Donald Trump 'cared more' about Bidens than Ukraine, US diplomat says

US ambassador says aide heard Trump wanted former vice president investigated

Top US diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor testifies during the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019, at the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie US aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. / AFP / Olivier Douliery
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Donald Trump was overheard talking about how he wanted Ukraine to investigate former US vice president Joe Biden and would withhold military aid unless the probe went ahead, a top American diplomat said on Wednesday.

The disclosure that Mr Trump was asking a foreign power for help against a political opponent came in a telephone call heard by an aide to William Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, on July 26, according to his testimony.

That was one day after the US president spoke with Ukraine's new leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy to discuss $391 million (Dh 1.4 billion) earmarked to supply the country with Javelin anti-tank missiles – lethal military aid needed to counter Russian military aggression.

That conversation has opened Mr Trump up to potential impeachment and possible removal from the White House for abuse of power.

The House Intelligence Committee hearings in Washington will test whether Democrats have enough evidence to prepare charges against the US president.

A partial transcript of the call released by the White House in September showed Mr Trump asked the Ukrainian president to do him “a favour” and look into Mr Biden and his son Hunter, a board member of the Burisma energy company based in Kiev.

Defending his actions, Mr Trump later said he wanted Burisma investigated for corruption, accusing Hunter Biden of benefiting from his father’s White House position. He described the call as "perfect" but both the transcript and subsequent testimony has painted a picture of the US president seeking the means to find dirt on Mr Biden, the front runner for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination.

Mr Taylor's account of the Ukraine affair dominated Wednesday's first public hearing which began in a partisan fashion with Republicans claiming the process was merely an attempt to topple Mr Trump.

Rather than questioning the facts of the various phone calls, however, Mr Trump's defenders sought to undermine witnesses such as Mr Taylor, a grey-haired former US Army officer and veteran diplomat, saying he had no direct interaction with the White House.

“Anyone familiar with the Democrats' scorched earth war against President Trump would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign,” said Republican Devin Nunes as evidence began.

His remarks were overtaken when Mr Taylor outlined a “crazy” scheme headed by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and personal lawyer to Mr Trump, aimed at damaging the Bidens.

Mr Giuliani is understood to have been conducting inquiries on the White House's behalf since January this year .

Under oath, Mr Taylor said US policy on Ukraine had involved an irregular channel led by Mr Giuliani and that he was astonished when he discovered aid had been put on hold.

There would also be no meeting at the White House unless Ukraine did what Mr Trump wanted, Mr Taylor said of Mr Giuliani’s intent.

“The irregular channel was running contrary to the longstanding goals of US policy,” Mr Taylor said, recounting that the hold on aid went “well into September” on the orders of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

Mr Taylor said an aide told him last Friday of the phone call between Mr Trump and the US Ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland.

That discussion came after Mr Taylor threatened to quit over the episode, but “Trump cared more about the investigations of Biden” than Ukraine, Mr Sondland is said to have told the aide after the call.

Mr Giuliani for months saw the investigation on Burisma and the Bidens as a way to get information on the Democrat and his son, Mr Taylor said.

“It’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he said.

“It’s one thing to try and leverage a meeting in the White House. It’s another to try and leverage security assistance. It was much more alarming.”

Other government officials were told by US national security adviser John Bolton, who was later fired by Mr Trump, to stay out of domestic politics.

Mr Taylor said Mr Bolton did not want the call between the two presidents to go ahead because “it would be a disaster”.

George Kent, a bow-tie wearing career diplomat serving as deputy assistant secretary of state, was the other witness at Wednesday's hearing.

He was asked what interests Mr Giuliani was promoting.

“I believe he was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival in the next election cycle,” replied Mr Kent, the State Department's top official on matters involving Ukraine.

“I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power because such selective actions undermine the rule of law,” he said.

Asked about Mr Kent's response, Mr Taylor replied: “I agree with Mr Kent.”

Mr Trump is the fourth US president to face possible impeachment, following Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1973 and Bill Clinton in 1998.

Mr Nixon resigned in 1974 over the Watergate break-in and cover-up when it became clear that Republicans were prepared to side with Democrats to convict him of obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress.

Mr Johnson and Mr Clinton were formally impeached but cleared after hearings.

“On the basis of what the witnesses have had to say so far, there are any number of potentially impeachable offences including bribery, including high crimes and misdemeanours,” Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said before Wednesday’s evidence.

At a joint press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Trump dismissed the hearing as a “witch hunt” and said he had not watched the televised proceedings as he was too busy.

Asked about the new allegations, Mr Trump replied: “First time I've heard it.”

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, said the process was necessary to show that a US president is “not above the law” and that Mr Trump would “be held accountable”.