WASHINGTON — The House began the public phase of its impeachment inquiry Wednesday with testimony from two career diplomats who Democrats see as key to building their case that President Donald Trump acted inappropriately in his dealings with Ukraine.
PHOTO GALLERY: See scenes from Day 1 of the public impeachment hearings in a gallery at the end of this story
William Taylor, acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, testified before the House Intelligence Committee in nationally televised proceedings.
Hours before the hearing, Trump lashed out at Democrats, contending the deck is stacked against him. Later, he called the hearing a "witch hunt" and a "hoax" during an Oval Office meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and said he had not been watching.
Democrats are trying to show the public that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden at a time when nearly $400 million U.S. military aid to Ukraine was being withheld.
Taylor, the top U.S. envoy to Ukraine told the committee that when he arrived in that country in June he "found a confusing and unusual arrangement for making U.S. policy toward Ukraine."
"There appeared to be two channels of U.S. policymaking and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular," Taylor told the impeachment committees meeting in public for the first time.
Taylor told lawmakers that he was greatly alarmed to learn in September that the Trump administration's demands to Ukraine included withholding military aid.
Previously, Taylor had expressed concerns that the president appeared to be withholding a much-sought White House meeting with Zelensky. In early September, he also learned that security assistance was also being withheld while Trump administration officials sought a public announcement by Zelensky that his country would investigate the Bidens.
"It's one thing to try to leverage a meeting in the White House. It's another thing, I thought, to leverage security assistance," Taylor said, noting that Ukraine is fighting a war on its territory with Russia. Withholding security assistance to a country at war "was much more alarming," Taylor said.
Taylor added new information to his opening statement Wednesday, describing a July phone call between Trump and U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland overheard by a member of Taylor's staff in which Trump purportedly asked about "the investigations." (That staff member is scheduled to testify behind closed doors Friday, according to two people familiar with the investigation.)
Taylor said that after the call, the aide asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine and Sondland said that Trump cares "more about the investigations of Biden" that the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, "was pressing for."
Kent told the committee he was "alarmed" by Giuliani's efforts "to gin up politically-motivated investigations," both because it ended up in the ouster of former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and because they were "infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine."
Kent said Giuliani's campaign was based on "false information" peddled on the Ukrainian side by "corrupt former prosecutors" who were simply seeking "to exact revenge against those who had exposed their misconduct, including U.S. diplomats."
"In my opinion, those attacks undermined U.S. and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship," Kent said.
Kent added that he raised concerns in February 2015 that Hunter Biden's appointment to the board of energy company Burisma "could create the perception of a conflict of interest." But he said he "did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny" - and that U.S. officials were "consistently advocating" to revive the case against the company's founder.
Kent also told the House panel Wednesday that there no basis for Trump's assertion that Joe Biden, while vice president, had stopped an investigation into a Ukrainian gas company where his son served on the board of directors."None whatsoever," Kent testified.
In his opening statement, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., outlined the facts of the inquiry that have been established by the witnesses who have already testified behind closed doors - facts, he argued, that "are not seriously contested."
The question is, do those facts mean that Trump invited Ukrainian interference in the 2020 election and conditioned official acts on Kyiv's willingness to do so - and, if so, is Trump's "abuse of his power" compatible with the office of the presidency?
"The matter is as simple, and as terrible, as that," Schiff said.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the top Republican on the committee, used the first lines of his opening statement to portray the Democratic impeachment inquiry as the evolution of a failed effort to remove Trump for unproved allegations of Russian collusion.
He went on to accuse Democrats of abuses including "trying to obtain nude pictures of Trump from Russian pranksters pretended to be Ukrainian officials" and "countless other deceptions large and small that make them the last people on earth with the credibility to hurl more preposterous accusations at their political opponents."
"Anyone familiar with the Democrats' scorched-earth war against President Trump would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign," he said.
Earlier, as the hearing began, several Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee sought to delay the hearing by focusing on the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint sparked the impeachment probe.
Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, made a motion to subpoena the whistleblower. After a back-and-forth, Schiff responded that the motion will be suspended until after Wednesday's witnesses testify.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, claimed that Schiff is the only lawmaker who knows the identity of the whistleblower - a statement Schiff immediately disputed.
"I do not know the identity of the whistleblower, and I am determined to make sure that identity is protected," he said.
PHOTOS: DAY 1 OF THE PUBLIC IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS
Scenes from the US Capitol: