The moment has arrived: The public phase of the House impeachment inquiry of President Trump began on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Democrat Adam Schiff declared at the start of the hearing that the "future of the presidency itself" is at stake, while Republican Devin Nunes called the hearings a "carefully orchestrated smear campaign." The first two witnesses were William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. Some highlights:
- Another phone call: In a new piece of information, Taylor testified that a member of his staff overheard Trump ask about the "the investigations" during a phone call with diplomat Gordon Sondland, reports the AP. The call took place one day after Trump's call to the Ukraine president in July. (Sondland and the Taylor staffer were in a restaurant together when Trump called.) During the conversation, Sondland told Trump the Ukrainians were poised to move forward. After the call, the Taylor staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine. "Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which (Rudy) Giuliani was pressing for," said Taylor, per Axios.
- More on that: Politico sees the call as "an explosive new detail," and the Washington Post agrees, saying it ties Trump "more directly to the effort to pressure Ukraine to probe his political opponents." Plus, it undermines Trump's previous assertion that he barely knows Sondland. A post at Red State, though, scoffs at the idea this is significant. "Under any other circumstances a staffer claiming to have heard what a remote participant on a telephone call said in a private phone call would be laughed at," it reads. "This kind of nonsense would not be allowed before any committee that still had a sense of shame."
- Trump denial: During a press conference with Turkey's president after their Oval Office meeting, Trump denied knowledge of the overheard call. "I know nothing about that," he said, per the AP. "First time I've heard it."
- Star witness? Taylor disputed the idea put forth by GOP Rep. Jim Jordan that he was a "star witness" for Democrats, reports the Hill. "I don't consider myself a star witness for anything," he said. "I’m not here to take one side or the other." When Taylor said his "clear understanding" was that Ukraine aid and investigations were linked, Jordan shot back, "Your clear understanding was obviously wrong, because it didn’t happen."
- GOP strategy: In questioning Taylor about Trump's dealings with Ukraine, GOP lead counsel Steve Castor said, “You certainly can appreciate that President Trump was very concerned that some elements of the Ukrainian establishment were not in favor of him, did not support him, and were out to get him." Schiff warned Castor about commenting on "facts not in evidence," but eventually allowed the question, reports the Washington Post. “So you certainly can appreciate President Trump’s concerns,” repeated Castor to Taylor, who responded, "I don’t know the exact nature of President Trump’s concerns.”
- About Biden: When Kent was asked if there was any truth to the theory that Joe Biden pushed Ukraine to fire a prosecutor in order to protect his son, he answered, "None whatsoever," per the Wall Street Journal. However, Kent confirmed that he reported his concerns about Hunter Biden serving on the board of a Ukraine gas company as a possible conflict of interest during the Obama-Biden administration.
- More from Kent: He shot down the conspiracy theory, one pushed by the White House, that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election. "I think it's amply clear that Russian interference was at the heart of the interference."
- Opening statements: Kent's opening statement is here, Taylor's is here, Nunes' is here, and Schiff's is here.
- A 'sham': Before the hearings began, Trump lashed out in a series of morning tweets. "Millions of Americans will see what a partisan sham this whole thing is," Trump wrote, quoting Rush Limbaugh. Trump also called out "NEVER TRUMPERS!" For the record, both witnesses denied they were "never Trumpers" during testimony. Trump later retweeted a number of Republican tweets denouncing the inquiry, and retweeted a White House tweet declaring, "New hoax. Same swamp."
- "Shadow war": The AP reports a "shadow disinformation war" was already underway before the hearing began, and rounds up the intense social media scrutiny of the proceedings.
- Was the POTUS tuning in? Trump told reporters during his meeting with Erdogan that he wasn't watching the proceedings, a statement he reiterated later during their press conference. "I hear it’s a joke. I haven’t watched for one minute because I’ve been with the president" of Turkey, he said. He added that he wants to know the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint launched the impeachment inquiry.
- As for the whistleblower: Schiff had said earlier Wednesday the House Intelligence Committee would take up a motion to issue a congressional subpoena to compel the whistleblower to appear behind closed doors, but ultimately that motion was tabled after Taylor and Kent finished testifying. Their testimony lasted five hours.
- What's next: Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted in May on Trump’s orders, will testify Friday. Next week will see eight more witnesses testifying.
- Takeaways from Wednesday: The AP has a few here.
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