The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, in the first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, on Wednesday linked the president more directly to a pressure campaign on Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit him politically.
(SOUNDBITE)(English) HOUSE DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL DANIEL GOLDAN, SAYING: "Have you ever seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States?" (SOUNDBITE)(English) ACTING U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE WILLIAM TAYLOR, SAYING: "No, Mr. Goldman, I have not." The first witnesses in the first televised impeachment hearing into President Donald Trump testified Wednesday.
Two top U.S. diplomats told lawmakers of their astonishment and alarm when they learned over the summer the White House was withholding military aid desperately sought by Ukraine to pressure that country into investigating one of Trump's potential political opponents.
(SOUNDBITE)(ENGLISH) U.S. Diplomat George Kent: "I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective politically associated investigations or prosecutions." They painted a picture of an effort by Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to press Ukraine's new leader to probe Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) U.S. Diplomat George Kent: "In mid-August it became clear to me that Giuliani's efforts to gin up politically-motivated investigations were now infecting US engagement with Ukraine." America's acting ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor for the first time testified that a member of his staff overheard a phone call between the American ambassador to the EU Gordan Sondland and Trump.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) ACTING U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE, WILLIAM TAYLOR, SAYING: "Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kiev.
The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations.
Ambassador Sondland told President Trump the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.
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 that Giuliani was pressing for." Trump on Wednesday said he couldn't recall that conversation.
The staff member referenced in this story was added to the list of witnesses to testify.
Sondland is already scheduled to appear next week.
Democratic lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry accuse Trump of abusing his office.
Republicans pushed back, saying that the witnesses had only second-hand information about the matter and that Democrats were wrongly using impeachment to remove Trump from office.
Republicans also tried to shift the focus to Biden's son Hunter, and his role on the board of Ukrainian energy company.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) EXCHANGE BETWEEN U.S. REPUBLICAN REPRESENTATIVE ELISE STEFANIK AND DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE GEORGE KENT: STEFANIK: "You are also aware and you testified that Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma." KENT: "Correct" STEFANIK: "And you also testified that you were indeed concerned about the appearance of conflict of interest." KENT: "That's correct." It's the first presidential impeachment hearing in two decades.
And with a potential television audience of tens of millions looking on, Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff framed the allegations into Trump as a question for Congress and the American people.
(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) REP ADAM SCHIFF: “If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” And as the impeachment inquiry entered a crucial new public phase, the two witnesses tried to put the scandal in context, arguing that defending Ukraine to deter Russian aggression was in the US national interest (SOUNDBITE) (English) ACTING U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE, WILLIAM TAYLOR, SAYING: "It has been violently attacked by Russia, which continues its armed aggression against Ukraine to this day.
The hearings may lead to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voting on articles of impeachment against Trump.
That would trigger a trial in the Senate, where Republicans in control of that chamber have shown little interest in removing the leader of their party from power.