Donald Trump cared more about investigating his political rival Joe Biden than the fate of Ukraine, according to dramatic testimony from a key witness in the first impeachment inquiry hearing before the American public.
Less than a year before the president faces re-election, the House of Representatives began public hearings on Wednesday into allegations that Trump abused the power of his office.
As Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair, gaveled the House intelligence committee into session, cameras from every major network carried the proceedings to millions of Americans, some of whom were encountering the allegations against Trump for the first time.
In an opening statement, Schiff said the hearings would explore whether Trump sought to exploit Ukraine’s vulnerability, condition White House acts on Ukraine’s willingness to help his re-election, and “whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the presidency”.
Schiff said: “The matter is as simple and as terrible as that. Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself.”
Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, a state department deputy assistant secretary, were the first witnesses to be called. Taylor said one of his aides had heard Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, talking to Trump on the phone in July.
Taylor said: “Following the phone call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.”
The opening of the public impeachment hearings was a day Trump has struggled furiously to prevent, blocking witnesses, attacking investigators and throwing up a social media smokescreen. Trump has claimed his push for investigations in Ukraine arose from his concern about corruption in the country.
“I’m too busy to watch it,” Trump told reporters about the hearings. “It’s a witch-hunt, it’s a hoax.”