(WASHINGTON) — The first, historic public impeachment hearing began Wednesday as Democrats hoped to make their case to millions of Americans watching on television that President Donald Trump’s conduct has been so serious he deserves to be removed from office.After 16 closed-door interviews over the past month, Democrats are calling two star witnesses to testify in open session: Ambassador William Taylor, the United States’ top diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, the State Department’s top career official focused on Ukraine.While, as of now, there is little expectation that the GOP-led Senate would convict Trump on any articles of impeachment, Democrats are striving to prove that Trump betrayed his oath of office by withholding military aid to Ukraine unless Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy initiated investigations to benefit Trump’s “personal political interests in the United States” — primarily through a corruption investigation into the Biden family. Republicans argue there was “no conditionality or evidence of pressure.”Here is how the hearing is unfolding. Please refresh for updates.10:41 a.m.In his opening statement, George Kent, a deputy assistant at the State Department, said he expected attacks from corrupt Ukrainians but was surprised to see Americans attack dedicated public servants.He appears to be referring to an effort led Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to discredit Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.In his phone call to Ukraine’s president, Trump said Yovanovitch was “bad news” and was “going to go through some things.”In his closed-door interview, Kent vigorously defended Yovanovitch and said Giuliani targeted her with a “campaign of lies.”10:37 a.m.Rep. Adam Schiff is going over the military and diplomatic experience of the two witnesses, making clear that both men have vast experience as public servants.He is pointing out Amassador Bill Taylor’s West Point education and military service, and State Department’s George Kent’s work on anti-corruption efforts. Republicans are pressing Democrats to call the whistleblower as a witness.GOP Rep. Mike Conaway is asking that Congress subpoena the whistleblower for a closed-door session.Schiff, the chairman said, GOP members can asking any question they want except trying to expose the whistleblower. He also said Democrats “will entertain a motion to subpoena any witness.”“We will do everything we can to protect the whistleblower,” he said.10:31 a.m.Taylor and Kent are sworn in.As the hearing gets underway, ABC News Deputy Political Director MaryAlice Parks says she’s watching for any language from Republicans about the importance of the U.S. military aid to Ukraine.“In late September, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was not given an explanation as to why the aid was held up after Congress approved it, but said he was glad the aid was eventually released to help “our friends” in Ukraine defend themselves against Russia.Congress approved that aid as a part of a defense package that Republicans championed even more than Democrats. (In the House, 220 Republicans and 139 Democrats voted for the defense spending. In the Senate, 46 Republicans, 40 Democrats and one independent voted to approve the bill.)Still, in the last few weeks, some Republicans have started suggesting the stalling or bargaining with that aid was understandable. Do they double down on that argument?ABC News Political Director Rick Klein says he thinks there’s more pressure on Democrats going into the hearing to lay out their case against the president.“Democrats will be under immense pressure to unearth new information from witnesses whose accounts are already widely known and to generate new headlines so as not to lose the public’s attention. Consider: If impeachment is going to succeed, the moments that get it there almost certainly haven’t happened yet. As a Democratic House member texted me last night: “I think our members need to talk less.” Good luck with that …”Follow analysis from MaryAlice Parks and Rick Klein live on FiveThirtyEight throughout today’s hearing.Ranking Member Rep. Devin Nunes called the impeachment inquiry a “publicly orchestrated media smear campaign” in his opening statement, repeating Republican talking points that Democrats are continuing attacks against the president for political gain.Nunes told the packed hearing room that the impeachment inquiry is part of a desperate effort by Democrats and media outlets to smear President Trump, calling the allegations “absurd.”“This is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign,” the California Republican said.Nunes also revived criticism that the GOP was unfairly iced out of the process and accused Democrats of holding “secret” closed-door depositions. Republicans were included in those depositions and allowed to ask questions.”What we will witness today is a televised, theatrical performance,” Nunes said, “congratulating” the witnesses for “agreeing to participate in the drama” – the “low-rent, Ukrainian sequel” to the “Russia hoax.”He also dismissed other witnesses “secondhand” and “thirdhand” accounts of the president’s phone call, and defended Trump’s ability to fire his ambassadors.As he closed, Nunes seemed to suggest that now, with this new inquiry, State Department officials have worked to undermine Trump — a charge he leveled against FBI and Justice Department officials during the Mueller inquiry.”Elements of the FBI, Justice Department, and now the State Department, have lost the confidence” of millions of Americans,” Nunes said.10:08 a.m.In his opening statement, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said the hearing will look at whether Trump tried to “exploit” Ukraine’s vulnerability during its military conflict and invited Ukraine to interfere in American elections.“Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency, itself,” he said, asking, whether “such an abuse of his power is incompatible with the office of the presidency.”Schiff is using his opening statement to go over the evidence collected so far in the impeachment inquiry including testimony of key witnesses.He is focusing on the White House decision to freeze $400 million in aid and witness depositions that the money and other perks for Ukraine was contingent upon the government agreeing to investigate Democrat Joe Biden.