What Happened During The First Day Of Public Hearings In The Impeachment Inquiry

Nov 13, 2019
Originally published on November 13, 2019 8:42 pm
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ADAM SCHIFF: The committee will come to order.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With that strike of the gavel at just past 10 this morning, the public phase of the impeachment inquiry began.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In opening statements, the top Democrat and the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee presented starkly different takes on the question before them. Did Donald Trump abuse the powers of his office and violate the Constitution for personal political gain? Here's Democrat Adam Schiff, the committee chair. He's running the hearings.

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SCHIFF: If we find that the president of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections, or if he sought to condition, coerce, extort or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection campaign and did so by withholding official acts, a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid, must we simply get over it? Is this what Americans should now expect from their president?

CORNISH: And here's Devin Nunes, the committee's ranking Republican.

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DEVIN NUNES: Here we are. We're supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out a new batch of allegations. But anyone familiar with the Democrats' scorched-earth war against President Trump would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.

SHAPIRO: Two key witnesses answered lawmakers' questions for five hours. And two of our colleagues are here in the studio to answer my questions for about 10 minutes, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Good to have you both here. I'm not going to swear you in.

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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: But we do swear to tell the truth.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, Ryan, start telling us, who are those witnesses?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: So the two witnesses who appeared today are William Taylor and George Kent. Taylor is a highly respected career public servant. He served as an infantry officer in Vietnam, worked for the State Department for years, including as an earlier stint as the ambassador to Ukraine. He came out of retirement, so to speak, this spring to take over as the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine since the middle of this year.

Now, George Kent is the other individual. He's a career foreign service officer, currently serves as deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs - basically, someone who has deep knowledge of Ukraine and the broader region.

SHAPIRO: And we heard a lot more from Taylor today than we did from Kent. Will you, Tam, just summarize the point that the Democrats were trying to make? What was their main argument here?

KEITH: Their main argument was that President Trump was abusing his office and that he was trying to - by asking for investigations into Joe Biden and a conspiracy theory around the 2016 election, that he was subverting U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine for his own personal gain.

SHAPIRO: Subverting U.S. policy toward Ukraine to get an investigation into this oil company Burisma, right?

LUCAS: That's right. It's a Ukrainian energy company that Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, sat on the board of starting in about 2014, 2016 - around that time period. And that's one of the investigations that Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, has pushed for for a long time. And it's - when President Trump talked about an investigation into the Bidens - into Joe Biden and his son Hunter - on that July 25 phone call, that's what he was referring to.

SHAPIRO: So as Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, is pursuing what he thinks is U.S. policy interests in Ukraine, he, as he described in his opening statement, realizes there's something else going on.

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WILLIAM TAYLOR: By mid-July, it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelenskiy wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.

SHAPIRO: And he says it wasn't only a meeting that was conditioned on that. It was also military aid, which is extremely important to Ukraine in this moment.

KEITH: Right. And what we have learned through this testimony and through other testimony before this is that President Trump had put a hold on this $400 million in aid to Ukraine sometime in mid-July, sometime before his phone call with President Zelenskiy - this now-infamous phone call - on July 25. So that funding was on hold.

And Taylor testified that he didn't think that the Ukrainians knew that that money was on hold at the time of the phone call but that as time went on, the Ukrainians did become aware of it and there was this sense that they weren't going to get the money or a meeting - a face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office for President Zelenskiy - without doing what President Trump wanted, which was publicly announcing that there would be these investigations that he wanted.

SHAPIRO: I want to play another clip here, but we are not about to hear a lawmaker asking a question to a witness. Explain, Ryan, who we're going to hear and what makes it so unusual.

LUCAS: Well, you had Daniel Goldman, who was counsel to the Democrats, who asked questions today. And this was part of the arrangement that Democrats made in the House rules as part of this impeachment inquiry, which was that counsel for both Democrats and Republicans would be permitted to ask questions during these open hearings.

SHAPIRO: For 45 minutes - let's listen to a part of this.

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DANIEL GOLDMAN: Ambassador Taylor, in your decades of military service and diplomatic service representing the United States around the world, have you ever seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States?

TAYLOR: No, Mr. Goldman, I've not.

LUCAS: Now, there's one more thing about this military aid that Taylor and Kent, but particularly Taylor, emphasized today, which is that there were repercussions to Ukraine for this aid being withheld. If Ukraine did not get this aid, it had repercussions. And that's because, remember; Ukraine is fighting Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country - George Kent said they control 7% of Ukraine - and that this aid is critical to Ukraine in deterring further Russian aggression. They made that point time and again.

