House Democrats held their first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump Wednesday, with acting ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor telling a live television audience that Trump asked about Ukraine’s “investigations” into the Bidens during a phone call with Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Taylor further testified that Trump cared more about “the investigations” that the diplomat said were pushed by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, than Ukraine. Taylor said that he was told about the call by a member of his staff.
The revelation, to Democrats in the inquiry, was new and damning evidence confirming their central charge that the president used his power to pressure a foreign government to investigate a political opponent. But to Republicans in the room, the whole hearing was boring, and they dismissed the charge as “hearsay,” despite the fact that Taylor, a career diplomat, was speaking under oath.
The gap in how the two sides processed the same revelation was some of the starkest evidence to date that Republicans were dismissing the whole inquiry without mounting a unified defense of the president, while Democrats were calling witnesses who offered new and damaging information surrounding Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky, in which the American president asked his counterpart to “do us a favor” and launch an investigation into the Bidens, while dangling military aid to the country.
“That to me was very alarming,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) told Fortune of Taylor’s new information of the call between Sondland and Trump. “It was a very sad note to hear.”
“It’s an additional confirmation that we’ve heard from all of these witnesses, that Trump and Sondland were coordinating with each other,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said. “There are many witnesses and they’re all corroborating each other.”
Meanwhile, several Republicans dismissed the revelation without answering to the substance of Taylor’s revelation. “In court that would be called hearsay, and that’s pretty much what most of the testimony in intelligence has been, is second-and third-degree hearsay,” Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) told Fortune, referring to the House Intelligence Committee.
For Republicans, however, the “hearsay” defense will likely only last for so long. Sondland is scheduled to testify on November 20. And during the hearing Wednesday, House investigators called the aide who overheard the call, David Holmes, to testify behind closed doors on Friday. Both witnesses will almost certainly be asked about the call and what they heard Trump say, should they testify as scheduled.
Republicans mounted another defense, calling the testimony of Taylor and State Department official George Kent simply dull. “It’s hard for me to stay awake and listen to all of this,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told reporters outside the hearing room.
Democrats dismissed that argument. “I’m sorry if we didn’t entertain them, that wasn’t the goal for today,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told reporters. “That’s not the standard.”
Other Republicans floated discredited conspiracy theories that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 election to hurt Trump, which Democrats rejected.
“When they talk about their witnesses and debunk conspiracy theories, we’re in the Capitol, we’re not in Area 51, and I think they’re acting as if we’re in Area 51.” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told reporters. “If they throw this stuff out there enough, people will believe it.”
The testimony was only day one in the much-awaited public portion of the inquiry. Sondland and six other officials were set to testify publicly before the end of next week. An Office of Management and Budget official, Mark Sandy, was called to testify behind closed doors on Saturday, in addition to the Taylor aide.
Democrats were looking forward to having Sondland come in and answer about his conversation with Trump.
“Of course, we have one additional question to ask him about that conversation,” Rep Val Demings (D-Fla.) told reporters, speaking of Sondland’s July 26 call with Trump, the day after the Zelensky call. “I think a man who would come in and modify his testimony would come in—he has no reason not to,” she added, referring to his revision of closed-door testimony in which he recalled that he told a Ukrainian official the country would likely have to announce investigations into the Bidens for military aid to resume.
Still, day one of testimony proved that Democrats and Republicans were interpreting the same set of facts in dramatically different ways, with Democrats proceeding methodically with the inquiry and Republicans throwing out various defenses. Democrats were hopeful that their fact-based case would win out.
“If people perceive that the facts are serious and the process is fair, then they have the ability to interpret what this means,” Swalwell, the California Democrat, said.
Meadows, the North Carolina Republican, said the facts would lead different people to have ideas about the truth of the matter. “When we start to look at the facts, everybody has their impression of what truth is,” he said. “The ultimate judge will be the American people.”
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