WASHINGTON - The first public hearing was launched Wednesday of Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation, the extraordinary process to determine whether the 45th president of the United States should be removed from office.
The hearing has begun and you can watch live coverage on FOX 2 and at www.fox2detroit.com/live.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, opened the hearing for the start of testimony and outlined the question at the core of the impeachment inquiry - whether the president used his office to pressure Ukraine officials for personal political gain.
“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” Schiff said. “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.”
The hearing is the first chance for America, and the rest of the world, to see and hear for themselves about Trump's actions toward Ukraine and consider whether they are, in fact, impeachable offenses.
The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, accused the Democratic majority of conducting a “scorched earth” effort to take down the president after the special counsel’s Russia investigation into the 2016 election failed to spark impeachment proceedings.
Nunes, a top Trump ally, called the impeachment inquiry a “spectacle” doing “great damage to our country.”
Charge d'Affaires at the US embassy in Ukraine William Taylor (L) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia George Kent (R) are sworn in to testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on the impeac
The proceedings were being broadcast live, and on social media, from a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill. The country has been here only three times before, and never against the 21st century backdrop of real-time commentary, including from the Republican president himself.
Testifying together were two seasoned diplomats, William Taylor, the graying former infantry officer now charge d'affaires in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary in Washington, to tell the striking, if sometimes complicated story of a president allegedly using foreign policy for personal and political gain ahead of the 2020 election.
So far, the narrative is splitting Americans, mostly along the same lines as Trump's unusual presidency. The Constitution sets a dramatic but vague bar for impeachment, and there's no consensus yet that Trump's actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of "high crimes and misdemeanors.“
Trump calls the whole thing a "witch hunt," a retort that echoes Nixon's own defense. “READ THE TRANSCRIPT,” he tweeted Wednesday.
At its core, the inquiry stems from Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky when he asked the Zelensky for “a favor.”
Trump wanted the Ukraine government to investigate Democrats in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, all while holding as leverage military aid the young democracy relies on as it confronts an aggressive Russia.
The anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to concerns about the phone call. The White House released a rough transcript of the conversation, with portions deleted.
After all of the opening statements, Schiff and Nunes, or their designees, will each get up to 45 minutes of questioning.
Afterward, there will be 5-minute rounds of questioning alternating between Republican and Democratic members of the committee.
Taylor, a longtime diplomat with a 50-year career of government service, returned to Ukraine this year after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked him to lead the U.S. Embassy.
Trump recalled Marie Yovanovitch, the previous U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, after what others would testify was a smear campaign against her. When Taylor returned to Kyiv, he said he was stunned at what he found.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Taylor testified that his staff recently told him they overheard Trump speaking on the phone to another diplomat about investigations. He also told House lawmakers investigating impeachment that he noticed there were two policy channels operating with Ukraine, a “regular” and an “irregular” one.
Taylor said the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was guiding requests through the irregular channel, and it slowly became clear to him that conditions were placed on Ukraine’s new president.
Taylor has served under every presidential administration, Republican and Democrat, since 1985, and also worked for then-Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J.
Kent, a bow-tie wearing career foreign service officer who speaks Ukrainian, Russian and Thai, has worked in Poland, Uzbekistan and Bangkok. He joined the State Department in 1992.
Kent testified on Wednesday that he never saw any effort by U.S. officials to shield from scrutiny a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma where Hunter Biden sat on the board.
Kent said he raised concerns in 2015 that his status could create the perception of a conflict of interest. But said he never saw any attempt to shield Burisma from scrutiny because of Biden’s connection.
So far, the narrative is splitting Americans, mostly along the same lines as Trump's unusual presidency. The Constitution sets a dramatic, but vague, bar for impeachment, and there's no consensus yet that Trump's actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of "high crimes and misdemeanors.“
Whether Wednesday's proceedings begin to end a presidency or help secure Trump's position, it's certain that his chaotic term has finally arrived at a place he cannot control and a force, the constitutional system of checks and balances, that he cannot ignore.
The country has been here just three times before, and never against the backdrop of social media and real-time commentary, including from the Republican president himself.
"These hearings will address subjects of profound consequence for the Nation and the functioning of our government under the Constitution," Schiff said in a memo to lawmakers.
Schiff called it a "solemn undertaking," and counseled colleagues to "approach these proceedings with the seriousness of purpose and love of country that they demand."
"Total impeachment scam," the president tweeted.
IMPEACHMENT PROCEEDINGS: THEN & NOW
Impeachments are rare, historians say, because they amount to nothing short of the nullification of an election. Starting down this road poses risks for both Democrats and Republicans as proceedings push into the 2020 campaign.
Unlike the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon, there is not yet a "cancer on the presidency" moment galvanizing public opinion. Nor is there the national shrug, as happened when Bill Clinton's impeachment ultimately didn't result in his removal from office.
It's perhaps most like the partisanship-infused impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War.
On Friday, the public is scheduled to hear from Yovanovitch, who told investigators she was warned to "watch my back" as Trump undercut and then recalled her.
Eight more witnesses will testify in public hearings next week.
"What this affords is the opportunity for the cream of our diplomatic corps to tell the American people a clear and consistent story of what the president did," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence panel.
"It takes a lot of courage to do what they are doing, and they are probably just going to be abused for it," he said.
Hearings are expected to continue and will shift, likely by Thanksgiving, to the Judiciary Committee to consider actual articles of impeachment.
The House, which is controlled by Democrats, is expected to vote by Christmas.
That would launch a trial in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, in the new year.
The Associated Press’ Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.