A top diplomat in the United States has told a Congress committee conducting the impeachment hearing that President Donald Trump directly asked about a Ukrainian investigation into his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
In previously unheard testimony, Bill Taylor, the acting US Ambassador to Ukraine, said a member of his staff was told that President Trump was preoccupied with pushing for a probe into Biden.
Taylor spoke to the US House of Representatives Committee on Intelligence on Wednesday in the first public hearings in the impeachment inquiry.
In a detailed opening statement, Taylor said a member of his staff had overheard a telephone call in which the US President inquired about “the investigations” into Biden.
The call was with Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, who reportedly told the president over the phone from a restaurant in Kyiv that “the Ukrainians were ready to move forward”.
After the call, the staff member “asked ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine”, Taylor told the committee.
Taylor said: “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.”
The career diplomat, who has served under Republican and Democratic presidents, reiterated his understanding that the Trump administration threatened to withhold military aid from Ukraine unless the Ukrainian president agreed to publicly announce an investigation into Biden.
He testified that he told Sondland and Kurt Volker, previously the US special envoy to Ukraine, that it would be “crazy” to withhold security assistance for the sake of domestic politics.
George Kent, a top US diplomat charged with overseeing European affairs, also testified publicly before the committee on Wednesday.
He told the committee that President Trump’s private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, ran a “campaign to smear” the US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, before she was recalled from her post.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic Chairman of the Intelligence Committee overseeing the impeachment inquiry, said the purpose of the inquiry was to establish whether President Trump “abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections”.
“If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” he added.
The senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, who is a staunch ally of the president, denounced the inquiry as “a televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats”.
President Trump, meanwhile, said he was “too busy to watch” the impeachment hearing, although he also tweeted and retweeted several posts about the inquiry on Wednesday.
“I want to find out who’s the whistleblower,” he told reporters after the hearing.
The impeachment inquiry has been going on for more than a month – but all previous hearings were private, with reports based on leaks and sources speaking to the media.
Wednesday’s public hearings were the first time the public heard from witnesses directly.
The impeachment inquiry was launched against President Trump by the Democrat-led US House of Representatives after reports emerged that a US intelligence official had complained to a government watchdog about President Trump’s interactions with a foreign leader, who was later revealed to be the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, stated that the US President’s action constituted a “breach of his constitutional responsibility”, adding that he undermined the country’s national security and elections’ impartiality.