WASHINGTON — There were no gut punches at House Intelligence Committee’s first public hearing of impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and a right-wing conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. But that doesn’t mean the hearing, the first of several, was a dud.
Quite the contrary. Witnesses George Kent, a State Department deputy assistant secretary overseeing European and Eurasian affairs, and Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, affirmed many details of what we know about the months-long push by Rudy Giuliani and his cronies to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens. Kent and Taylor also gave compelling testimony about why this shadow campaign was so at odds with America’s official foreign policy and the real danger faced by Ukrainians while the U.S. president effectively extorted the new Ukrainian president into doing his bidding.
Here are four things we learned from Wednesday’s hearing.
Trump put American and Ukrainian national security at risk with his extortion plot aimed at the new Ukrainian president. Kent and Taylor were not direct participants in the plot to pressure the Ukrainians to announce a Biden investigation, but as longtime diplomats and Ukraine experts, they spoke in great detail about how beyond the pale and troubling the Trump-Ukraine scheme was.
They described the “irregular” channel of communication by Trump loyalists outside of the traditional diplomatic process to pressure Volodymyr Zelensky, the newly elected Ukrainian president, to announce an investigation of the Bidens and the 2016 election. They said this shadow foreign policy threatened to hijack the long-standing relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine dating back decades. “The official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Rudy Giuliani,” Taylor testified.
Taylor, who took over the U.S. embassy in Ukraine after the previous ambassador was forced out for not agreeing to the anti-Biden plot, described his shock after a Trump administration budget official informed him that nearly $400 million in security funds earmarked for Ukraine were being frozen at the direction of the president. “I and others sat in astonishment,” Taylor said. “The Ukrainians were fighting the Russians and were counting on not only the training and weapons but also the assurance of U.S. support.”
While the Trump administration dangled the money in an effort to pressure Ukraine to announce the Biden investigations, the fighting continued between Ukraine and Russia. U.S. security money not only funds new weapons and training, Taylor said, but it also acted as a deterrent against Russian aggression in Ukraine. “If that further aggression were to take place, more Ukrainians would undoubtedly die,” Taylor said.
Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to investigate the Biden also put U.S. national security at risk, Kent testified. The U.S. has poured more than $1.5 billion into building up Ukraine’s military, combating corruption, and encouraging democracy there. In turn, the U.S.’s relationship affords it a “front-row seat to the Russian way of war in the 21st century, gaining priceless insights that contribute to our own security.” Alienate the Ukrainians, Kent argued, and that valuable intelligence about one of the U.S.’s great-powers rivals could evaporate.
Trump cares more about Ukraine investigating Biden than anything else in that country. There was one new revelation to come out of Taylor and Kent’s testimony: In his opening statement, Taylor testified one of his staffers accompanied Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., to a restaurant in Kyiv the day after the July 25th call when Trump asked Ukrainian President Zelensky for the “favor” of investigating the Bidens. According to Taylor’s staffer, Sondland took a call from Trump in the restaurant. Sondland told Trump about his meetings in Kyiv, and Trump asked about “the investigations.”
After the call ended, the staffer asked Sondland what Trump “thought about Ukraine.” Sondland replied that “Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden,” according to Taylor.
Taylor said he hadn’t mentioned this exchange in his closed-door interview with the Intelligence committee last month because he’d learned about it last Friday. He said he’d passed the information to the Democratic- and Republican-side lawyers. “It is my understanding that the committee is following up on this matter,” Taylor testified.
Despite what Republicans say, the Ukrainians were freaked out by Trump freezing their security funds. At this point, a popular talking point among House Republicans and Trump allies is that there couldn’t have been a quid pro quo or abuse of power because the Ukrainians weren’t upset or even aware that the Trump administration had put a hold on the $400 million in U.S. aid. They point to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s friendly attitude on the July 25th call with Trump or the fact that they didn’t raise the issue in multiple meetings across the summer of 2019.
But Taylor, who met often with Ukraine’s president and senior Ukrainian officials, disputed that that was the case. “I know that the Ukrainians were very concerned about the security assistance,” Taylor testified. “And I know that they were prepared or preparing to make a public statement, that is with a CNN interview, that was being planned. Those are the two pieces that I know.”
“And that CNN interview was to announce these investigations as you understood it?” asked Daniel Goldman, an attorney for Intelligence committee Democrats.
“That was certainly the implication,” Taylor replied.
Taylor went on to say that, from what he learned, it wasn’t sufficient for the Ukrainians to commit in private to an investigation into the Bidens. “Trump through Ambassador Sondland was asking for Zelensky to very publicly commit to these investigations,” Taylor said. “It was not sufficient to do this in private, that this needed to be a very public statement.”
Republicans can’t defend the president’s actions so they’re crying “conspiracy theory!” and attacking the messenger. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican and ranking member on the Intelligence committee, launched a blistering attack on the committee’s Democrats, the media, and reality in his opening statement. He called the impeachment inquiry “a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.” He described a “cult-like atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol” during the closed-door interviews that preceded the public phase of the inquiry — even though dozens of Republicans were invited to and participated in those interviews.
When it was his time to speak again, Nunes said it was a “conspiracy theory” that Trump wanted Ukraine — “a country he doesn’t even like” — to investigate the Bidens. Just so we’re clear: Trump said exactly that on October 3rd to a throng of reporters outside the White House (“I would think that if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation”).
It should come as no surprise the Republican questioning of Kent and Taylor looks more like a defense of the president. Still, there was strikingly little effort given to contesting the facts of Trump’s Ukraine ruse, apart from some half-hearted attempts to undermine the credibility of the witnesses. It’s early days in the Trump-Ukraine impeachment saga, but the Republican defense appears to be to cry “conspiracy theory!” and avoid the facts at all cost.