LIVEBLOG: The House Kicks Off Its Impeachment Hearing

Media wait for Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent to arrive during the first open hearings in the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on November 13,... Media wait for Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent to arrive during the first open hearings in the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS

The House holds its first public impeachment hearing Wednesday.

Bill Taylor — the top diplomat in the U.S. embassy in Kyiv — and George Kent, a top State Department official, will testify.

We’ll be live blogging the hearing here:

3:22 p.m.: Rep. Val Dennings (D-FL): What interest was Giuliani promoting in Ukraine?
Kent: “I believe he was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival in the next election cycle.”
Taylor: I agree.

3:08 p.m.: “President Trump is welcome to take a seat,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) says, getting laughs.

3:06 p.m.: Jordan is giving what appears to be what the closing GOP argument of this hearing. Previously, Republicans have made a lot of hay out of Schiff’s parody version of the Trump-Zelensky call. But now Jordan is giving his version of what Trump was actually doing in withholding the aid: “When it came time to check out this new guy, President Trump said let’s just see if he’s legit.” What witnesses have testified in the private depositions, however, is that they couldn’t get a reason from the administration for why the assistance was frozen.

2:57 p.m.: Ratcliffe gets the last round of GOP questioning and he makes it all about the whistleblower.

2:55 p.m.: Kent: “It is not the role of politicians to be involved in directing the judicial systems of their own country or other countries.”

2:41 p.m.: Kent says that he was “not aware” of a Justice Department request that Ukraine cooperate with its investigations, as White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney implied at his Oct. 17 press briefing. Kent defers when he is asked if Mulvaney was lying.

2:26 p.m.: This from Taylor, after being asked about whether corruption plagues countries around the world, feels a little loaded: “I would say there is corruption in every country, including ours.”

2:18 p.m.: More GOP time is yielded to Ratcliffe, and he settles on the GOP talking point that there was no quid pro quo because Zelensky never folded to the demand for investigations.

“What  did President Zelensky actually do to get the aid? The answer is nothing,” Ratcliffe said.

2:15 p.m.: Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) uses his questioning to try to get Taylor to criticize the Obama administration for its Ukraine policy.

2:09 p.m.: For a second time, a Democratic member yielded to Schiff at the beginning of his question period, and Schiff did some clean up to respond to the previous GOP line of questioning. Schiff, this time, asked Taylor to elaborate on what Zelensky could have been considering when he claimed there was no pressure on him from Trump.

2:07 p.m.Taylor doesn’t want to play along with questions from Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) about hearsay and whether what he heard could be wrong: “Mr. Turner, I am here to tell you what I know,” Taylor said. Turner yielded to Jordan, who claimed that Taylor “had to be wrong” in his claim that the assistance and investigations demands were linked.

1:59 p.m.: Ratcliffe brought up Zelensky’s public claims that he felt no pressure or knew of no linkage with aid and the investigations. He asked Taylor if he had evidence that Zelensky was lying, and after a back and forth, Taylor acknowledged he didn’t have a reason to doubt Zelensky’s claims. Things got heated when Ratcliffe tried to get the witnesses to say that there was no impeachable conduct on the Trump call. Taylor responded by pointing out that it’s not his role to deicide what constitutes impeachable conduct.

1:50 p.m.: Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) asked Kent if Biden’s push to remove a Ukrainian prosecutor was the same as what Trump was demanding, as Republicans have claimed. Taylor explained the differences. I could hear some Republican members who are watching the hearing in the audience scoff at the question and claim that with Biden there was an actual quid pro quo.

1:46 p.m.: Jordan’s time expired, but Taylor still wanted to respond to what had been lobbed at him. “I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” Taylor said. Jordan smirked at the pushback.

1:42 p.m.: Jordan is a livelier questioner than what we’ve heard so far. He’s raising his voice as he goes through Taylor’s previous testimony. He pressed Taylor how he got the “clear understanding” that military assistance was linked to the investigation demands. Taylor brings up what Sondland told him.

1:39 p.m.: After Schiff’s round, Nunes gets seven minutes for question. But he quickly yields his time to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who joined the House Intelligence Committee recently especially for the impeachment proceedings.

