Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in the US embassy in Ukraine arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee for the first public impeachment hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Diplomats reveal new details on Ukraine at first impeachment hearing

Testimony from a career diplomat at the first public hearings of the impeachment inquiry opened new questions about what President Trump knew about the campaign to pressure Ukraine and when he knew it.

At the first public hearing on Wednesday, Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, relayed an account by a member of his staff, who said he overheard the president asking about “the investigations” one day after the now-infamous July 25 call between Mr. Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, then the newly elected president of Ukraine.

Taylor said his staffer heard the president ask Sondland about “the investigations.” The staffer then asked Sondland how the president felt about Ukraine. Sondland replied that Mr. Trump “cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”

The staffer in question is David Holmes, a political officer at the embassy in Kiev, according to three sources familiar with the matter. Holmes will appear behind closed doors on Friday, coinciding with the next public hearing, featuring testimony from former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Taylor testified on Wednesday alongside George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. The hearing, which was carried live across the major broadcast and cable news networks, gave the American public its first look at impeachment proceedings that have taken place behind closed doors for close to two months.

The two diplomats insisted they are nonpartisan career public servants working to advance U.S. interests and bolster Ukraine’s ability to counter Russian aggression, which they said was critical to U.S. national security.

Republican lawmakers mostly avoided casting doubt on the pair’s credibility, instead focusing their attacks on committee Chairman Adam Schiff and the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint sparked the impeachment inquiry in the first place. — Stefan Becket

​Taylor: Withholding aid to Ukraine was “wrong”

Wednesday: Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell asked Taylor whether he would agree that withholding aid to Ukraine was not just “crazy,” as Taylor had testified, but also “wrong.” After a pause, Taylor replied: “Yes.”

“To withhold assistance, security to a country fighting Russia for no good policy reason, no good substantive reason, that is wrong,” Taylor said.

Swalwell also asked Kent and Taylor if they were “Never Trumpers,” as Mr. Trump has alleged. Both denied that they opposed the president. — Grace Segers

​Staffer referenced by Taylor to appear behind closed doors Friday
Wednesday: The diplomatic official who allegedly overheard Mr. Trump ask about the status of “investigations” soon after his July phone call with the Ukrainian president is expected to appear before House lawmakers for a closed-door hearing on Friday.

David Holmes is the staffer referenced by diplomat Bill Taylor in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, three sources familiar with the matter tell CBS News. Holmes is a counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Kiev, according to the embassy’s website.

William Burns, a career diplomat and former deputy secretary of state, described Holmes as “a very sharp, honest, experienced” foreign service officer, telling CBS News he was “one of the best I ever served with.” Holmes served as Burns’ special assistant on South and Central Asia from 2010 to 2011, before being detailed to the National Security Council as a director for Afghanistan during the Obama administration.

Read more here.

​Taylor says he has never seen aid withheld for personal political gain

Wednesday: Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman asked Taylor if, in his decades of service in the military and as a public servant, he had ever seen another example of withholding aid conditioned on the “personal or political interests of the president of the United States.”

“No, Mr. Goldman, I have not,” Taylor replied simply, an indication of how unusual Mr. Trump’s request was. — Grace Segers

Taylor says aide overheard Trump ask Sondland about “the investigations” one day after Ukraine call

Wednesday: In his opening statement, Taylor revealed new details about the events immediately following the president’s July 25 call with the president of Ukraine.

Taylor said a member of his staff told him last week about a phone call he overheard between U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland and Mr. Trump on July 26.

“Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kiev. 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,” Taylor said.

“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,” he added.

Taylor said he did not know about the conversation when he first testified in a closed hearing on October 22, but reported it to the State Department counsel and to the majority and minority counsel on the House Intelligence Committee once he learned of it.

An attorney for Sondland told CBS News that he will respond to Taylor’s statement when he testifies in an open hearing next week.

Taylor said that Tim Morrison, a National Security Council official who will testify before the committee next week, told him Mr. Trump “doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all” to Ukraine.

Taylor said he urged Sondland to push back against Mr. Trump’s desire for Zelensky to publicly announce investigations.

