First public hearing in the Trump impeachment inquiry
Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, said Rudy Giuliani's conversations with Ukrainian officials, while an "irregular" way of conducting diplomacy, was not "as outlandish as it could be."
"I want to turn to the discussion of the irregular channel you described," Republican questioner Steve Castor said. "In fairness, this irregular channel of diplomacy, it's not as outlandish as it could be, is that correct?"
"It's not as outlandish as it could be," Taylor agreed, while smirking.
Rep. Devin Nunes claimed twice that Alexandra Chalupa, a former staffer for the Democratic National Committee, “worked with officials at the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, DC, to dig up dirt on the Trump campaign, which she passed onto the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign.”
Fact First: Chalupa denied the allegations in a 2017 statement to CNN.
"During the 2016 US election, I was a part-time consultant for the DNC running an ethnic engagement program," Chalupa told CNN. "I was not an opposition researcher for the DNC, and the DNC never asked me to go to the Ukrainian Embassy to collect information.
Multiple representatives from the Clinton campaign and the DNC have denied the charges, as has the Ukrainian embassy. "I ran the opposition press program for the Clinton campaign and I don't know what the hell they're talking about," said Zac Petkanas, a former Clinton staffer.
Republicans, though, have seized on the fact that Chalupa did meet with representatives from the Ukrainian Embassy during the election, meetings that Chalupa says were about an "Immigrant Heritage Month women's networking event" she helped organize in June.
The man asking the questions for the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee House lawyer Steve Castor.
Earlier today, during the Democrats' round of questioning, another House lawyer, Daniel Goldman, asked most of the questions.
About Castor: Castor is a veteran of the House Oversight Committee, serving under five Republicans since 2005.
In that time, Castor has been a key player on a number of investigations, including into the Justice Department's botched gun trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious, the IRS targeting of conservative organizations, the Trump White House overriding security clearance denials and other high-profile probes. Castor's skill set was deemed so valuable that he was added to the Intelligence Committee so that he could participate in the impeachment hearings.
He was "almost the sole survivor" of Rep. Jason Chaffetz's "purge" of staffers formerly under Rep. Darrell Issa due to his expertise and experience, according to Issa.
"Everyone said that he was just too good a lawyer not to have," Issa told CNN. Castor continued to rise under his next two bosses, Reps. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio.
President Trump's allies are seizing on the amount of talk about American foreign policy toward Ukraine in the first part of the hearing.
One campaign source said aides will begin to highlight that there is “lots of policy gripes from people who work for the man we elected to lead US foreign policy.”
In the weeks leading up to the hearing, this was one defense White House officials had pushed as well: that ultimately what the whistleblower had flagged wasn’t a legal breach but a policy approach with which he or she disagreed.
One overarching theme of the reaction from Trump aides and allies so far: downplaying the interest level in these proceedings and characterizing them as “boring.”
Multiple defenders of the President, including press secretary Stephanie Grisham, have dismissed the hearing this way and we can expect to see Trump's team use the amount of foreign policy discussion in the hearing as a way to underscore that argument.
GOP Oversight Committee Chief Counsel Steve Castor asked diplomats George Kent and Bill Taylor if either was involved in the "preparation" for the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Both replied that they were not.
Castor followed up on why they weren't involved since they are "two of the key officials with responsibility for Ukrainian policy."
Kent responded: "Sir, we work for the Department of State in an embassy overseas. Preparation for a presidential phone call, that responsibility lies with the staff of the National Security Council."
He added: "My understanding having never worked at the National Security Council is that National Security staff write a memo to the president and none of us see that outside of the National Security staff."
Castor followed up and asked Kent is Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — an NSC staffer who was on that call — reached out to him prior to the call. Kent said that he was "given notification the day before on July 24."
"And to the extent I had any role, it was to reach out to the embassy, give them the heads-up and ask them to ensure that the secure communications link in the office of the Ukraine was functional so the call could be patched through to the White House situation room," Kent said.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff interrupted during Republican questioning time — and one GOP congressman objected.
After Steve Castor, the chief investigative counsel for the House Oversight panel and the GOP's questioner, asked Bill Taylor a question, Schiff cut in:
"I just want to be clear, ambassador, if you're able to verify the things that counsel has asked you in the prerequisite of the question, that's fine. Otherwise in questions from the majority or the minority that assumes facts not in evidence before you, you should be cautioned about that," he said.
That's when Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Republican from Texas, jumped in.
"Chairman, I sat here through the first 45 minutes and literally had an objection to almost the foundation of every question that Mr. Goldman asked regarding facts not in evidence, leading," he said, referring to Democratic questioner Daniel Goldman.
Under the rules of this hearing, Democrats first got 45 minutes to question the witnesses. Now, the Republicans have 45 minutes.
David Holmes is the aide who heard the July 26 call between US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and President Trump, according to a source familiar with a scheduled deposition.
Holmes, who is scheduled to testify behind closed-doors on Friday, is top diplomat Bill Taylor's aide. Taylor testified earlier today that his aide could hear Trump asking Sondland about the investigations during the call.
Sondland "told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward," Taylor said.
More context: Taylor revealed in his opening statement he'd learned additional information, testifying that his staff was told the President cared more about the "investigations of Biden" than Ukraine.
A White House official is reacting to diplomat Bill Taylor's new information about Ambassador Gordon Sondland telling an aide the President cared more about the Biden investigation than Ukraine.
The official said the alleged overheard snippet made no mention of quid pro quo and said it would make sense the President would reiterate the same points he made on the call with the Ukrainian leader a day earlier.
In terms of Sondland's recap to the aide of what Trump said, the official said that's purely ambassador's characterization. The official repeated a White House talking point that Taylor is reporting "hearsay of hearsay."
Heading into today's hearings, Republicans argued the facts weren’t there to impeach President Trump. As the hearings got underway, they adopted a new talking point: The hearings are just dull.
“This sham hearing is not only boring, it is a colossal waste of taxpayer time & money,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, tweeted.
The President’s son Eric echoed her: "This is horribly boring…” he wrote on Twitter. “#Snoozefest."
Whether the hearing proves boring to the American people remains to be seen. Some Democrats have privately expressed concerns the sheer volume of information — key players, dates and allegations — could prove confusing to the public.
Trump himself told reporters in the Oval Office he’d been too busy to watch the proceedings as they began earlier in the day.
“I did not watch it. I’m too busy to watch it,” he said. “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.”