House Democrats kicked off public impeachment hearings on Wednesday with the testimony of Bill Taylor, the current top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the current deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department.
Taylor was brought in by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to serve as the chief of mission in Ukraine after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was ousted in May. Before appearing Wednesday, Taylor had testified behind closed doors that he learned in September that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had communicated what amounted to a quid pro quo directly to the Ukrainians: security assistance in exchange for investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election.
Kent served as deputy chief of mission in Ukraine under Ambassador Yovanovitch and communicated with her regularly. He is currently the deputy assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
Here are our key takeaways from the day’s testimony, with crucial insights from top experts on Ukraine, congressional oversight and rule of law.
1. Taylor provided new testimony that directly implicates Trump
In his opening statement, Taylor described events that took place the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskyy that he was not aware of when he testified on Oct. 22. A member of Taylor’s staff watched on July 26 as Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and discussed “the investigations” and how the Ukrainians were ready to move forward on them. After the call, the staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine, and Sondland responded that the president “cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for” than he does about Ukraine.
Former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade observes that “the most significant revelation at the hearing was Taylor’s disclosure of a July 26 call, in which Sondland told Trump that Ukraine was ready to move forward with the investigations. This evidence brings Trump more deeply into the extortion scheme beyond the initial call.”
It is worth quoting this passage in Taylor’s written testimony in full:
Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26. While Ambassador Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr. Yermak.
Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about “the investigations.” Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that 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, which Giuliani was pressing for. At the time I gave my deposition on October 22, I was not aware of this information. I am including it here for completeness. As the Committee knows, I reported this information through counsel to the State Department’s Legal Adviser, as well as to counsel for both the Majority and the Minority on the Committee. It is my understanding that the Committee is following up on this matter.
Eric Columbus, former senior counsel at the Department of Justice and special counsel at the Department of Homeland Security, notes that “Taylor’s testimony puts even more pressure on Gordon Sondland, who testifies next week.” Given “Sondland has already conceded that his original testimony was not wholly accurate and corrected it once, via his lawyer,” today’s testimony raises the question of whether he will confirm Taylor’s new testimony in his public appearance on November 20.
2. This was a matter of national security
The matter at the heart of this impeachment inquiry concerns U.S. national security, and Trump putting his interests above it. The freeze of the U.S. military assistance was against the security interests of the United States and to the benefit of Russia, which is at war with Ukraine.
McQuade explains: “Taylor and Kent made a compelling case as to why leveraging military aid was so harmful to U.S. security interests. Withholding aid did not just harm Ukraine. It harmed the United States.”
“It’s one thing to try to leverage a meeting in the White House. It’s another thing to try to leverage security assistance to a country at war,” Taylor said Wednesday. Taylor also agreed with Rep. Schiff that the very suspension of the aid sent a message to both Ukraine and Russia that “would weaken Ukraine in negotiating an end to the war.” He testified that more Ukrainians “will die” without U.S. assistance in the form of specific weapons systems that deter further incursions by Russian into Ukrainian territory.
Kent used strong words in his opening remarks saying that “Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically-motivated investigations were infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine.” The witnesses made clear that Ukraine is on the front lines of Russia’s attempts to destabilize the region and upset the norms that have underpinned peace and prosperity in the post-WWII era. Taylor explained in response to questioning that the “whole notion of a rules-based order” is under threat because of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
Beyond that, the action item Trump was asking Ukraine to deliver was interference in the 2020 election. Multiple officials — including FBI Director Christopher Wray — have said countering foreign interference in U.S. elections is one of the top priorities for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. Trump’s request to Zelenskyy — not to mention his public invitation to China to investigate Biden — is an invitation to interfere in U.S. democratic processes. No Republican member raised such a concern in the hours-long hearing.
3. It was never about anti-corruption: The Trump-Giuliani scheme worked by harnessing a corrupt system
Kent, in his opening statement, noted how Giuliani and others had allied themselves with corrupt actors in Ukraine.
