Two senior US diplomats have starkly accused Donald Trump of putting personal political interests ahead of America’s strategic relationship with Ukraine – on occasion painting the situation in existential terms – as the impeachment probe of the president finally played out in public.
Two decades after Washington last held impeaching hearings against a president, and 12 months before the nation goes to the polls, William Taylor and George Kent appeared – despite a White House request to stay away – to testify what they knew about Mr Trump’s controversial phone call with the president of Ukraine, and their discovery of a private outreach led by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
There were few dramatic sparks, or moments for the ages; the public learned of a phone conversation overheard by one of Mr Taylor’s assistants in which Mr Trump apparently made clear he considered Kiev’s launch of a probe into Joe Biden and his son more important than “anything else”.
Yet, Democrats insisted the hearings, which were launched following accusations made in a whistleblower complaint that Mr Trump had sought a quid pro quo from Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky that was unconstitutional, had important ramifications.
“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,” said congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, in his opening remarks.
“Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief.”
Republicans, in turn, sought to undermine the very validity of the hearing, held in the TV-friendly chamber occupied by the ways and means committee.
Devin Nunes, the most senior Republican on the intelligence committee, said it was vital the American public be told about what relationship Democrats had with the whistleblower prior to that individual coming forward.
Congressman Jim Jordan said it was a “sad chapter for the country”, and pointed out that nobody would be able to question “the guy who started it all. The whistleblower”. The committee later voted against a Republican effort to issue a subpoena to compel testimony from the anonymous official.
Mr Taylor, 72, who agreed to step in as acting ambassador to Ukraine, a job he previously served in a full capacity, after the Trump administration in the spring of 2019 recalled Marie Yovanovitch, said he was “alarmed” to learn that the provision of military aid to the former Soviet republic was tied to launching a probe into Mr Biden.
“It’s one thing to try to leverage a meeting in the White House. It’s another thing, I thought, to leverage security assistance – security assistance to a country at war, dependent on both the security assistance and the demonstration of support,” he said.
He said military aid was vital to Kiev’s ability to push back against a violent Moscow-backed insurgency, and that it had even broader implications. He said: “It affects the world that we live in, that our children will grow up in, and our grandchildren.”
Mr Kent, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, voiced similar concerns. In his opening remarks, he said: “In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting US engagement with Ukraine, leveraging president Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting.”
Republicans made clear their strategy for responding to the diplomats, by ignoring much of what they said and seeking to focus instead on claims about Mr Biden’s son, and his appointment as a director of the Ukraine-based energy firm Burisma. Republicans have said he only got the job because of Mr Biden’s influence.
He admitted that he himself had raised concerns in 2015 about Mr Biden being on the board of Burisma, warning it could give the “perception of a conflict of interest”. Yet he also dismissed accusations made by Republicans, saying he had never heard of any US official try to shield a Ukraine company from anti-corruption investigations.
Mr Trump insisted he was too busy to watch the hearing, the first of five witness public testimonies so far scheduled. “I did not watch it. I’m too busy to watch it. It’s a witch hunt, it’s a hoax. I’m too busy to watch it. So I’m sure I’ll get a report.”
Later, at a joint press conference with Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he again said he had not had time to watch a “single minute”, but had listened to a part that referred to a comment from the US’s EU ambassador that the president’s July phone call involved no “quid pro quo”.
The duelling narratives on display on Wednesday, which are likely to be repeated when Ms Yovanovitch, the next witness, appears on Friday, were underscored by comments made by committee members after the hearing concluded.
Congressman Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas, told reporters: “We need to hear from the whistleblower – we need to know what the inspector general meant by indicia of bias.”
He added “Motive speaks to everything in every judicial proceeding – knowing the person’s motive is very helpful.”
By contrast, Pete Welch, a Democratic congressman from Vermont, accused his Republican colleagues of “desperate measures”.
“The defence from the Republicans is essentially that [the president] can do what he wants – it’s the Mick Mulvaney ‘so what’ defence,” he said.
“But the challenge we face is that the president is successful at challenging norms, but norms are essential to the continuation of our democracy.”