By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — The U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, reportedly said President Donald Trump was more interested in the investigation of his political rivals than in Ukraine policy, the U.S. envoy to Kyiv testified during an impeachment hearing.
William Taylor, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Ukraine, made the comment on November 13 during the first day of public testimony before the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, which is investigating whether Trump tried to pressure his Ukrainian colleague to investigate Joe Biden — a political rival — by withholding military aid and a White House visit.
Taylor told the televised congressional hearing that his staffer overheard a July 26 call between Sondland — who was in Kyiv at the time for meetings with Ukrainian officials — and Trump, during which the U.S. president asked about “investigations.”
When the staffer later asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine, Sondland responded to the effect that the U.S. president “cares more about the investigations of Biden,” Taylor said his staffer recollected. Taylor said the staffer told him about the July conversation with Sondland just last week.
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the committee who has become the face of the Democratic-led effort, said on November 13 that the hearings will seek to determine if Trump “conditioned” official acts on whether a foreign nation assisted with investigations designed to help him politically and whether that represented an “abuse of office.”
“In 2014, Russia invaded the United States’ ally Ukraine to reverse that country’s embrace of the West and to fulfill [President] Vladimir Putin’s desire to rebuild a Russian empire,” Schiff said in his opening statement.
In the following years, Schiff said, 14,000 Ukrainians died as they battled “superior Russian forces.”
Questions presented by this impeachment inquiry will determine whether Trump sought to “exploit that ally’s vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections,” the lawmaker said.
It is as “simple and terrible as that,” Schiff said, adding: “If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?”
The Democratic-led inquiry — which could lead to impeachment proceedings and a trial in the Senate — is probing whether the president abused his office for personal and political gain — in particular, whether Trump, while withholding $390 million of military aid for Kyiv, asked Zelenskiy to conduct investigations into Biden.
The first two scheduled witnesses — Taylor and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs — sat side-by-side as the dramatic and historic session began.
In his remarks, the leading Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, vehemently defended Trump, saying he “would have a perfectly good reason” for wanting an investigation if he believed that Ukraine sought to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The California lawmaker on November 13 accused Democrats of conducting a “carefully orchestrated smear campaign” through “a horrifically one-sided process.”
He asserted that “Democrats, the corrupt media, and partisan bureaucrats” have tried to overturn the results of the 2016 election.
Nunes said Trump did nothing wrong or impeachable when he asked new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who had sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Taylor told the impeachment hearing that Trump’s decision to withhold or delay military aid to Ukraine could have led to more deaths on the battlefield in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Taylor said Ukraine had a “ragtag” army due to underinvestment when war broke out with Russia-backed forces in its eastern provinces in 2014 and that despite significant budget spending over the past five years to rearm its forces, it still needed assistance.
Taylor said it was in the direct interest of the United States to help Ukraine counter “Russian aggression” by giving military aid and criticized Trump’s decision this summer to delay the release of nearly $400 million in aid to the country.
Ukraine soldiers continue to die each week in the Donbas and “more would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance,” Taylor said.
Critics say the president left Ukraine at the mercy of Russia, which in 2014 seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and has supported separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.
Trump has said that his contacts with Ukraine were “perfect” and has called the impeachment inquiry a “sham.”
The House, currently led by Democrats, has the sole authority to impeach a U.S. president. The case would then be tried in the Senate, which is controlled by Trump’s Republican Party, meaning conviction and removal from office is unlikely.
If the House votes to impeach, it would be only the third time in U.S. history that a president has faced such a trial. The other two cases ended in acquittal following a Senate trial.