“It was unexpected, and most unfortunate, to watch some Americans — including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas — launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine,” he said.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter told Just Security:
What strikes me about President Trump‘s efforts to smear Vice President Biden and spread a pro-Russian conspiracy theory about the 2016 election is both the degree to which Trump was willing to abuse the office of the presidency to achieve his aims, but also the types of people he and Rudy Giuliani enlisted in their effort. Partnering with henchmen like Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman is bad enough. But look closely at who Trump and Giuliani worked with in Ukraine. Viktor Shokin, Konstantin Kulyk, Yuri Lutsenko, and Dmytro Firtash are all associated with major corruption scandals. In other words, President Trump and his lawyer enlisted the most corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs and officials to carry out their scheme of pressuring the Ukrainian President. Rather than helping Zelensky to fight corruption, they dragged him into their own corruption scandal.
Carpenter’s remarks echo Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s deposition testimony, in which she referred to an “alliance between Ukrainians who continue to operate within a corrupt system, and Americans who either did not understand that corrupt system, or who may have chosen, for their own purposes, to ignore it.” In his opening remarks on Wednesday, Kent was more specific. “The chief agitators on the Ukrainian side of this effort were some of those same corrupt former prosecutors I had encountered, particularly Victor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko,” he said.
4. Republicans refused to listen to what the witnesses are telling them under oath
In his opening statement, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, referenced alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016. Of course, this is one of the “completely debunked” conspiracy theories — in the words of Trump’s former homeland security adviser Thomas P. Bossert when he read the call transcript — that President Donald Trump and Giuliani were trying to get Zelenskyy to commit to investigating.
But, over the last few weeks, Nunes has sat through the behind-closed-door testimonies of multiple U.S. government officials, who have testified that there is no evidence that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Rep. Nunes continued to accuse Democrats of offering a misleading depiction of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskyy, after they read verbatim from the White House-released memorandum of conversation — a rough transcript of the call — in earlier questioning.
Rep. Jordan insisted that Amb. Taylor is “wrong” in his “clear understanding” of the conditions for both a White House meeting and aid delivery because the aid was eventually provided. However, Amb. Taylor testified that the conditions were made explicit to the Ukrainians. His understanding of the message being delivered to the Ukrainians, by Sondland and others, is both correct and corroborated by other witnesses including Sondland himself (as Taylor pointed out in reference to Sondland’s supplemental declaration) and Tim Morrison, Senior Director for European Affairs at the White House and the National Security Council.
5. Witnesses were steady in their apolitical role in the face of political questioning by the minority
Law Professor Kate Shaw, formerly an attorney in the White House Counsel’s Office, notes that “Ranking Member Devin Nunes ended his opening remarks by railing against a ‘politicized bureaucracy.’” By their testimony and their demeanor, the “witnesses really refuted that characterization.” Kent and Taylor have “decades of experience and obvious subject-matter expertise,” which came through clearly in their hours of questioning. Perhaps most important to their credibility “They pointedly declined to offer their assessment of the constitutional standards for impeachment.”
6. Complaints of “hearsay” backfire so long as White House stonewalls Congress
The minority focused on the witnesses describing conversations they learned of through other U.S. government officials to argue that the President’s actual motivations cannot be sufficiently ascertained through their testimony. Congressional oversight expert Mike Stern explains why this argument will likely backfire so long as the White House refuses to allow the testimony of witnesses with first-hand knowledge from Congress and refuses to provide documents:
The witnesses most likely to have such first-hand knowledge… have not been permitted to testify before Congress. According to the Office of Legal Counsel, senior advisors to the president (such as acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, NSC legal advisor John Eisenberg, and former national security advisor John Bolton) are absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony, even when they have information that the House needs for an impeachment inquiry. OLC, however, points out that its position does not preclude the House from obtaining information from “other sources” and that the president may choose to allow his senior advisors to testify if he concludes that its need for the information outweighs the executive branch’s interest in confidentiality.
Leaving aside the infirmities in OLC’s legal theory (which I have discussed at length elsewhere), it is hard to see how the president can complain if the House relies on “other sources” to establish his state of mind. Indeed, the very fact that the president is refusing to allow his senior advisors to testify is persuasive evidence that he does not believe their testimony would be helpful to his defense.
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