“I told Ambassador Sondland that President Trump should have more respect for another head of state and that what he described was not in the interest of either President Trump or President Zelensky,” Taylor said, echoing his closed-door testimony.

Taylor also emphasized his nonpartisan views earlier in his testimony.

“I am not here to take one side or the other, or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings,” Taylor said. “My sole purpose to provide facts as I know them.”

Like Kent, Taylor stressed the importance of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, saying Ukraine was also a critical partner to the United States. He said it was “clearly in our national interest to deter further Russian interference” in Ukraine, and reiterated his belief that withholding assistance to Ukraine “would be crazy.”

“This security assistance demonstrates our commitment to resist aggression and defend freedom,” Taylor said. He added that it was a difficult decision for him to return to Ukraine after Yovanovitch was ousted due to smears spread by Rudy Giuliani.

Taylor said he “worried about the role” of Giuliani in formulating Ukraine policy. He said that when he arrived in Ukraine, he witnessed “encouraging, confusing, and ultimately alarming circumstances.”

“There appeared to be two channels of U.S. policy making and implementation: one regular, and one highly irregular,” Taylor said. He added that he was included occasionally in the irregular channel, which consisted of Kurt Volker, Gordon Sondland, Rick Perry, Mick Mulvaney and Giuliani. — Grace Segers

​George Kent’s opening statement: Giuliani efforts were “infecting” Ukraine policy

Wednesday: In his prepared opening statement, Kent describes at length his credentials and commitment to advancing U.S. interests and freedom in Ukraine. He then detailed what he saw as an attempt to contradict or undermine the national interest, and specifically to undermine then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

“Over the course of 2018-2019, I became increasingly aware of an effort by Rudy Giuliani and others, including his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, to run a campaign to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch and other officials at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv,” Kent said in his remarks.

“In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting,” Kent continued.

Kent also briefly addressed his concerns about Burisma, the Ukrainian gas firm that had employed Hunter Biden. Mr. Trump has claimed that Joe Biden, as vice president, pushed for the removal of a prosecutor general because he was investigating Burisma, when in fact the prosecutor was widely seen as corrupt by the West.

Kent said he raised concerns about Hunter Biden’s service on the board of Burisma but “did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny.”

Kent concluded his opening remarks by praising first-generation Americans who have testified before the committee in closed hearings, including Yovanovitch, Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill. Yovanovitch is testifying in an open hearing on Friday, while Vindman and Hill will appear next week. — Kathryn Watson and Grace Segers

​Schiff lays out case against Trump in opening statement

Wednesday: In his opening remarks, House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff emphasized the gravity of the hearing, saying the ongoing impeachment inquiry “will affect not only this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself.”

“The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections,” Schiff said. “Whether President Trump sought to condition official acts, such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance, on Ukraine’s willingness to assist with two political investigations that would help his reelection campaign. And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency.”

Schiff said the facts at hand “are not seriously contested.”

“Beginning in January of this year, the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, pressed Ukrainian authorities to investigate Burisma, the country’s largest natural gas producer, and the Bidens, since Vice President Joe Biden was seen as a strong potential challenger to Trump,” Schiff said. “Giuliani also promoted a debunked conspiracy that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that hacked the 2016 election.”

He connected that effort with the administration delaying military aid to Ukraine, and the president’s request to the Ukrainian president to open investigations.

Schiff tried to preempt a Republican argument in defense of the president, which is that military aid to Ukraine was eventually released without Ukraine opening investigations into the Bidens or the 2016 election.

“Some have argued in the president’s defense that the aid was ultimately released. That is true. But only after Congress began an investigation; only after the president’s lawyers learned of a whistleblower complaint; and only after members of Congress began asking uncomfortable questions about quid pro quos,” Schiff said.

Schiff concluded his statement by comparing these impeachment hearings to the ones investigating President Nixon.

“These actions will force Congress to consider, as it did with President Nixon, whether Trump’s obstruction of the constitutional duties of Congress constitute additional grounds for impeachment,” Schiff said. “If the president can simply refuse all oversight, particularly in the context of an impeachment proceeding, the balance of power between our two branches of government will be irrevocably altered.” — Grace Segers

First published on November 14, 2019 / 6:05 AM

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