. And Taylor criticized the effort in real time. “As I said on the phone,” Taylor wrote in a text to a colleague, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Kent was based in Washington but he was aware of some of the current scandal’s episodes while they were unfolding. More broadly, he has deep experience in Ukraine and has strong views about what’s happening here: namely, he believes that corrupt oligarchs and former Ukrainian officials won Rudy Giuliani’s ear.
As the first public testimony in a presidential impeachment inquiry, Wednesday’s hearing will naturally be historic. However, few are expecting dramatic new revelations, since these witnesses have testified behind closed doors already. The hope, for Democrats, is to throw more of a public spotlight on what Taylor and Kent are saying — and, in contrast, Republicans are hoping to discredit them.
The scandal: Trump and Ukrainian investigations
To recap: Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry in September after a scandal broke about President Trump pressuring the government of Ukraine to investigate the family of his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden.
Initially, concerns were raised inside the administration by an anonymous whistleblower, who filed a complaint in August — a complaint the administration initially tried to withhold from Congress. “I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the whistleblower wrote.
The story first told by the whistleblower and then corroborated and expanded on by other witnesses, documents, and reporters since then, goes as follows:
- Shortly after Ukraine elected a new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in April 2019, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani began urging Zelensky’s team to launch certain investigations Trump wanted.
- Specifically, Trump’s team demanded investigations into Burisma (a Ukrainian gas company that Joe Biden’s son Hunter sat on the board of) and into purported Ukrainian interference with the 2016 US election.
- When Trump talked to Zelensky on the phone on July 25, he brought up both investigations specifically and urged Zelensky to talk to Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr about them.
- The Ukrainians were seeking a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky. Trump officials told them that they wouldn’t get it unless they committed to those investigations: a quid pro quo.
- Trump also blocked nearly $400 million in military assistance Congress had approved for Ukraine’s government. One official, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, admits telling the Ukrainians that they wouldn’t get the aid unless they placated Trump by launching the investigations.
Democrats’ argument is simple: This was an attempt by Trump to solicit foreign help interfering with the 2020 election, it’s a corrupt abuse of power, and they are now seriously considering impeaching Trump for it.
Trump and his defenders, meanwhile, have offered a shifting series of arguments — either that the facts on certain matters, such as the withholding of military aid, aren’t clear, or simply asserting that even if Trump did do all this, he shouldn’t be removed from office for it.
The hearings: How they’ll work
After announcing their impeachment inquiry in late September, Democrats conducted the first stage of it behind closed doors — asking various current and former administration officials to come in and give sworn depositions about what happened between Trump and Ukraine.
The effort proved fruitful — surprisingly so. Some key officials obeyed a White House instruction to refuse to testify but others, mostly from the State Department or the National Security Council staff, showed up anyway and answered questions. One, Kurt Volker, even turned over a set of text messages that have become key to the investigation.
Democrats used this phase of the inquiry to gather facts about what happened, away from the cameras — as well as to figure out which witnesses would be most forthcoming and knowledgeable. Meanwhile, Republicans complained about these closed-door hearings — but those Republicans who were on the relevant congressional committees were permitted to attend and participate in the questioning.
So now, Democrats are moving to the next phase: the public hearings. And they intend to run things as follows.
The first round of questioning will be 45 minutes each for Schiff and Devin Nunes, the committee’s top Republican. However, both Schiff and Nunes are likely to delegate significant amounts of questioning time to staff attorneys — specifically, Daniel Goldman for the Democrats and Steve Castor for the Republicans.
This will be a change of pace for congressional hearings. They’ll start off with a lengthy block of time for a professional questioner with ample time for follow-ups, rather than the traditional five-minute segments trading off between Congress members of each party. (Democrats believe this approach, which they experimented with at the end of a hearing in September, will be better suited for telling a coherent story.)
After that first 90 minutes is up, the hearing will revert back to that traditional format of five minutes per member of Congress for questioning. Democrats expect things to wrap up sometime between 2:30 pm and 4:30 pm.
The witnesses: William Taylor and George Kent
Democrats have decided to begin their hearings with two witnesses who they have good reason to believe will be helpful to their narrative. Both are State Department officials with long careers and deep experience in Ukraine in particular, and both are rather appalled by what Trump did with Ukraine.
