It's Thursday, November 14th, 2019, 51 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.
In today's episode: the hearings have begun! We watched a full day of testimony and questions from two of the key players in this story: Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. There was some big news coming out of the hearings, and some important new details - and you'll hear all about them.
It's Thursday, November 14th, 2019. 51 days since house Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry. And this is Impeachment Today. Good morning. I'm Hayes Brown, reporter and editor at Buzzfeed News. Right now we're all about what happened in the first day of public impeachment hearings yesterday. So buckle up kids. It's time to go in hard on the highs and lows and the fuck was that that we heard in the first of very many days like this ahead of us. Think of it like sports center, but for politics and the fate of democracy on the line. Yay.
Okay. Bear with me because we're recording this pretty soon after the five hours of hearings ended, so my brain is slightly mush. These are the sacrifices I make for you and I love it. All right. Two witnesses sat in front of the House Intelligence Committee on the first day of public hearings. Deputy assistant secretary of state, George Kent and ambassador Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine. And much like a rollercoaster, the start of it was super thrilling and by the end you're mostly kind of dizzy and ready to get off the ride. Okay. Here's the key moment from Kent's opening statement, pushing back on Trump's claim that former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter were fostering corruption in Ukraine.
I became aware that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma. Soon after that in a briefing call with the national security staff of the office of the vice president in February of 2015 I raised my concern that Hunter Biden's status as a board member could create the perception of a conflict of interests. Let me be clear however, I did not witness any effort by any US official to shield Burisma from scrutiny. In fact, I and other US officials consistently advocated re-instituting a scuttled investigation of Zlochevsky Burisma's founder, as well as holding the corrupt prosecutors who closed the case to account.
And Ambassador Taylor managed to surprise everyone towards the end of his opening statement. Even though he'd already testified behind closed doors he apparently learned something new since last month.
In the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called president Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear president Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations. Ambassador Sondland told president Trump the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with president Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what president Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that president Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.
Wow. And if there's any confusion, here's intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff clarifying that statement with Taylor.
After the call, when your staff asked Ambassador Sondland what president Trump thought of Ukraine, his response was that president Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden. Is that right?
And Burisma, yes sir.
And I take it the import of that is he cares more about that than he does about Ukraine.
So that's really big. One of the main arguments Republicans have been making is that the president is not really involved with Rudy Giuliani and his squad were up to in Ukraine. That's clearly not the case here if Trump is getting updates on Giuliani's hunt for dirt on Biden. Taylor didn't name the staffer, but NBC News has reported that it's David Holmes, a political hand at the embassy. He is now scheduled to give testimony behind closed doors on Friday.
But the biggest stars of the morning weren't the witnesses or even the members of Congress. It was a pair of lawyers. The hearing started with 45 minutes on each side for them to grill the diplomats and guys, I fucking love this format. Daniel Goldman, who is representing the Democrats use his time to lay out exactly why Trump asking political favors of Ukraine is bad and what was done in pursuit of those favors. Take a listen to his line of questioning.
What did you mean when you said you thought it was crazy?
Mr. Goldman, I mend that because of the importance of security assistance that we had just described and had a conversation with the chairman. Because that was so important. That security system was so important for Ukraine as well as our own national interest to withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with the political campaign made no sense. It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.
Mr. Kent is pressuring Ukraine to conduct what I believe you've called political investigations, a part of US foreign policy to promote the rule of law in Ukraine and around the world.
It is not.
Is it in the national interest of the United States?
In my opinion, it is not.
Now, if you've been listening to this podcast on the daily, you already know a lot of that, but it was good to hear it said out loud, very much with the law and order special impeachment unit vibes. Then Steven Castor, who was the Republican's counsel, used his 45 minutes to push the witnesses to say that Trump was probably doing the right thing, angling to have Burisma and therefore the Bidens investigated. Kenton Taylor did not really take the bait.
Did the state department ever expressed any concerns to the vice president's office that vice president's role at the time in engaging on Ukraine presented any issues?
No. At the vice president's role was critically important. It was top cover to help us pursue our policy agenda.
Okay, but given Hunter Biden's role in Burisma board of directors, at some point you testified in your deposition that you expressed some concern to the vice president's office. Is that correct?
That is correct.
And what did they do about that concern that you expressed?
I have no idea. I reported my concern to the office of the vice president.
And Castor had at least one moment that left a lot of listeners in our newsroom at least scratching our head.
No, as a general rule, both United States and other countries including Ukraine will put out very short summaries that kind of hit the highlights of the discussion, but without going into detail.
But because all things beautiful must come to an end, we then got to the member questions. If you've ever watched a full congressional hearing you know that the questions from Congress people are the worst. Now intelligence is blessedly a small committee, just 13 Democrats and nine Republicans. And they only had five minutes each for their Q&A. As chair Schiff got to use any spare time for himself. Here's him getting tailored to explain why it might not be the best idea to repeat Ukrainian presidents Zelensky's claim that he felt no pressure from Trump and Giuliani.
