Ukrainian Ambassador William Taylor (L) and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent are sworn-in prior to testifying during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee in Washington, DC, US. Photograph:( Reuters )
A hold on critical US military aid until Kiev committed to investigate Trump rivals 'was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani,' said Washington's top envoy to Ukraine, William Taylor.
Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani implemented an "irregular" policy channel that undermined US relations with Ukraine while seeking to help the president politically, a key witness told the Trump impeachment hearing Wednesday.
A hold on critical US military aid until Kiev committed to investigate Trump rivals "was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani," said Washington's top envoy to Ukraine, William Taylor.
The push to get Ukraine's president to commit to probing an energy company linked to the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden "showed how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani," Taylor added.
Taylor said he had made known to the administration his view that "withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be crazy."
Senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers presented duelling narratives on Wednesday as a US congressional impeachment enquiry that threatens Donald Trump's tumultuous presidency entered a crucial new phase with the first public hearing.
Democrats leading the US House of Representatives probe have summoned three US diplomats - all of whom have previously expressed alarm in closed-door testimony about Trump's dealings with US ally Ukraine - to detail their concerns under the glare of wall-to-wall news coverage this week. The public hearings are scheduled for Wednesday and Friday.
With a potential television audience of tens of millions looking on, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, opened the historic session - the first impeachment spectacle in two decades - in an ornate hearing room packed with journalists, lawmakers and members of the public.
Schiff's accusations that Trump abused his power was met by a staunch denial by the panel's senior Republican, Devin Nunes, of the Republican president's complicity in a saga that revolves around whether Trump and his aides improperly pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival for his political benefit.
The day's two witnesses - William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs - followed with opening statements echoing their earlier closed-door testimony about their alarm over efforts to get Ukraine to open an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 election.
"The questions presented by this impeachment enquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally's vulnerability and invite Ukraine's interference in our elections," Schiff said in his opening statement.
"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," Schiff said.
Schiff added, "If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?"
This week's hearings, where Americans are hearing directly for the first time from people involved in events that sparked the congressional inquiry, may pave the way for the Democratic-led House to approve articles of impeachment - formal charges - against Trump.
That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to convict Trump of those charges and remove him from office. Republicans control the Senate and have shown little support for Trump's removal.
Nunes accused the Democrats of conducting a "carefully orchestrated smear campaign" and of using the hearings as a "televised theatrical performance."
He hewed to the Republican strategy of arguing that Trump did nothing wrong or impeachable when he asked Ukraine's new president to investigate prominent Democrat Joe Biden, a former US vice president and key 2020 re-election rival.
"It's nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime," Nunes said.
Schiff said the inquiry looks at whether Trump sought to condition official acts such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance on Ukraine's willingness to carry out two political investigations that would help his re-election campaign.
"And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency?" Schiff asked.
The focus of the inquiry is on a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open a corruption investigation into Biden and his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 US election. Hunter Biden had worked for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.
Democrats are looking into whether Trump abused his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine - a vulnerable US ally facing Russian aggression - as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting investigations politically beneficial to Trump. The money - approved by the US Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country - was later provided to Ukraine.