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Testy public impeachment hearing reveals ‘potentially important’ witness

George Kent, left, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, and William B. Taylor, right, Chargé d'Affaires Ad Interim, Kyiv, Ukraine, swear in to the House Intelligence Committee's first public inquiry into the interaction between President Donald Trump and the government of Ukraine at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, November 13, 2019. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Sipa USA/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Adam Schiff (Democrat-California), the chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, says he has invited a U.S. Embassy staffer in Ukraine to testify in the impeachment probe into Donald Trump, calling the staffer a “potentially important witness.”

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, told the committee on November 13 during its first day of public hearings that one of his staffers overheard Trump ask U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland about “investigations” during a July 26 call. The staffer said Sondland replied that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, according to Taylor.

Taylor’s statement about what the staffer heard was arguably the biggest development to emerge from the more than five hours of testimony he and George Kent, the deputy secretary of state overseeing Ukraine, gave to the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating whether Trump sought to pressure his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to open an investigation into political rival Joe Biden by withholding military aid to the country.

Sondland told the embassy staffer following the call that the U.S. president “cares more about the investigations” of the Biden family than Ukraine, Taylor said, citing the staffer. Taylor said he heard of the staffer’s account of the July 26 conversation involving Trump and Sondland only last week.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko said on November 14 that Sondland did not explicitly link military aid to Kyiv with opening an investigation into Biden.

“Ambassador Sondland did not tell us, and certainly did not tell me, about a connection between the assistance and the investigations. You should ask him,” Prystayko was quoted as saying by Interfax-Ukraine.

Schiff, however, called the new information “very important,” telling reporters at the conclusion of the day’s testimony that it indicated that instructions regarding Ukraine were “coming from the president on down.”

He accused the president’s allies of trying to lay blame for the administration’s Ukraine policy on others in order to protect Trump.

“We are moving to depose this [Embassy staff] witness and we have already scheduled their deposition,” Schiff said. He did not identify the staffer.

‘Low-Rent Ukrainian Sequel’

The Democratic-led inquiry — which could lead to Trump’s impeachment by the House and a trial in the Senate — began after an unidentified whistle-blower submitted a complaint accusing Trump of pressuring Zelenskiy during a July 25 call to investigate former U.S. Vice President Biden and his son Hunter, who sat on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings.

Trump has accused Biden — who oversaw Ukraine policy during the administration of former President Barack Obama — of pressuring Kyiv to fire its prosecutor-general in order to halt an investigation into Burisma.

The U.S. officials who have testified so far in the impeachment probe rejected that theory.

Prior to the July 25 call, Trump put nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine on hold, releasing it only in September.

Schiff kicked off the contentious hearing by describing Ukraine as a nation invaded by neighboring Russia and in need of U.S. support. Some 14,000 Ukrainians have died battling “superior Russian forces,” he said, a reference to the more than five-year war between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists in the area of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.

He accused Trump of trying to “exploit” this vulnerability by holding up military aid in order to force Kyiv to launch investigations that could benefit his 2020 reelection bid. Biden is a front-runner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in the election next November.

John Ratcliffe (Republican-Texas) tried to dismiss claims by Democrats and others that Trump made the military aid and investigations the subjects of a quid pro quo during the July 25 call, latching onto Taylor’s comment that the Ukrainians didn’t know the military aid had been held up until September 11.

The Trump administration had twice told Congress — on February 28 and May 23 — that it was releasing the aid to Ukraine.

It was released after Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois) threatened to block $5 billion in Pentagon spending attached to the same 2020 budget as the Ukrainian aid.

Republicans, on the other hand, described Ukraine as an endemically corrupt state, the whistle-blower as biased, and the impeachment hearing as another attempt by Democrats to oust Trump.

Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, called the hearing the latest phase of the Democrats’ “scorched-earth war” against the U.S. president and the “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” to the two-year-long investigation led by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which did not find that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.​

‘More Would Undoubtedly Die’

During testimony, Kent and Taylor criticized Trump’s decision to delay military aid to Ukraine and a White House invitation to Zelenskiy, saying it ran counter to U.S. foreign-policy goals in the region and damaged Washington’s relationship with Kyiv.

U.S. policy toward Central and Eastern Europe for the past three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been to create a Europe that is united, democratic, and free of war, Kent said. “That is not possible without a Ukraine whole, free, and at peace, including the Crimea and Donbas, territories currently occupied by Russia,” he said.

Kent described Ukraine as being on the “front lines,” not only of a conventional and information war with Russia but also of “the greater geopolitical challenges” facing the United States.

Taylor said U.S. military support to Ukraine would give Zelenskiy greater leverage in negotiations with Russia. In the meantime, Ukrainian soldiers were dying every week and “more would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance.”

The two men recounted to the committee their correspondence with Sondland and other U.S. officials helping oversee Ukraine policy, including former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.

They described attempts by those officials to get Zelenskiy to publicly announce an investigation into Burisma and Ukraine’s possible interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Republican members of the committee tried to weaken their testimony. Mike Turner (Republican-Ohio) pointed out that neither official had ever met Trump and that they received much of their information from second- and third-hand sources, describing it as “hearsay.”

In an apparent shot at Turner and Trump, whose administration has ordered some of its member not to testify, Mike Quigley (Democrat-Illinois) said that more than a dozen witnesses who could give firsthand testimony had failed to show up for hearings.

Elise Stefanik (Republican-New York) said Trump released the $400 million in military aid without Ukraine announcing an investigation into the Bidens or Burisma. He also approved lethal weapons, something the Obama administration had refused.

Jim Jordan (Republican-Ohio) posited Trump held up the aid to make sure Zelenskiy was the “real deal” and not another corrupt politician. Following Zelenskiy’s five interactions with U.S. officials including Vice President Mike Pence and former national-security adviser John Bolton, “all became convinced” he was trustworthy, he said.

“And guess what? They told the president he is a reformer, release the money. And that is exactly what President Trump did,” Jordan said. He said it wasn’t fair that the whistle-blower had not been deposed, saying the “guy that started” the impeachment inquiry should be heard from.

Peter Welch (Democrat-Vermont) shot back at Jordan quickly, saying that Trump’s actions were the real catalyst of the probe.

“I would be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there,” Welch said, pointing at the witness table.