Congress has launched the first public hearing of Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation to determine whether the 45th president of the United States should be removed from office.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, immediately outlined the question at the core of the 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,” Mr 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.”
Before the inquiry began, Mr Trump lashed out at the two witnesses who will testify on Wednesday.
Mr Trump tweeted “NEVER TRUMPERS!” before Wednesday’s hearing opened on Capitol Hill with testimony from William Taylor, the charge d’affaires in Ukraine, and George Kent, a career diplomat.
He sought to undermine Mr Kent and Mr Taylor, with the tweet suggesting they are among members of the foreign policy establishment that never supported him.
NEVER TRUMPERS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019
However, the pair have worked for Republican and Democratic administrations and there has been no evidence they engaged in partisan activity opposing Mr Trump.
Mr Taylor told lawmakers that he noticed there were two policy channels operating with Ukraine, a “regular” and an “irregular” one.
He said the President’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was guiding requests through the irregular channel.
Mr Taylor said it slowly became clear to him that conditions were placed on Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky – and that he was being urged to order investigations into possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election and also look into Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Mr Kent said he does not believe the US should ask other countries to engage in “selective, politically associated investigations”.
The deputy assistant secretary of state said such “selective actions” undermine the rule of law regardless of the country.
The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee said the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is “a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign”.
In his opening statement in the hearing, Devin Nunes said Democrats “turned on a dime” after the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and then focused on Ukraine.
The impeachment inquiry centres around a July 25 phone call that Mr Trump had with Ukraine’s leader and the President’s attempt to pressure the government to investigate his political rivals.
Mr Trump maintains that the telephone conversation was “perfect” and that he did nothing wrong in his relations with Ukraine.
The Republican president also tweeted Wednesday: “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!”
For the past month, witnesses have testified under oath about the call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the alarms it set off in US diplomatic and national security circles.
In a secure room in the Capitol basement, current and former officials have been telling lawmakers what they know.
They have said an earlier Trump call in April congratulating Mr Zelenskiy on his election victory seemed fine and the former US reality TV host and the young Ukrainian comedian hit it off.
But in the July call, things turned.
An anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to the phone call. “I have received information from multiple US Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election,” the person wrote in August to the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
Defying White House orders not to appear, witnesses have testified that Mr Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was withholding US military aid to the budding democracy until the new Ukraine government conducted investigations Mr Trump wanted into Democrats in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter.
It was all part of what Mr Taylor, the long-serving top diplomat in Ukraine, called the “irregular” foreign policy being led by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, outside of traditional channels.
Mr Taylor said it was “crazy” that the Trump administration was withholding US military assistance to the East European ally over the political investigations, with Russian forces on Ukraine’s border on watch for a moment of weakness.
Mr Kent told investigators there were three things Trump wanted of Ukraine: “Investigations, Biden, Clinton.”
On Friday, the public is scheduled to hear from Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, who told investigators she was warned to “watch my back” as Mr Trump undercut and then recalled her.
Eight more witnesses will testify in public hearings next week.