“Neither of these investigations were in the U.S. national interests,” but were in Trump’s personal interests, including his reelection, Schiff said.10:06 a.m.House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff opens the hearing.9:59 a.m.Republicans and Democrats set up displays of exhibits they plan to use to support their argument ahead of the hearing – Mulvaney’s presser for Dems, and a number of quotes and comments about the whistleblower from Republicans.The committee lawyers — Daniel Goldman for the Democrats and Steve Castor for Republicans — who will question in the early extended rounds, will be sitting on either side of Schiff and Ranking member Devin Nunes.GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, who was added to the committee late, is sitting in the center on the Republican side.9:54 a.m.ABC News Senior Congressional Correspondent Mary Bruce on Capitol Hill reports she is told that while some political wrangling is expected, Democrats say they will stay “somber, serious and focused.”ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl reports that President Trump and his GOP allies see this as an opportunity to “fight back” — noting that neither of the witnesses claims to have communicated directly with the president.9:32 a.m.Senior State Department official George Kent and the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine Bill Taylor have arrived on Capitol Hill ahead of the 10 a.m. hearing start time.Both declined to answer questions from reporters.An official working on the impeachment inquiry confirmed Taylor and Kent were both subpoenaed before the hearing.9:21 a.m.ABC News’ John Parkinson caught up with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi heading into a closed-door meeting with her Democratic caucus.”Is today a make or break moment for Democrats regarding the impeachment inquiry? What are the stakes at play today?” Parkinson asked.“We take the oath of office – all of us become custodians of the Constitution, custodians of all that is contained in it. Our system of checks and balances, separation of powers, a check on each other. Legislative – Article I – the legislative branch – that’s the Congress of the United States. Our duties are spelled out in the Constitution. Article II, the executive branch – duties spelled out; judicial branch, Article III,” Pelosi answered.”The president has said that Article II says that he can do whatever he wants. That is a rejection of the genius of the Constitution of the United States. Benjamin Franklin said, when asked coming out of Independence Hall at the time of the adoption of the Constitution – what do we have, a monarchy or a republic. He said, ‘A republic, if you can keep it. Article II says I can do whatever I want? That’s a monarchy. A system of checks and balances, that’s a republic. And we have a responsibility to keep as custodians of the Constitution – we are defenders of our democracy,” Pelosi said.”So, I’m very prayerful, thoughtful, and actually saddened today that our country has to come to a place where the president doesn’t understand that Article II does not say that he can do whatever he wants, that he is not above the law, and that he will be held accountable. I’m very proud of Adam Schiff and members of the Intelligence Committee and the other committees that have been working on defending our democracy,” she told Parkinson and other reporters.9:18 a.m.The large Ways and Means Committee hearing room was already buzzing an hour before testimony was scheduled to begin.ABC News’ Ben Siegel reported the first person in line to watch the hearing in person was Ed Ingber from Sarasota, who extended his vacation to Washington so he could see the proceedings in person. Ingber and others started to line up outside the hearing room at 3:30 a.m.The leader of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, hopes Wednesday’s testimony will demonstrate to Americans watching on television that Trump – directly or through agents – “sought to use the power of the Office of the President and other instruments of the federal government in other ways” to apply pressure to Zelenskiy to advance his personal political interests, including by leveraging a prospective Oval Office meeting desired by Zelenskiy or by withholding nearly $400 million of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine that had been appropriated by Congress.Finally, Schiff will work to show that Trump and his administration sought to “obstruct, suppress or cover up information to conceal from the Congress and the American people evidence about the president’s actions and conduct.”Trump has blocked nearly all of his closest advisers from cooperating in the Democratic impeachment inquiry, including his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, John Eisenberg, legal adviser to the National Security Council, and Eisenberg’s deputy, Michael Ellis.”It is important to underscore that the House’s impeachment inquiry, and the Committee, will not serve as venues for any Member to further the same sham investigations into the Bidens or into debunked conspiracies about 2016 U.S. election interference that President Trump pressed Ukraine to undertake for his personal political benefit,” Schiff, D-Calif., asserted in a memo to all Intelligence Committee members on Tuesday. “Nor will the Committee facilitate any efforts by President Trump or his allies to threaten, intimidate, or retaliate against the whistleblower who courageously and lawfully raised concerns about the President’s conduct.”Schiff has called three witnesses this week, two Wednesday and one Friday, to publicly say what they’ve already testified to in private — hoping to capture the attention of a TV audience and shift public sentiment further in favor of removing Trump from office.”We want the American people to hear the evidence for themselves in the witnesses’ own words, and our goal is to present the facts in a serious and sober manner,” Schiff said Tuesday ahead of the hearing. “The three witnesses this week will begin to flesh out the details of the president’s effort to coerce a foreign nation to