WASHINGTON: The Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump moved forward on Thursday with preparations for the appearance of another central figure - former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch - in the investigation`s second public hearing.
Two career US diplomats, William Taylor and George Kent, testified on Wednesday in the first televised hearing of the House of Representatives inquiry that threatens Trump`s presidency even as he seeks re-election in November 2020.
Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, offered an account that linked the Republican president more directly to a pressure campaign on Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit him politically, including one into Democrat Joe Biden.
The public hearings follow weeks of closed-door interviews with current and former US officials about Trump`s dealings with Ukraine. The House Intelligence Committee on Friday is due to hear in a public session from Marie Yovanovitch, who Trump abruptly removed from her post as US ambassador to Ukraine in May.
Trump`s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani at the time was working to convince Ukraine to investigate Biden and the former vice president`s son Hunter, who had served as a board member for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma, as well as a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election.
The focus of the impeachment inquiry is a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open the investigations.
Democrats are looking into whether Trump abused his power by withholding $391 million in U.S. security aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure Kiev. The money, approved by the U.S. Congress to help a U.S. ally combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country, was later provided to Ukraine. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.
Yovanovitch, who has worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations, told lawmakers behind closed doors on Oct. 11 that Trump ousted her based on "unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives" after she came under attack by Giuliani. She also denied allegations by Trump allies that she was disloyal to him and said she did not know what Giuliani`s motivations were for attacking her.
Yovanovitch said Giuliani`s associates "may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine."
Trump called Yovanovitch "bad news" in the phone call to Zelenskiy, according to a White House summary. The hearings may pave the way for the Democratic-led House to approve articles of impeachment - formal charges - against Trump. That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to convict Trump of the charges and remove him from office. Republicans control the Senate and have shown little support for Trump`s removal. Three more public hearings are scheduled for next week.
On Wednesday, Taylor offered a new disclosure that indicated Trump`s keen interest in the investigations in Ukraine, saying a member of his staff overheard a July 26 phone call at a restaurant in which Trump asked about the probes he had asked Zelenskiy to conduct.
After the call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a former political donor appointed as the US envoy to the European Union, the staff member asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine, Taylor said.
"Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for," Taylor testified.
Trump told reporters after the hearing that he knew "nothing" about the call with Sondland. "It`s the first time I heard it," he said.
The staffer cited by Taylor is David Holmes, a Taylor aide who has been subpoenaed to testify in the inquiry on Friday behind closed doors, said a person familiar with the issue.
Republican lawmakers called Taylor`s account hearsay. Ukraine`s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said on Thursday that Sondland did not explicitly link the security aid to an investigation into the Bidens, Interfax Ukraine reported.
"Ambassador Sondland did not tell us, and certainly did not tell me, about a connection between the assistance and the investigations. You should ask him," Prystaiko said.
Trump said that he will release on Thursday a transcript of another call he had with Zelenskiy in April, when the former comedian was elected Ukraine`s president. The relevance of that call to the impeachment inquiry remained unclear.
TV viewership ratings for Wednesday`s hearing are expected to be available on Thursday, giving both parties a reading of public interest.