1:29 p.m.: We have finished the 90 minute round of staff counsel questioning, and now Schiff is asking questions again in a five minute round.

1:19 p.m. Castor asked Taylor about the “irregular channel” of diplomacy in Ukraine. “It is not outlandish as it could be, is that correct? ”

Taylor, with a smile, agreed that it was not as outlandish as it could be

1:14 p.m.: Castor tried to get Kent to bite on the claim that Hunter Biden had no qualifications to be on Burisma’s board except to protect the company.
“I have heard nothing about [Biden’s] prior experience,” Kent said.

1:12 p.m.: Castor pivoting to Burisma: This company is involved in lots if criminal activity correct?
Kent: I do not know that.

1:08 p.m.: Referring to Kent’s testimony that Ukraine’s readout of the July 25 call was “cryptic,” Castor asks if Kent described it that way because it was written originally in Ukrainian and later translated into English.
Kent says no.

1:03 p.m.: “Isn’t it entirely appropriate,” Castor asks, for Trump to flag for Zelensky that the U.S. is seeking Ukraine’s help with DOJ investigations? Keep in mind that the Justice Department very quickly distanced itself from the requests being expressed by Trump on the call once the rough transcript came out.

12:59 p.m.: We’re back on track with GOP staff counsel Steve Castor leading the questioning. His questions appear geared at validating Trump’s baseless claims that Ukraine was out to get him in 2016.

12:57 p.m.: And things have stalled with a procedural squirmish, with Republicans expressing frustration with how Schiff interrupted the GOP counsel’s line of questioning. Schiff had instructed the witnesses not to presume that certain facts in the questions are correct.

12:54 p.m.: After Nunes battered the witnesses with several questions about supposed evidence that Ukraine was meddling in the 2016 election, Taylor gives some context about the statements and events Nunes just described: “In 2016, candidate Trump had made a statement saying that it was possible that he would allow Crimea to go back to Russia. He expressed the sentiment, the opinion, that it was possible that Crimea wanted to go back to Russia.”

“What I can tell you,” Taylor said, is that that “sentiment is amazingly inflammatory.

12:49 p.m.: Nunes finally starts asking the witnesses questions …. about the claims that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.

12:47 p.m.: We have now made it five minutes into the GOP’s 45-minute question time, and Nunes has not yet asked an actual question. (edited)

12:45 p.m.: Nunes starts with a defense of Trump and the “pleasant” nature of the July 25 call. He pilloried Schiff for providing an exaggerated version of the call at a previous hearing, and glommed on to Zelensky’s public denials of feeling any pressure from Trump.

12:42 p.m.: The five minute recess was closer to a 15 minute recess, but we’ve started back up, with the GOP getting its first turn at questioning the witnesses.

12:24 p.m: Goldman soon after finished the 45 minute question period and the hearing went on a five minute recess.

12:23 p.m.: Kent now gets a line of questioning attacking Trump’s and his allies’ claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. He was asked about the reference to the server in Trump’s Zelensky call, and whether there was any factual basis to support the assertion the Ukraine meddled in 2016. Kent confirmed that there was “no factual basis I know of that Ukraine interfered” in 2016. When he asked, Kent also denied that there was any credibility to theory that Joe Biden sought to shield Burisma from scrutiny while his son was on the board.

12:08 p.m.: Goldman is using his questioning of Taylor to dismantle some of the other emerging defenses of Trump. He asked Taylor, “regardless” of what Ukraine is saying now that this is all out in the public, if Ukraine believed when the pressure campaign was secret that a condition of releasing the aid was announcing the investigations.

“I know that Ukrainian were very concerned about the military assistance, and I know that they were … preparing to a make a public statement, [with] a CNN interview,” Taylor said. “Those are the two pieces that I know.”

Pressed by Goldman, Taylor added that the “implication” of the plans for a CNN interview was a public announcement of the investigations.

12:02 p.m.: Goldman is going through some of the other claims that Taylor made in his previous deposition, and the assertion —allegedly relayed to Taylor by others — that Trump wanted Zelensky in a “public box” in announcing the investigations

“I understood that to mean that President Trump through Ambassador Sondland was asking for President Zelensky to very publicly commit to these investigations, that it was not sufficient to do this in private,” Taylor said, while confirming that “public box” was a phrase in his contemporaneous notes.

