Impeachment inquiry hearing with former US Ambassador to Ukraine
Diplomats Bill Taylor and George Kent testified Wednesday in the first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
The diplomats testified for nearly six hours before the House Intelligence Committee.
Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch's testimony today before the committee will be the second public hearing of the impeachment investigation.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Wednesday's hearing:
- The July 26 call: Taylor told Congress about a July 26 phone call — a conversation that happened one day after Trump's phone call with Ukraine's leader. Taylor testifying that his staff was told of the call, in which Trump said he cared more about the "investigations of Biden" than Ukraine.
- Rudy Giuliani's "irregular" diplomacy: Taylor explained that Giuliani's efforts led to an "irregular" policy channel was "running contrary to the goals of longstanding US policy." Kent's testimony also expressed alarm at Giuliani's efforts — which he described last month as a "campaign of lies" — that led to the ouster of former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and then the push for investigations.
- Not "never Trumpers": Kent and Taylor were directly asked about Trump's repeated claim that they are "never Trumpers." They said they were not.
- Hurting diplomats' credibility: Kent and Taylor said it is harder for US officials overseas to do their jobs when American leaders ask foreign powers to investigate their political rivals. "Our credibility is based on a respect for the United States, and if we damage that respect, then it hurts our credibility and makes it more difficult for us to do our jobs," Taylor said.
- About firsthand knowledge: Republicans repeatedly went after the witnesses for not hearing directly from Trump himself that he wanted Ukraine to launch investigations into his political rivals in exchange for releasing US aid. But remember: the White House has sought to prevent those closer to Trump from appearing.
A US diplomat who overheard President Trump ask the US Ambassador to the European Union about the status of "investigations" during a cellphone conversation in a Kiev restaurant is set to appear before the House impeachment inquiry behind closed doors today.
David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine, overheard the conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland the day after Trump spoke with the Ukrainian president by phone in July, according to testimony Wednesday from Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in the country.
Taylor did not name Holmes, but sources tell CNN that he is the member of the embassy staff Taylor was referencing.
About Holmes: Holmes is a career foreign service officer who arrived in Ukraine in 2017, according to a source who knows him and describes him as a "sharp guy." He joined the foreign service in 2002, according to the American Foreign Service Association, and has previously served in Kabul, New Delhi, Kosovo, Bogota, Moscow and Kosovo.
Holmes has also served as a special assistant for South and Central Asia to former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns and spent time on the National Security Council staff at the White House as director for Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012.
As political counselor, his main job is to determine what is going on in Ukrainian politics.
The former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, testified behind closed doors on Oct. 11 as part of the Democratic-run impeachment inquiry, giving critical information about her time in Ukraine and abrupt removal earlier this year.
In a 10-page statement obtained by The New York Times and The Washington Post, Yovanovitch defended her tenure and decried the "concerted campaign" to recall her from Ukraine, which she said is tied directly to President Donald Trump.
Here's a breakdown of three crucial lines from her statement:
Victim of "unfounded and false claims"
- Yovanovitch: "Although I understand that I served at the pleasure of the President, I was nevertheless incredulous that the US government chose to remove an ambassador based, as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives."
- Context: Here, Yovanovitch pushes back on the negative information about her that was being circulated by Giuliani -- attacks that made their way to Trump and also the State Department. This includes allegations that she pressured Ukraine not to investigate specific cases, and that she was part of an effort by Ukraine to meddle in the 2016 election to defeat Trump. There is no evidence to support those allegations, and Yovanovitch said they were "unfounded and false."
Trump pressured State Department to remove her
- Yovanovitch: "I met with the Deputy Secretary of State, who informed me of the curtailment of my term. He said that the President had lost confidence in me and no longer wished me to serve as his ambassador. He added that there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the Department had been under pressure from the President to remove me since the Summer of 2018. He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause."
- Context: Yovanovitch sheds new light on her conversations with US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. Yovanovitch's testimony gives the impression that Sullivan was not onboard with the decision to remove her from Ukraine and that the decision came directly from the President. Democratic lawmakers will surely want to talk Sullivan him about these conversations. Trump announced his intention Friday to nominate Sullivan as US ambassador to Russia.
State Department "hollowed out from within"
- Yovanovitch: "Today, we see the State Department attacked and hollowed out from within. State Department leadership, with Congress, needs to take action now to defend this great institution, and its thousands of loyal and effective employees. We need to rebuild diplomacy as the first resort to advance America's interests and the front line of America's defense. I fear that not doing so will harm our nation's interest, perhaps irreparably."
- Context: It's staggering to see a current State Department employee say that the department is essentially being destroyed from within. She is a career government official -- not politically connected to the Trump administration -- but this type of condemnation is extremely rare. Under Trump, the State Department has been plagued by vacancies at key positions from the very beginning, an issue that critics say puts diplomats at risk overseas and weakens US soft power.
The hearings before the committee look much different than the other major hearings of the last few years, and although there may be slight alterations for each hearing, the impeachment resolution passed last month lays out a baseline structure.
Here's how it'll work:
- Both the chairman of the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, and the top ranking Republican member, Rep. Devin Nunes, also of California, will evenly divide 90 minutes of questioning at the start of the hearing.
- They can take as much consecutive time as they want, so long as the other side is provided equal time out of that 90 minutes. So expect each to take 45 minutes.
- While Schiff and Nunes will speak and may interject from time to time, the resolution makes clear that this will be a staff-led questioning, as each member can delegate his time to counsel on the committee.
- On the Democratic side, the opening lines of questioning will be spearheaded by Daniel Goldman, a former federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York who joined the committee in March and led the questioning in the closed-door depositions.
- On the GOP side, it will be Steve Castor, the chief investigative counsel for the House Oversight panel who has been detailed over to the House Intelligence Committee, along with his boss, Rep. Jim Jordan.
- At the conclusion of 90 minutes, the rest of the panel's members will each have five minutes to question the witnesses.
Ambassador Marie "Masha" Yovanovitch will testify today at the second public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
Yovanovitch -- "someone who has never been hungry for the spotlight," as one former State Department official described her -- has increasingly found herself there as new developments in the Ukraine controversy have come to light.
But the former top US diplomat in Ukraine, maligned as "bad news" by President Trump and and known by her diplomatic peers as "one of the best," will share her perspective publicly today on Capitol Hill as part of the impeachment inquiry.
Since being unexpectedly removed from her post in Kiev in May, Yovanovitch has become increasingly ensnared at the center of the widening scandal.
"I would imagine for her this is pretty much worse than her worst nightmare in that not only are you being publicly criticized and condemned by your head of state but also the idea of all of this public attention. She's a pretty reserved person," the official told CNN.
Trump personally ordered Yovanovitch's removal, according to The Wall Street Journal. She was accused without evidence by Rudy Giuliani -- a former New York mayor and Trump's personal attorney -- and others of trying to undermine the President and blocking efforts to investigate Democrats like former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump has twice disparaged Yovanovitch -- once in early October at the White House and another time in his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
"The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that," Trump said to Zelensky, according to a rough White House transcript.
Diplomatic support: The diplomatic community has rallied behind Yovanovitch since the contents of Trump's call were disclosed, and some former diplomats have also called for the State Department and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to lend their public support to the career foreign service officer.
Retired US Ambassador Nicholas Burns called for "the higher levels of the State Department" to "come out and defend her."
"They should say she was a good ambassador, she did what was asked. She did what her constitutional duty asked her to do, represent the United States ably and honorably," Burns told CNN. "She deserves an apology, a public apology."