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What William Taylor and George Kent shared during public impeachment hearings

Wednesday marked the first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, which is looking at whether Trump violated his oath of office and jeopardized U.S. national security by pressuring Ukraine to conduct investigations to benefit him politically. Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, and Nick Schifrin join Judy Woodruff to review testimony from William Taylor and George Kent.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been a historic day at the U.S. Capitol, the first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

    It is the ultimate test of the United States Constitution and the balance of power between the executive and the Congress. This is only the fourth time in history that it's happened.

    At the heart of the investigation, did President Trump violate his oath of office and jeopardize U.S. national security by pressuring Ukraine to take steps that would benefit him politically, namely, to undertake investigations into his political rival?

    Today, we heard from two key witnesses, William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state.

    We begin by hearing some of the opening statements from the leading lawmakers on community.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    These actions will force Congress to consider, as it did with President Nixon, whether Trump's obstruction of the constitutional duties of Congress constitute additional grounds for impeachment.

    If the president can simply refuse all oversight, particularly in the context of an impeachment proceeding, the balance of power between our two branches of government will be irrevocably altered. That is not what the founders intended.

  • Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.:

    What we will witness today is a televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.

    It will take years, if not decades, to restore faith in these institutions. This spectacle is doing great damage to our country. It's nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Here now to consider the highlights and what they all mean, Lisa Desjardins is at the Capitol, where she's been all day long, in the committee hearing room. Yamiche Alcindor is at the White House. And Nick Schifrin joins me here at the "NewsHour" table.

    Hello to all of you. You have been watching all this very closely.

    Lisa, I'm going to come to you first.

    Everybody's asking, after weeks and weeks of hearing about what was alleged, what new did we hear today in these public hearings?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We heard something significant and new today, Judy.

    And I have to give a little context. William Taylor added to his testimony today, based on new information he said that he got from one of his staffers. This has to do with one of the central questions here, Judy: Did President Trump himself order that any aid to Ukraine, anything that was given to Ukraine must be tied to the investigations he wanted?

    We know that the ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, did tell that to the Ukrainians. The question is, did President Trump convey that to Sondland? Did he directly order it?

    So, in that context, I want to play this sound bite first from Mr. Taylor's, Ambassador Taylor's opening statement, and then from the question from Chairman Schiff, the Democrat afterwards.

  • William Taylor:

    Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kiev.

    A 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.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    His response was that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden; is that right?

  • William Taylor:

    And Burisma, yes, sir.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So, this is an important tying together of the themes for Democrats.

    They say this proves that the president was involved in pushing Ukraine. However, Republicans say this doesn't prove anything, that this was a staff member, not Taylor himself, who overheard something in another phone conversation.

    But I think it's something we're going to hear more and more about, Judy, this idea of, how involved was the president and what does the evidence show?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No doubt about it, we are going to hear more about it.

    And, meantime, we know President Trump was asked about all this today.

    Let's first hear what he had to say.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I'm too busy to watch it. It's a witch-hunt. It's a hoax. I'm too busy to watch it. So I'm sure I will get a report. There's nothing.

  • Question:

    Have you been briefed?

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have not been briefed, no. There's nothing there. I see they're using lawyers that are television lawyers. They took some guys off television. You know, I'm not surprised to see it, because Schiff can't do his own questions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, who is now at the White House, that was part of what the president had to say today, but let's widen the picture.

    How are he and the people around him responding to all this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president is maintaining that he didn't even watch a minute of the first public impeachment inquiry hearing.

    That said, his personal Twitter account, which he has used to communicate with the American public throughout his presidency, that account was retweeting and talking about Republicans defending him during this hearing.

    He also is very clear that he wanted Republicans to be talking about the fact that he did nothing wrong. That's exactly what Republicans were doing during the hearing.

    It's important to note that the president and the White House had a rapid response team, and that team is really a group of people that were tweeting and talking about the hearing in real time. That's exactly not what the White House has done in the past. So this is a very new thing that the White House did today to make sure people that knew in real time what the president and the White House was thinking.

    It's also important to note that the White House today was talking to lawmakers and that, before this hearing, the president and/or White House staff members met with 120 lawmakers and 42 senators, wanting to make the point that they needed to defend the president by saying that this was an unfair system, an unfair process, and also by saying that the president was really a target of partisan attack, because Democrats wanted to undo the 2016 election.

    The other thing to note here is that the president at the White House was responding to Ambassador Taylor's new information. He said that that was hearsay and essentially that that aide that told Ambassador Taylor that the president was talking to Gordon Sondland was really just an anonymous person and not real evidence against him.

    So that's the president responding in real time to Ambassador Taylor's response and his new information there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when it comes to Republicans, the members of the committee were asking questions, but they also were using a counsel who actually is with the House Oversight Committee, works for Congressman Jim Jordan, who has been temporarily deployed to the Intelligence Committee.