11:54 a.m.: We’re talking about the texts Taylor sent raising the alarm about the aid freeze and how it was being leveraged for investigations. Taylor confirmed that he learned of this precondition from what he heard about the Warsaw meeting. This undermines a talking point Republicans were pushing early in the probe: that his concerns were prompted by public reports of the aid freeze, not any first-hand information. Taylor also said Wednesday that using the military assistance as leverage was on a different level than using a White House meeting as leverage.

11:53 a.m.: With Taylor having been in the spotlight for the last extended stretch, Goldman had a few questions for Kent, and asked him about the importance of a White House meeting to Ukraine.

11:47 a.m.: Schiff handed the questioning duty to Daniel Goldman, a counsel for the House Intelligence Committee. Goldman asked Taylor questions about a text he sent calling it “crazy” to freeze aid for help on a political campaign.

11:37 a.m.: With the questioning period finally beginning, Schiff had a few questions about the new episode Taylor revealed in his prepared remarks of an alleged July 26 phone call between Trump and Sondland that a member of Taylor’s staff overheard. Taylor confirmed the call was on a cell phone. After Taylor was asked about a few more details about the incident, Schiff pivoted towards a discussion of the consequences of the aid freeze.

11:36 a.m.: Describing the final stretch before the aid was released, Taylor went through several other troubling conversations that he had previously recounted in his private testimony. Then he pivoted to an episode that was not in his closed-door deposition, because he learned of it after he spoke privately to investigators. He was told by a staff member about a July 26 episode with Sondland, during which the staff member overheard Sondland on the phone with Trump. Trump could be heard by the staffer asking Sondland about “the investigations,” according to Taylor. After the call, Sondland told the staff member, who had asked what Trump though about Ukraine, that Trump cared more about investigations into the Bidens. Taylor has already reported this new episode to the lawyers for the committees and the State Department.

11:27 a.m.: Taylor’s statement went through more details about the panic among several figures, including Ukrainian officials, White House aides, and U.S. senators about the frozen assistance. The push for the investigations “showed how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani.”

11:25 a.m.: Taylor next took us through the growing alarm he felt about the freeze on military aid, and the Aug. 29 cable he sent describing the “folly” of withholding the assistance. Taylor heard that Pompeo brought the cable to the White House for a meeting related to the issue. It was not until Sept. 1 that he connected the freeze to the investigation demand. That evening he heard about the substance of a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Zelensky. After the meeting, Sondlond told a Zelensky advisor that the aid would not be released without a public commitment to the investigations, Sondland relayed to Morrison, according to Taylor.

11:21 a.m.: Taylor’s timeline takes us through the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. He recounted Sondland telling him how Sondland coached Zelensky to talk about the investigations on the phone with Trump, and the lack of readout he got from the White House after the July 25 call. He recalled Zelensky described the call to him, and how another NSC aide, Tim Morrison, told him the call “could have been better.” Taylor finally saw the official readout at the same time the public did, with the release of the rough transcript on Sept. 25.

11:16 a.m.: Taylor has now recounted key moments from his private deposition as he learned that the interests of the regular channels and irregular channels were beginning to diverge. First it was hearing from Sondland that the President did not want Zelensky standing in the way of “investigations.” Then it was Sondland’s request that a call with Zelensky go without the usual monitoring and extra staff on the line. In mid-July, Taylor became aware of Giuliani’s role driving the irregular channel and its conditions for investigations in exchange for a Trump meeting with Zelensky. On July 18 Taylor became aware of the freeze on military assistance, and on July 19 Taylor was told in a phone call with Fiona Hill, then a top aide on the National Security Council, of a “drug deal,” in the alleged words of National Security Advisor John Bolton, being cooked up.

11:05 a.m.: Taylor described the “two channels of U.S. policy-making and implementation.” He was in charge of the regular channel, which enjoyed bipartisan support, while the “irregular channel” was “unaccountable” to Congress. It was made up of Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker, EU ambassador Gordon Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Taylor said that while he was firmly in the regular channel, he was at times looped into the irregular channel through his conversations with Sondland and Volker.