SHAPIRO: We actually have a cut of that with Kent speaking to Goldman. Let's listen to that.

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GOLDMAN: Mr. Kent, is pressuring Ukraine to conduct what, I believe, you've called political investigations a part of U.S. foreign policy to promote the rule of law in Ukraine and around the world?

GEORGE KENT: It is not.

GOLDMAN: Is it in the national interest of the United States?

KENT: In my opinion, it is not.

SHAPIRO: Now, both of these witnesses had previously testified behind closed doors, and so a lot of what they said today had come out in transcripts that were released of that testimony but not everything. There was kind of a bombshell. Tam, will you tell us about it?

KEITH: Yeah. So what Ambassador Taylor said is that after his closed-door deposition, he heard from a member of his staff who described a conversation that he overheard Ambassador Gordon Sondland having with President Trump.

SHAPIRO: He was ambassador to the EU, yeah.

KEITH: Yeah. So he's the ambassador to the EU, and he was part of that sort of alternate channel doing policy toward Ukraine and trying to work with Rudy Giuliani.

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TAYLOR: Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. A member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations. Ambassador Sondland told President Trump the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. 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.

SHAPIRO: Tam, why is this so important?

KEITH: Well, this is significant, in part because it shows President Trump allegedly prioritizing his own personal ends over policy towards Ukraine or the interests of the Ukrainians and their defense. And President Trump actually had a press conference today. He was asked about this phone call, and he said he didn't remember it.

SHAPIRO: So we've talked about what Democrats were trying to get out of the witnesses. Tell us a little bit about what the Republicans were going for today. What was their argument?

LUCAS: Well, I think it's important to frame this as Democrats have the hill to climb here. They have to convince the public that what the president has done rises to the level of an impeachable offense - that it meets that standard of high crimes and misdemeanors that's talked about.

Republicans need to poke enough holes, sow enough doubt in that so that the public does not get behind this idea that the president deserves to be removed from office for these actions.

KEITH: And some of the ways that they're trying to do that is to say, hey, all of these witnesses that you're hearing from - they don't know what the president was thinking or saying. This is all hearsay. It's second- and thirdhand.

SHAPIRO: One lawmaker who kept driving that point home was Republican Jim Jordan of Ohio, speaking here with Ambassador Taylor.

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JIM JORDAN: You never met the president.

TAYLOR: That's correct.

JORDAN: You had three meetings again with Zelenskiy that didn't come up.

TAYLOR: And two of those they had never heard about, as far as I know.

JORDAN: And President...

TAYLOR: There was no reason for it to come up.

JORDAN: And President Zelenskiy never made an announcement. This is what I can't believe. And you're their star witness. You're their first witness.

TAYLOR: Mr. Jordan...

JORDAN: You're the guy. You're the guy based on this. Based on - I mean, I've seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.

SHAPIRO: Another argument that Jordan and other Republicans kept making was that the whistleblower whose complaint originated this impeachment inquiry is still anonymous.

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JORDAN: This anonymous so-called whistleblower with no firsthand knowledge, who's biased against the president, who worked with Joe Biden, who is the reason we're all sitting here today - we'll never get a chance to question that individual. Democrats are trying to impeach the president based on all that - all that? - 11 1/2 months before an election.

SHAPIRO: Tam, is the whistleblower still meaningful after all the testimony that we've heard and are hearing?

KEITH: So here's the thing. There are people who are direct witnesses to what happened. There is the president's phone call - the rough log of that phone call. What the whistleblower was talking about was all secondhand and thirdhand, and now there are firsthand witnesses. I went through all of the closed-door depositions and found testimony that basically lines up with everything that the whistleblower was talking about.

SHAPIRO: A very valuable resource that we posted on npr.org, if I may say so. Ryan, before we wrap up, tell us what the president was doing during all of this.

LUCAS: Well, the president was having a meeting with the president of Turkey. There's been, obviously, quite a bit going on on the foreign policy front for the president as well. And the president had some comments about what was going on today.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You're talking about the witch hunt. Is that what you mean? Is that what you're talking about? I hear it's a joke. I haven't watched. I haven't watched for one minute because I've been with the president, which is much more important, as far as I'm concerned.

SHAPIRO: Tam, do you think today's hearings changed anyone's mind?

KEITH: Guess what? This is just Day 1.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

KEITH: And there are going to be a lot more. So we have - there are hearings on Friday. And then there are eight additional witnesses next week, so this is the beginning of a marathon.

LUCAS: This is part of building the case. This is the first of a series. And this is building up to what the Democrats want in the end.

SHAPIRO: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas and White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks to you both.

KEITH: You're welcome.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "TO WEST TEXAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.