    Here now is just a sample of the questions that were posed by the counsel — his name is Castor — to Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine.

  • Steve Castor:

    Ambassador Taylor, do you know whether Hunter Biden offers anything, other than the fact that his dad's the former Vice-President?

  • William Taylor:

    I don't.

  • Steve Castor:

    OK, but given Hunter Biden's role on Burisma's 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?

  • George Kent:

    That is correct.

  • Steve Castor:

    And what did they do about that concern that you expressed?

  • George Kent:

    I have no idea. I reported my concern to the office of the vice president.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio:

    Ambassador, you weren't on the call, were you?

    The president — you didn't listen on President Trump's call and President Zelensky's call?

  • William Taylor:

    I did not.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan:

    You never talked with Chief of Staff Mulvaney?

  • William Taylor:

    I never did.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan:

    You never met the president.

  • William Taylor:

    That's correct.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan:

    You had three meetings again with Zelensky, and it didn't come up.

  • William Taylor:

    And two of those, they had never heard about, as far as I know. There was no reason for it to come up.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan:

    And President — and President Zelensky never made an announcement?

    This is — this what I can't believe, and you're their star witness. You're their first witness. You're the guy. You're the guy. Based on this — based on — I mean, I have seen — I have seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.

  • Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas:

    The Ukrainian president stood in front of the world press and repeatedly, consistently, over and over again, interview after interview, said he had no knowledge of military aid being withheld, meaning no quid pro quo, no pressure, no demands, no threats, no blackmail, nothing corrupt.

    And unlike the first 45 minutes that we heard from the Democrats today, that's not secondhand information. That's not hearsay. It's not what someone overheard Ambassador Sondland say. That was his direct testimony.

    Ambassador Taylor, do you have any evidence to assert that President Zelensky was lying to the world press when he said those things, yes or no?

  • William Taylor:

    Mr. Ratcliffe, if I can respond…

  • Rep. John Ratcliffe:

    My time is short. Yes or no?

  • William Taylor:

    Your time is — right. I have no reason to doubt what the president said in his…

  • Rep. John Ratcliffe:

    OK. Very good.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick Schifrin, we are — as we're hearing, the Republicans were very much pushing their own narrative today with these witnesses.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right.

    So we saw three major points, and let's just go from the beginning, that first one that we saw from the Republican counsel first about corruption, developing a case, they believe, about Ukraine being very corrupt and that a particular company, Burisma, being particularly corrupt.

    On Burisma's board was Hunter Biden. And we have talked about this, right? The son of Vice President Biden, at the time that Vice President Biden was leading Ukraine policy for the administration, for the Obama administration.

    And the question is, why would Hunter be on the board when Vice President Biden was working on that policy for the Obama administration?

    And as we heard Kent say, my concern was, there could be a perception of the conflict of interests. So, that's one major point the Republicans made today.

    The second one that we heard is hearsay, right? So we heard this from Jim Jordan, that neither witness called by the Democrats today talked to the president, not only about Ukraine, but ever, nor did they really regularly talk to Rudy Giuliani, whom they accuse of leading this irregular campaign to block military assistance and block overall assistance to Ukraine before Ukraine had to do these investigations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Or shadow campaign.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The shadow campaign, they called it, right.

    The White House reiterated that. You saw Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary, talk to them, tweet today talking to them — talking about them, that they have never spoken to President Trump, this country deserves better, these are essentially two bureaucrats with a foreign policy gripe, they didn't know any specifics firsthand.

    And, quickly, the third one that we heard from Republican Ratcliffe is that the Ukrainian government never said publicly that it felt pressure,, nor did it actually conduct these investigations that Giuliani and Sondland and the president were asking for before the aid was lifted and before President Zelensky of Ukraine met President Trump.

    So, the argument there is, basically, that if Ukraine didn't actually do those steps the Democrats are accusing Republicans — President Trump of demanding, then how could there ever have been a quid pro quo?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, I want to come back to you.

    We do have a — one of the Democratic members, Eric Swalwell of California, questioning Ambassador Taylor about some of these issues, about holding up security systems.

    Let's listen.

  • Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.:

    You described in your text message exchanges that engaging in a scheme like this is — quote — "crazy."

    Can we also agree that it's just wrong?

  • William Taylor:

    Yes.

  • Rep. Eric Swalwell:

    Why is it wrong?

  • William Taylor:

    Again, our holding up of security assistance that would go to a country that is fighting aggression from Russia, for no good policy reason, no good substantive reason, no good national security reason, is wrong.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, what does this tell us?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That was an eye-popping sound bite.

    And, Judy, when I talk to Republicans like Mark Meadows, who's also a leading ally of the president here, he said, overall, I think it was a snooze fest, I think Democrats didn't really gain any ground, except I said, what about that sound bite, where you had an acting ambassador to Ukraine saying that it seems the policy of the president was wrong?