11:06 a.m.: Taylor broke down exactly the implications for Ukraine of Trump withholding the military aid, calling the security assistance “the heart of the controversy that we are discussing today.” He also decried how Yovanovitch was “treated poorly.” He recalled his choice to return to diplomatic service to lead the Kyiv embassy, and how he stressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo he would leave the role if the U.S. policy of strong support of Ukraine changed.

10:58 a.m.: Taylor broke down exactly the implications for Ukraine of Trump withholding the military aid, calling the security  assistance “the heart of the controversy that we are discussing today.” He also decried how Yovanovitch was “treated poorly.” He recalled his choice to return to diplomatic service to lead the Kyiv embassy, and how he stressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo he would love the role if the U.S. policy of strong support of Ukraine changed.

10:54 a.m.: Taylor’s opening statement echoes one of his texts that were released last month, that amounted to one of the most damning pieces of evidence of the pressure campaign.

“I wrote that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be ‘crazy.’ I believed that then, and I believe it now,” he said.

10:51 a.m.: George Kent’s lengthy opening statement gave a broad look at Ukraine’s geopolitical challenges before getting into the nitty gritty of the allegations the House are probing.

“As a general principle, I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country,” he said.

He described learning of the campaign, run by Rudy Giuliani and his two indicted middleman Lev Parnas and Igor Furman,  to “smear” the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Maria Yovanovitch, who was ultimately removed by Trump. He said the Ukrainian officials working with them in the effort peddled “false information in order to exact revenge against those who had exposed their misconduct, including U.S. diplomats, Ukrainian anti-corruption officials, and reform-minded civil society groups in Ukraine.”

“In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging [Ukraine] President Zelenskyy’s desire for a White House meeting,” Kent recalled.

But his statement gave a little fodder to Republicans too, by bringing up his “concern” about a “perceived conflict of interest” with Joe Biden’s son Hunter taking a board seat for the Ukrainian company Burisma while the elder Biden was vice president.

“Let me be clear; however, I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny,” Kent said.

10:34 a.m.: More procedural tussling before we get to the witness opening statements. Republicans are complaining about which witnesses have been chosen for public testimony. Schiff remained calm but pushed back on the claim that he knows the whistleblower’s identity.

10:26 a.m.: The opening statement delivered by top Intel Republican Rep. Devin Nunes (D-CA) was light on its defense of Trump’s conduct and heavy on criticisms launched at Democrats and their witnesses in the inquiry. He accused Democrats of launching “a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign” and said that the witnesses had passed Democrats’ “test” to be the star of the show.

“The Russia hoax has ended and you have been cast in the low rent Ukraine sequel,” Nunes said.

What defense he did offer of Trump’s Ukraine actions was aimed at going after the “elements of civil services” who had decided “they” and not the President were “in charge.” He also embraced the very conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s 2016 activity and about Joe Biden that Trump himself pushed as part of his Ukraine shadow policy.

10:24 a.m.: Schiff’s opening statement also touched on Trump’s stonewalling of the House impeachment probe. “If the President can simply refuse all oversight, particularly in the context of an impeachment proceeding, the balance of power between our two branches of government will be irrevocably altered,” Schiff said.

10:18 a.m.: Schiff’s opening statement hit the highlights of the Democratic case against President Trump. He quoted key lines from the private depositions that have already been released, tackled GOP talking points defending Trump’s behavior towards Ukraine, and stepped back to look more broadly at the questions of what constitutes impeachable conduct.

10:11 a.m.: Not surprisingly, before House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff was able to get to the substance of Wednesday’s hearing, he was interrupted with a GOP question about the procedure. Before the typical five-minute periods for members to ask the witnesses questions, committee is planning 90-minute rounds (45 minutes for each side) for staff lawyers to do the questioning. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) asked how many rounds Schiff anticipated before committee members got to ask their questions. Schiff said it would just depend on how things go.

10:04 a.m.: Per an official working on the impeachment inquiry, Kent and Taylor were subpoenaed for their testimonies Wednesday.

9:55 a.m.: We’re still waiting to start the hearing, and already we’re getting a sense of where things are going to go. Republicans have signs ready laying out their complaints about the process by which the whistleblower came forward. Democrats, meanwhile, have TVs ready for exhibits, and were queuing up a clip from White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press conference from last month.


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