- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The star witness at the first public hearing on impeachment Wednesday said a State Department aide overheard President Trump say he cared more about investigating the Bidens than about Ukraine, providing Democrats the hottest revelation in an otherwise lukewarm kick-off to their impeachment quest.

For Republicans, it was more hearsay testimony and far short of evidence of a high crime or misdemeanor that warrants impeachment.

“I can’t believe and you’re their star witness,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican. “I have seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.”

The new revelation from William B. Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, went to the heart of the Democrats’ case that Mr. Trump’s actions in Ukraine were all for his political benefit and not advancing U.S. interests.

Mr. Taylor said a staff member recently told him that he was at a restaurant with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and overheard him on the phone with Mr. Trump.

The aide heard Mr. Trump ask about “the investigations” and Mr. Sondland replied that they were moving forward, Mr. Taylor said.

“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” testified Mr. Taylor. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.”

The restaurant conversation, he said, occurred a day after Mr. Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which prompted a whistleblower to accuse Mr. Trump of abuse of power, setting off the impeachment effort.

The account added to the impeachment narrative but wasn’t the bombshell Democrats were looking for to grab America’s attention and build popular support to oust the president.

“The Democrats have to hone the message better and explain why they are doing this because it is confusing to people who work for a living and are not obsessed with this every minute of the day,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told The Washington Times.

The crux of the impeachment case is that Mr. Trump prodded the Ukraine president to investigate political rival Joseph R. Biden and his son Hunter, as well as the country’s meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who presided over the hearing, highlighted the new testimony from Mr. Taylor as further evidence of Mr. Trump’s corrupt motives in withholding $391 million of military aid and the promise of a White House visit for the Ukraine president.

“The import of that is he cares more about [investigations] than he does about Ukraine,” said Mr. Schiff, California Democrat, driving home the point.

The Democrats announced the impeachment panel would bring in the eavesdropping aide, David Holmes, for a closed-door interview Friday.

At the White House, Mr. Trump said he did not remember the phone call described by Mr. Taylor.

“I never heard of this. In any event, it is more second-hand information,” he said during a joint press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “As Sondland said, there was no quid pro quo, pure and simple.”

The two witnesses facing the panel, Mr. Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, who oversaw Ukraine policy, covered familiar ground during the five-hour hearing.

Both men said, as they did in earlier closed-door interviews with lawmakers, that they were concerned Mr. Trump was politicizing U.S. policy in Ukraine.

The most tantalizing nuggets from the closed-door testimony were leaked to the news media in October. House Democrats last week released the full transcripts.

Mr. Kent again described how he was alarmed by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, conducting a “shadow diplomacy” in Ukraine on behalf of the president. He accused Mr. Giuliani of engaging in a smear campaign that led to Mr. Trump firing U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Ms. Yovanovitch is scheduled to appear at the next public impeachment hearing Friday.

Mr. Sondland is scheduled to testify next week.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Republican lawmakers hammered the witnesses about the fact Mr. Zelensky repeatedly denied he was coerced or blackmailed and that military aid was delivered without Kyiv starting the investigations.

The fireworks were largely confined to Republican challenges to the process that they said was tilted against Mr. Trump and their demands that the anonymous whistleblower testify.

Mr. Schiff rejected moves to bring in the whistleblower, who is believed to be a CIA analyst with ties to Democrats and Mr. Biden, a former vice president who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

In his opening statement, Mr. Schiff described the hearings as a search for the truth about whether Mr. Trump exploited Ukraine for political gain or used Oval Office power to pressure the country to interfere in 2020 presidential politics.

“And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency?” he said. “The matter is as simple and as terrible as that. Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief.”

In some of the most aggressive questioning, Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas Republican, challenged Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent to present evidence of a crime worthy of impeachment.

“Are either of you here today to assert that there was an impeachable offense in that call? Shout it out. Anyone?” he said.

Mr. Kent remained mum, while Mr. Taylor offered a rebuttal.

“I am not here to do anything having to do to decide about impeachment. That is your job,” he said.

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