House Democrats announced Wednesday that they will hold the first public hearings in their impeachment inquiry of President Trump next week, as they released the testimony of a key former ambassador who says the White House tied U.S. military aid to Ukraine’s promise to investigate Democratic presidential front-runner Joseph R. Biden.
After questioning witnesses behind closed doors at the Capitol for five weeks, Rep. Adam B. Schiff said public testimony will begin Nov. 13 with appearances by two top State Department officials, William Taylor and George Kent.
“I think you will see throughout the course of the testimony … the most important facts are largely not contested,” Mr. Schiff, California Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters.
House Democrats released a transcript of Mr. Taylor’s closed-door testimony Wednesday, the fourth time they have released testimony since voting last week to move forward with a public impeachment probe.
Mr. Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, has told impeachment investigators it was his understanding that the administration would withhold U.S. military aid until the Ukrainian president agreed to investigations of political rivals sought by Mr. Trump.
“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] committed to pursue the investigation,” Mr. Taylor told lawmakers.
He said he believed the requests for Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden and possible interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election came from Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney and a central figure in the Ukraine furor.
But Mr. Taylor acknowledged in his testimony last month that he didn’t hear the July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and the Ukrainian president, he didn’t see a transcript of the call until it was released in late September and he had never spoken with Mr. Trump or Mr. Giuliani.
“Has anyone ever asked you to speak to Mr. Giuliani?” he was asked.
“No,” Mr. Taylor said.
“Have you spoken to the president of the United States?” a lawmaker asked him.
“I have not,” he said.
“You had no communications with the president of the United States?”
“Correct,” Mr. Taylor said.
Another envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, testified that there was “no linkage” between the military aid and the investigations.
The White House again criticized the impeachment inquiry for relying on witnesses with secondhand information. A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed 73% of the public has little or no confidence in the process.
“The hearings should have been public from the beginning,” White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters. “They can’t cure a bad process, and I think that’s why no Republican voted with the Democrats, and frankly two Democrats voted with the Republicans — because the process has been ill-conceived from the beginning. You cannot unscramble that egg; you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
Legal strategist Mike Davis, whose name has been floated as a possible White House counsel for the impeachment proceedings, said the public hearings would at least give Mr. Trump’s defenders an opportunity to put on display the bias of the House Democrats’ effort.
“What the House Republicans need to message is, this is an impeachment mob in search of a high crime and misdemeanor,” said Mr. Davis, a former chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee who led the effort to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
“The overall messaging needs to be: This is our president, whether the swamp creatures like it or not. And if you don’t like our president, vote him out of office. Impeachment overturns the will of the American people and should not be done lightly,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s allies have also called on Jeff Roe, founder and CEO of political consultancy Axiom Strategies, to get involved in the impeachment fight as a White House strategist. Mr. Roe managed the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican.
He was mum on the calls for him to get directly involved but had a harsh critique of the inquiry.
“Adam Schiff’s sham Salem witch trial would make Samuel Parrish blush,” said Mr. Roe, referring to the Puritan minister who prosecuted his own daughter and niece in the infamous witch trial. “The Democrats’ verdict is already in. They are now just orchestrating a show trial for the public after a highly secretive inquisition.”
Unlike other transcripts of witnesses’ testimony that have been released so far, some of the beginning of Mr. Taylor’s transcript has been redacted.
The transcript also sheds light on the volatile proceedings behind the inquiry’s closed doors. In once terse exchange, Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Republican, clashed with the committee’s Democratic leaders about Republicans being shut out of the process.
The Democrats running the hearing cut him off by declaring him “out of order.”
“This whole hearing is out of order,” Mr. Roy shot back.
Rep. Lee M. Zeldin, New York Republican, hammered Mr. Taylor during questioning for giving hearsay testimony about an alleged quid pro quo.
“This isn’t firsthand. It’s not secondhand. It’s not thirdhand,” Mr. Zeldin said. “But if I understand this correctly, you’re telling us that [former presidential adviser] Tim Morrison told you that [European Union] Ambassador [Gordon] Sondland told him that the president told Ambassador Sondland that Zelensky would have to open an investigation into Biden?”
“That’s correct,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor told the inquiry that at the time of the July phone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky, the Ukrainians were not aware that U.S. military aid had been put on hold.
It was only later that he learned there could be a connection between the aid and the request for investigations, which he described as a “stalemate” holding up the money.
Mr. Taylor said he “connected the dots” to figure out what was going on.
In early September, after the delayed aid was made public in a Politico article, Mr. Taylor said he still didn’t know why it happened when asked by Ukrainian officials.
“I’m a representative of the United States government out there, and he asked me a perfectly legitimate question, ‘Why are you holding up this assistance,’ and I couldn’t tell him,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor’s transcript described in detail what he understood to be two channels of foreign policy: an official one he operated that focused on “institution building,” and an irregular channel led by Mr. Giuliani that focused specifically on the 2016 election and the Biden family’s connection to Ukraine.
When Mr. Taylor testified last month, Democrats billed his meticulous timeline as one of the most disturbing accounts they had heard.
Mr. Taylor became one of the House Democrats’ most anticipated witnesses after text messages between him and Mr. Volker showed that Mr. Taylor was concerned about a Trump quid pro quo.
The impeachment inquiry is centered on accusations that Mr. Trump tried to pressure Mr. Zelensky into opening investigations into Mr. Biden’s influence in Ukraine, where his son Hunter held a lucrative post with an energy company, and into alleged 2016 election interference. The president is accused of holding up nearly $400 million in military aid.
Mr. Taylor told lawmakers he was aware by mid-July that Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky would not meet unless the Ukrainians cooperated with the investigations. About the same time, the Office of Management and Budget announced that military aid to Ukraine would be delayed.
That decision came through Mr. Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Taylor said.
By early September, Mr. Taylor learned from Mr. Sondland that military aid was also contingent on cooperation with the investigations and that the president wanted Mr. Zelensky to “clear things up” in a CNN interview.
Mr. Taylor said National Security Council officials Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman told him that then-National Security Advisor John R. Bolton stormed out of a meeting with Ukrainian officials after Mr. Sondland mentioned the investigations.
“John Bolton understood what the reference was and walked out of the meeting,” he said. “He understood, more than I, I guess at the time, that this was — this could lead to interference in U.S. political life and he wanted nothing of it.”
Even as the Democrats open up the impeachment inquiry, the closed-door depositions continue.
Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale is the only witness to appear for his scheduled deposition this week. He was expected to tell lawmakers Wednesday about political influence at the State Department, particularly surrounding the ouster of Marie Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who has consistently attended the closed-door depositions, said there was no mention of a quid pro quo in the deposition.
“He made a compelling case that there was absolutely no linkage between suspension of military aid and political investigations,” he said.
Democrats have a packed schedule for the rest of the week with depositions scheduled for Mr. Bolton and Mr. Mulvaney, though neither man likely will appear.
Mr. Taylor, 72, is a graduate of West Point who served for six years as an Army infantry officer, including with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He has served in administrations of both parties since 1985.
One of his first jobs in Washington was as a staffer to then-Sen. Bill Bradley, New Jersey Democrat. From 2006 to 2009, Mr. Taylor served as ambassador to Ukraine. He also has overseen U.S. aid to Afghanistan.
Mr. Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, has been in the Foreign Service since 1992. He oversees policy for several Eastern European countries including Ukraine, and has served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
During the Obama administration, Mr. Kent was the senior “anti-corruption coordinator” in the State Department’s European bureau from 2014 to 2015, “leading development and advocacy of anti-corruption messages across Europe and Eurasia,” according to his biography on the State Department’s website.
• Ryan Lovelace and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.