engage in political investigations designed to help his campaign, a corrupt undertaking that is evident from his own words on the July 25 call record.”The witnessesTaylor, who is viewed as perhaps the Democrats’ most compelling witness, told Congress on Oct. 22 that “it was becoming clear” to him that a prospective bilateral meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy “was contingent upon the investigation of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections,” according to a transcript of his closed-door testimony.Asked about the summary memorandum released by the White House that memorialized the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy, Taylor said “although this was the first time I had seen the details of President Trump’s July 25 call with President Zelenskiy, in which he mentioned Vice President Biden, I had come to understand well before then that ‘investigations’ was a term that Ambassadors (Kurt) Volker and (Gordon) Sondland used to mean matters related to the 2016 elections, and to investigations of Burisma and the Bidens.”Tayor also affirmed that it was his “clear understanding” that “everything” from the U.S., including a White House meeting with Trump, was contingent upon Ukraine launching an investigation. He even testified that he believed the “irregular” diplomatic channel employed by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, was used to benefit Trump.Kent testified Oct. 15 that he raised concerns to then-Vice President Joe Biden’s office about a conflict of interest presented by Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma in 2015, but was ultimately rebuffed, potentially buttressing GOP arguments that questions about the Bidens’ activities in Ukraine have merit.A transcript of Kent’s deposition also showed he testified that Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, carried out a “campaign of lies” to smear former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and that the former New York City mayor pushed Ukraine on Trump’s behalf to investigate Biden based on an unfounded theory about the country’s interference in the 2016 election.The Republican defenseIn an 18-page Republican memo obtained by ABC News on Monday evening, the House GOP laid out their own strategy ahead of public hearings this week, showing they plan to make the case that it’s important to understand Trump’s “state of mind” to comprehend the administration’s diplomacy in Ukraine.”To appropriately understand the events in question — and most importantly, assess the President’s state of mind during his interaction with (Ukrainian) President Zelenskiy — context is necessary,” the memo reads.Republicans outline four key pieces of evidence they plan to center their questions around, including a summary memorandum memorializing Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy, arguing the absence of a quid pro quo by showing “no conditionality or evidence of pressure.”Republicans contend that both Zelenskiy and Trump have publicly said there was no pressure exerted by the United States for Ukraine to investigate Biden. They also argue that testimony in the depositions show the Ukraine government was not aware of a hold on U.S. security assistance at the time of the July 25 call.Republicans point out that Ukraine never initiated an investigation into Trump’s rivals but Trump still met with Zelenskiy and U.S. security assistance ultimately flowed to Ukraine in September 2019, undercutting the Democrat’s assertion of a quid pro quo.”The body of evidence to date does not support the Democrat allegation that President Trump pressured Ukraine to conduct investigations into the President’s political rivals for his political benefit in the 2020 election. The body of evidence to date does not support the Democrat allegations that President Trump covered up misconduct or obstructed justice,” the GOP memo states. “The body of evidence shows instead that President Trump holds a deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine due to its history of pervasive corruption.”Republicans also maintain that Trump has consistently expressed skepticism about U.S. foreign aid while calling on European allies to “shoulder more of the financial burden for regional defense.””Public reporting shows how senior Ukrainian officials interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in favor of Secretary (Hillary Clinton) and in opposition to then-candidate Trump – including some officials who President Zelenskiy retained in his government,” the memo continues. “Seen in this light, any reluctance on the President’s part to meet with President Zelenskiy or to provide taxpayer-funded assistance to Ukraine is entirely reasonable.”Political theaterWhile pundits largely anticipate a made-for-TV theatrical bout between Schiff and GOP Reps. Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, Democrats hold a 13-9 advantage in membership on the House Intelligence Committee, providing Schiff with an edge on any procedural motions or efforts by Republicans to undermine his control during the hearing.Schiff and Nunes are both afforded a 45-minute block of time to establish the hearing’s narrative, with both parties expected to rely largely on questioning by staff counsel. Each member of the committee can also ask up to five minutes of questions per round.If Schiff decides to add a second round of questioning, he and Nunes would receive another 45-minute block each, with the ability to yield to counsel but not to other members on the committee. Junior members of the committee, however, can yield to other members from their own five-minute windows, although Nunes and Schiff cannot transfer their time to anyone besides their respective counsel.In an extraordinary move, Jordan was temporarily added to the GOP’s membership on the committee last week to give the president one of his fiercest defenders a spot on the committee. While Jordan’s questions will be limited to five-minutes absent any transfers of time from his GOP colleagues, his assignment also allows his chief investigative counsel from the House Oversight Committee, Steve Castor, to join the hearing and be heavily featured throughout GOP questioning.
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