The impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine reached a dramatic new phase Wednesday with two senior officials testifying in the first public hearings on the controversy.
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a senior State Department official responsible for Ukraine policy, gave evidence before the House Intelligence Committee over whether Trump used military aid as leverage to secure political favors.
In new evidence before the inquiry, Taylor said a member of his staff was told Trump was preoccupied with pushing Ukraine to launch a corruption investigation into his political rival, Joe Biden, a former Democratic vice president.
Addressing committee members in a highly-anticipated day of political theatre in Washington, Taylor said “withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign” in the U.S. was a “crazy” idea.
“I believed that then, and I believe it now,” added the career diplomat, who has served under Republican and Democratic presidents.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, which is handling the impeachment inquiry, said members would establish whether the president had “abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections.”
Devin Nunes, a prominent Trump ally and the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, denounced the inquiry as a “televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats” in the run-up to a divisive 2020 presidential election.
Speaking to reporters at the White House before a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump said he was “too busy to watch” the hearing and that he would “get a report” about the proceedings later.
House Democrats opened an impeachment inquiry against Trump on Sept. 24 following claims by a whistle-blower that the president tried to pressure Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 presidential elections.
In a July 25 telephone call, Trump repeatedly pressed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch a probe into former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, a businessman, over unsubstantiated corruption allegations.
The elder Biden is a leading candidate in the race for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020.
Trump, a Republican, says the House inquiry is a “witch hunt” and a “hoax” and maintains that he did nothing wrong in his dealings with the turbulent eastern European nation.
By James Reinl in New York