William Taylor’s official title is chargé d’affaires of the US embassy in Kyiv, making him currently the top US diplomat there. His background includes stints in the US Army and in various diplomatic posts (including serving as Ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush).
Taylor was asked to reenter the government this year to replace former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch (though he does not have the ambassador title). He testified that he had some trepidation about accepting the job — due to a “web of political machinations, both in Kyiv and in Washington.” And indeed, soon after he took up the post in June, he realized that there was a separate, “highly irregular” channel of US policymaking, one that included Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as well as US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Taylor testified that Sondland told him early on — all the way back in late June — that the Ukrainians had to commit to certain “investigations” if Zelensky wanted a White House meeting with Trump. Referring to detailed contemporaneous notes he took, Taylor chronicled how his concern over this increased as the summer went on.
By early September, Taylor said, he grew even more concerned because a colleague told him that Sondland was now linking hundreds of millions of dollars in withheld military aid for Ukraine to the investigations. “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he asked Sondland in a text. Taylor says Sondland soon spoke to him on the phone and confirmed that he was doing just that — at Trump’s behest. He said something similar in another call on September 8, Taylor testified:
Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman. When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.
Finally, on September 9, Taylor put his concerns in writing again: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he texted Sondland. The ambassador then called Trump himself to discuss how to respond.
For a sense of what Taylor will say, check out his full closed-door testimony from last month at this link.
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, will be testifying alongside Taylor. Kent is a career foreign service officer who has served two stints in Ukraine over the years and took up his current Washington-based post in the summer of 2018. Ukraine is currently one of six countries in his portfolio.
Compared to Taylor, Kent wasn’t as personally involved in the events that transpired in Ukraine this summer. What he will bring to the hearing, though, is deep knowledge of the country, combined with strong opinions on the machinations that have been taking place. Kent made clear in his closed-door testimony that he believes Giuliani has been working with several corrupt current or former officials in Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office to push allegations that have no merit.
Kent will also be able to speak authoritatively about the Bidens’ role in Ukraine. He testified that, in early 2015, he did tell a member of Vice President Biden’s staff that Hunter Biden’s board seat on the gas company Burisma could be seen as a conflict of interest. However, Kent said, he was told that because Biden’s other son Beau was dying of cancer, there was no “further bandwidth to deal with family-related issues at that time.”
Kent will also debunk the claim from Trump allies that Vice President Biden pressured the Ukrainians to fire a prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, to help Burisma and his son. He testified that the idea to push Shokin’s ouster came from the US Ambassador to Ukraine at the time, not Biden. He also testified that Shokin was extremely corrupt — when an anti-corruption unit in Ukraine went after his former driver (and seized a cache of diamonds from him), Shokin “went to war” to try to retaliate against anyone involved in the investigation, Kent said. That is why the US determined he had to go.
For a sense of what Kent will say, check out his full closed-door testimony from last month at this link.
What’s next after the first hearing
After Wednesday’s hearing wraps up, the next planned hearing is on Friday, when former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is slated to testify. She was ousted from her post back in April so she wasn’t around for many of the key events of this scandal. But her fate is a sort of prologue to the story since she is viewed as the victim of a smear campaign from Giuliani and his Ukrainian allies.
The Intelligence Committee is expected to call more witnesses for further hearings next week but this phase of the inquiry will likely conclude before Thanksgiving. After that, the House Intelligence Committee will write a report summarizing their findings.
Once Congress returns in December, the action will shift to Rep. Jerry Nadler’s House Judiciary Committee, which will review that report and likely draft articles of impeachment against Trump.
Any articles of impeachment approved by the committee will then be sent on to the full House to be voted on. Democrats hope to hold those votes before Christmas. If a majority of the House votes to approve any article of impeachment, then Trump is impeached and the process moves forward to the Senate, which will hold a trial determining whether he should be removed from office.
As for what will happen, the current state of play is that Trump is quite likely to be impeached in the Democrat-controlled House as even most moderate Democrats profess to be disturbed by the Ukraine scandal.
But it’s tremendously difficult to actually remove a president from office. It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate (a threshold that has never been reached), and that chamber is Republican-controlled anyway. And so far, nearly every Republican senator — Mitt Romney being the lone exception — remains supportive of President Trump. Democrats hope their hearings will create a public uproar that will reshape that political situation, but that will be a tall order.
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