WASHINGTON — The House began the public phase of its impeachment inquiry Wednesday with testimony from two career diplomats who Democrats see as key to building their case that President Donald Trump acted inappropriately in his dealings with Ukraine.
William Taylor, acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, are appearing before the House Intelligence Committee in nationally televised proceedings.
Hours before the hearing, Trump lashed out at Democrats, contending the deck is stacked against him.
Democrats are trying to show the public that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden at a time when nearly $400 million U.S. military aid to Ukraine was being withheld.
In his opening statement, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., outlined the facts of the inquiry that have been established by the witnesses who have already testified behind closed doors - facts, he argued, that "are not seriously contested."
The question is, do those facts mean that Trump invited Ukrainian interference in the 2020 election and conditioned official acts on Kyiv's willingness to do so - and, if so, is Trump's "abuse of his power" compatible with the office of the presidency?
"The matter is as simple, and as terrible, as that," Schiff said.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the top Republican on the committee, used the first lines of his opening statement to portray the Democratic impeachment inquiry as the evolution of a failed effort to remove Trump for unproved allegations of Russian collusion.
He went on to accuse Democrats of abuses including "trying to obtain nude pictures of Trump from Russian pranksters pretended to be Ukrainian officials" and "countless other deceptions large and small that make them the last people on earth with the credibility to hurl more preposterous accusations at their political opponents."
"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," he said.
Kent told the comittee he was "alarmed" by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani's efforts "to gin up politically-motivated investigations," both because it ended up in the ouster of former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and because they were "infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine."
Kent said Giuliani's campaign was based on "false information" peddled on the Ukrainian side by "corrupt former prosecutors" who were simply seeking "to exact revenge against those who had exposed their misconduct, including U.S. diplomats."
"In my opinion, those attacks undermined U.S. and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship," Kent said.
Kent added that he raised concerns in February 2015 that Hunter Biden's appointment to the board of energy company Burisma "could create the perception of a conflict of interest." But he said he "did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny" - and that U.S. officials were "consistently advocating" to revive the case against the company's founder.
Tayor, the top U.S. envoy to Ukraine told the committee that when he arrived in that country in June he "found a confusing and unusual arrangement for making U.S. policy toward Ukraine."
"There appeared to be two channels of U.S. policymaking and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular," Taylor told the impeachment committees meeting in public for the first time.
Taylor, a career public servant who was called out of retirement to take the post, told lawmakers in his opening statement that he stands by his earlier characterization that "withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be 'crazy.'"
Taylor is a crucial witness, because he was in touch with diplomats and others working on both the official and unofficial aspects of U.S. policy toward Ukraine and its new government.
During his remarks Taylor asked lawmakers to remember that Ukraine is under daily attack from Russia. He had visited the front line last week, on a day when one Ukrainian soldier was killed and four wounded, he said.
He laid out his growing concern last summer that Trump had soured on Ukraine and Zelensky, as Zelensky sought to get on good footing with his most important single ally and backer.
"By mid-July it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky 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," Taylor said, referring to the Ukrainian gas firm that had employed Hunter Biden.
"In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened. The irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of long-standing U.S. policy," Taylor said.
Earlier, as the hearing began, several Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee sought to delay the hearing by focusing on the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint sparked the impeachment probe.
Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, made a motion to subpoena the whistleblower. After a back-and-forth, Schiff responded that the motion will be suspended until after Wednesday's witnesses testify.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, claimed that Schiff is the only lawmaker who knows the identity of the whistleblower - a statement Schiff immediately disputed.
"I do not know the identity of the whistleblower, and I am determined to make sure that identity is protected," he said.
The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.