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Key Officials Involved In Ukraine Detail What They Knew About White House Dealings


ADAM SCHIFF: Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?


Compelling testimony on this Day 1 of impeachment hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives. The matter at hand - whether Donald Trump abused the office of the presidency in order to enhance his chances of winning reelection in 2020.


For the first time in this impeachment inquiry, the American public was able to watch the proceedings live. Democrats and Republicans took turns questioning two career public servants - George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state overseeing Ukraine policy...


GEORGE KENT: Today I appear before you once again under subpoena as a fact witness.

SHAPIRO: ...And the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor.


WILLIAM TAYLOR: I am not here to take one side or the other or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings.

CORNISH: Here to walk us through the day's testimony, NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

Hey there, Michele.


CORNISH: And political reporter Tim Mak, welcome back.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CORNISH: These are witnesses who have spent hours testifying behind closed doors. So I take it there was some new information, however, that came up from Ambassador Taylor in particular, something he hasn't said before. Michele, what did we learn?

KELEMEN: Right. So he said that back in late July, one of his aides was with Gordon Sondland. Sondland is the ambassador to the European Union, but he's played this unusual role in Ukraine. And Sondland has this direct line with the president. He's a donor and political appointee. So Taylor's aide was with Sondland and overheard a call with President Trump. Taylor says his aide could hear the president talk about investigations. Sondland was on a cellphone, by the way. Let's listen to what Taylor had to say then.


TAYLOR: Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Mr. Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.

KELEMEN: So Rudy Giuliani is Trump's private lawyer, and he's been pushing Ukraine to open investigations, including into the Bidens, that could benefit Trump politically.

CORNISH: Tim, did Republicans have a specific reaction to that?

MAK: Well, not to that but Republicans have been arguing that this entire impeachment inquiry has been a circus orchestrated by the Democrats. They've also questioned the credibility of the witnesses. They've said that neither of the two have ever had contact with President Trump, never met President Trump. That's one of the points that GOP Congressman Jim Jordan made this afternoon. Listen.


JIM JORDAN: Ambassador, you weren't on the call, were you? The president - you didn't listen in on President Trump's call and President Zelenskiy's call?

TAYLOR: I did not.

JORDAN: You've never talked with Chief of Staff Mulvaney?

TAYLOR: I never did.

JORDAN: You never met the president.

TAYLOR: That's correct.

JORDAN: You had three meetings again with Zelenskiy, and it didn't come up.

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

MAK: Well, so Democrats have responded that the two were witness to the president's alleged scheme to pressure the Ukrainians. And Democrats also point out that those who were more directly involved, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton or Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, have refused to testify before the committee.

CORNISH: We've also heard a lot of - over the last couple weeks about the idea of shadow diplomacy. And Ambassador Taylor also detailed what he called an irregular foreign policy channel. Why is that important, Michele?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, he took the job with the understanding that U.S. policy was to back Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. And there was this irregular channel which went in a different direction eventually. He said it - originally, it was OK. You know, these guys had a direct line to the president that he didn't have. But he came to understand that they were trying to get - put Ukraine's new president in a box, was his words, to publicly call for investigations that could help Trump politically. And it became clear to him that Ukraine had to announce investigations to get not only security assistance but also a White House meeting.

CORNISH: Tim, how did both sides handle questions about Trump's approach to Ukraine - his interests?

MAK: Yeah. Well, several Republicans pointed out that the Trump administration provided lethal military assistance to Ukraine, which is something the Obama administration declined to do. And both witnesses agreed that the Trump administration's decision to do this actually represented stronger support for the Ukrainian government. Here's Congresswoman Elise Stefanik laying out the Republican bottom line.


ELISE STEFANIK: For the millions of Americans viewing today, the two most important facts are the following. No. 1, Ukraine received the aid. No. 2, there was, in fact, no investigation into Biden.

MAK: Republicans are saying that the aid eventually flowed and that no investigation was instigated. But Democrats responded. One Democrat made the analogy that attempted bribery is a crime even as bribery is also a crime.

CORNISH: Stepping back for a moment, Michele, what we heard from these witnesses was the case for why U.S. is interested in Ukraine as a matter of geopolitics. What's at stake, as they see it?

KELEMEN: Right. So, I mean, in recent decades, the U.S. has been trying to promote a Europe whole and free. That's the buzzwords. And it's sought to encourage the rule of law in former Soviet states. Though George Kent, who spent a lot of his career in the region, argues that if the U.S. is asking a country to open investigations for political reasons, that undermines U.S. policy. He and Taylor also made clear that this was really an important moment to show Ukraine's new president some support because he's trying to negotiate with Russia to end the war in Eastern Ukraine. So things like not only the military aid but even just a White House meeting was important for that.

CORNISH: And, Tim Mak, other witnesses to come?

MAK: Yeah. This is just the start. We're going to hear from former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch this Friday in open session. And the investigations are still happening behind closed doors. On Friday and Saturday, the House Intelligence Committee will be conducting private depositions with a State Department official and an official with the Office of Management and Budget. And next week, we'll hear from another eight witnesses in opening hearings - open hearings like the one today, figures like Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman that we've heard about and Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tim Mak on Capitol Hill. Michele Kelemen spoke to us from the State Department.

Thanks to you both.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.