And so if president Zelensky would say, I had to capitulate and agree to these investigations, I was ready to go on CNN until the aid got restored. That would obviously be hurtful to him back home, would it not?
He cannot afford to be seen to be deferring to any foreign leader.
And if you were tuning in and out, one of the voices you heard the most was this one.
We will never get the chance to see the whistle blower raise his right hand, swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. We'll never get that chance. More importantly, the American people won't get that chance. This anonymous so-called whistle blower with no firsthand knowledge, who's biased against the president, who worked with Joe Biden, who is the reason we're all sitting here today. We'll never get a chance to question that individual.
That was Jim Jordan, a Congressman from Ohio. He's one of Trump's biggest supporters and got moved to the intelligence committee for the duration of the hearings. Jordan got in a lot of digs at the process and how this is all a crock of shit, but in Congress speak, but I would be remiss not to mention that there was a pretty solid dunk on him from Vermont's Peter Welch.
Thank you. I say to my colleague, I'd be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.
That's not to say we didn't learn anything valuable from the members questions. Representative Eric Swalwell brought up the acting White House chief of staff telling reporters to get over it when it comes to trading political favors for military aid. This was Taylor's response.
If we're talking about political influence, meaning attempts to get information that is solely useful for political campaigns. If that's what we're... He's talking about, we should not get used to that.
Oh, okay. That was the news. This was the noise. Trump supporters spent the first part of the hearing trying out a new line of defense. Democrats case against the president boring. That was the message from Trump's large adult sons and several other prominent Republicans. "This sham hearing is not only boring, it is a colossal waste of taxpayer time and money." White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, tweeted.
Now, if you were talking about the end of the hearings, I can understand the argument, but the beginning was pretty exciting if you ask me. Meanwhile, president Trump spent the day trying to offer counter-programming to the hearings. He met with the president of Turkey at the White House today, which was well, a choice. That was after he spent the morning tweeting out campaign ads. And now for those of you who fast forward through all the exposition, like a monster, we have today's reading from our Nixometer.
On our scale a zero as a normal day in a normal White House and 10 is president Richard Nixon resigning and flying away and Marine One. And this morning we're at a 6.8, I think that's a fair reading given that we learned one pretty wild new thing on Wednesday, but most of it was laying the groundwork for the rest of the hearings to come.
The next one up is Friday, so Thursday is a bit of a breather to regroup and think about, oh my gosh, we have to do so many more of these. After the break we've got Addy Baird giving us the vibes from the Hill and we got some great info from a listener about what impeachment could mean for the 2020 election. Stick around.
Welcome back. Okay. It's one thing to watch or talk about the hearings, it's another thing to be there. Buzzfeed News, congressional reporter Addy Baird was on the Hill on Wednesday, so we asked her for a vibe check after the session ended.
Hi Hayes. It is Addy with the vibe check that you have requested. The vibe on the Hill today has been electric. It has been tense. The day that we have all been looking forward to has finally arrived. It was an absolute media circus. I have never seen more reporters on the Hill than I saw today. After the hearings ended, members of both parties held press conferences in the house building where the hearing was held. Republicans declared victory. It was this huge media scrum and it was actually a lot of members who are not on the intel committee but major Trump allies who have really been leading the charge here. Matt Gates, Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, and they basically said that this testimony today proved that president Trump did nothing wrong.
Democrats were a little more realistic. They said that it was a really compelling story that they feel that this was a really important next step and wouldn't say if they felt it was officially impeachable, but did say that they felt that this was an outline of the sort of conduct that the founders envisioned would be impeachable and that they are keeping an open mind and excited to hear what comes next.
Also, I saw dogs, they were therapy dogs. I met these two beautiful fluffy angelic white dogs and those dogs absolutely past the vibe check.
Serious vibes indeed, and I'm very jealous of the dogs you met. One more thing, on yesterday's show we answered a question from a listener about whether Trump could still run for reelection in 2020 even if he's removed from office.
Now, we said that he could definitely run again, but then we got a great email from listener John. He pointed out the house could block Trump from future federal office as a punishment in their articles of impeachment. There's apparently precedent for this in impeachment cases for federal judges in the past, so there you go. The more you know. Thanks John.
That is it for today. Tomorrow we'll have a look at what polling can actually tell us about impeachment and we'll get you set for another day of testimony on Friday. Also, now that the hearings have begun, we want to know how you're taking in all the everything. Watching on YouTube, following on Twitter, skipping the mess entirely, and beyond how you experience it, which part of the proceedings have been most surprising? Let us know.
Open the Voice Memo app on your phone, record your message and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or just send me a direct message on Twitter. I'm @HayesBrown and my DMs are always open.
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