    And with that, Mark Meadows had to admit this was somewhere that Democrats seemed to land a punch.

    And I think it's important because it's a good contrast with what Nick was pointing out. There is a real fight over the details here. Both Democrats and Republicans are making detailed arguments about what we know of what the president did or didn't do.

    But, on the other hand Judy, some, like Representative Swalwell, realize that the bigger battle is for the American public and what they think happened here.

    And Swalwell there was making a larger argument, getting away from the minutiae, kind of the legalese, the prosecutor talk, and saying, was this wrong?

    Being able to get an acting ambassador to say that about a president he's currently serving is incredibly rare. And, in the room, everyone felt it.

    So it was an important moment that sort of went beyond the mechanics of what is an impeachable offense and sort of was aimed at this president and his policies, are they good or bad? And Democrats and Republicans both felt that moment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick Schifrin, this reminds us that there are policies at issue here that are being at the — very frankly, at the very heart of this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And a core one of, what was U.S. policy to Ukraine, and how much was the U.S. helping Ukraine?

    Over the last five years, the U.S. has provided Ukraine about $1.6 billion. That's across both the Obama and Trump administrations. And this is everything from ambulances, to police uniforms, to military assistance, night-vision, communications, radar, lots of training to try and make sure that the Ukrainian military looks toward the West, rather than the East.

    Now, what we're looking at here is a Javelin. This is the key difference between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. The Trump administration sent an offensive weapon to Ukraine. Those are Javelins, anti-tank weapons seen in a parade in 2018.

    The reason we're showing you photos of a Javelin and a parade is that because they're not deployed to the front lines. The Trump administration is getting credit and talks about how they are deploying Javelins to Ukraine.

    Here's the thing. Javelins have a specific security requirement. The Department of Defense says that, when they are deployed, they have to have extra security, basically. That security is not on the front lines. Ukraine is not able to provide that security on the front lines.

    So the Javelins that we're talking about, designed to destroy tanks, basically, are not actually being used on the front lines, where Ukrainian soldiers are fighting on one side, with Russian-backed separatists on the other.

    What the U.S. ambassadors and diplomats who we have heard from say is that, even if they're not deployed, they provide deterrence to Russia, and that's why so many people were upset when President Trump stopped the deployment of $390 million of assistance that includes Javelins.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So — and I want to come back to all three of you very quickly to button this up.

    But, Nick, I mean, that is a — that is so interesting, to tell us that the thing that was being held up is not even be being used for the purpose for which it's designed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, not only that, but the Trump administration policy was helping Ukraine, more than the Obama administration policy, as seen by those…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which sometimes gets lost in all this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right, and as seen by those offensive weapons. And Republicans made that point.

    The problem, of course, is that the Democrats point out, well, the president himself, Rudy Giuliani himself stopped the Trump administration policy of providing military aid to Ukraine, when there was a temporary freeze on that military aid, apparently asking that freeze to be lifted only when Ukraine did those investigations.

    In the end there, though, Judy, as we talked about, the aid was sent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There was a President Trump and a President's Zelensky meeting. And Ukraine never did conduct those investigations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And quickly to Lisa, again, to button this up, do Democrats — what do Democrat think they need to do on Friday at this point?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, I think it's interesting.

    That is sort of the separate plotline for Democrats, one idea being to aid money and what was tied to it, the other idea being whether an acting and, by most accounts credible, very well-known, well-liked ambassador to Ukraine was ousted for political and potentially financial reasons, including those of the president's personal attorney.

    Democrats see that as also an important plotline. But, again, Republicans say they haven't connected it directly to the president. So we will hear more from members very soon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Yamiche, talking to your sources at the White House, what do they think they need to do between now and Friday, and as this continues?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the White House is taking this very seriously.

    So they're going to continue to iron out their strategy. We're going to see more rapid response from the White House, with them trying to respond in real time to the things that are coming out in regards to this impeachment inquiry.

    The other thing to note is that the president is now looking into the intelligence community's inspector general, Michael Atkinson. There are reports that he wanted to dismiss him.

    Today at the White House, the president said he wanted to dig into his actions. This is a person that gave the whistle-blower complaint to Congress. So, the president is very mad at him.

    The other thing to note is that the president is going to be releasing, he said maybe on Thursday, his first call with President Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. That was in April. There are reports that he essentially congratulated the president on that call. He said that that's the more important call.

    Democrats continue to say that the second call, the July 25 call, where the president said, "I need you to do me a favor, though," I need you to look into the Bidens, that call is the more important call.

    But we need to continue to look at what the White House is going to be putting out this week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Setting up a contrast there.

    All right, a very full day.

    Yamiche Alcindor at the White House, Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, Nick Schifrin here in the studio following it all, thank you, all three.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks.

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