WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testifying in the first televised hearing of the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, linked the president on Wednesday more directly to a pressure campaign on Ukraine for investigations of Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and his son that would benefit him politically.
That was the first of three key takeaways from the hearing that will likely come up again in future proceedings.
William Taylor, acting ambassador to Ukraine, said a member of his staff overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland in which the Republican president asked about those investigations, and Sondland told him that the Ukrainians were ready to proceed.
Following the call - which occurred a day after Trump had asked Ukraine’s president during a phone call to conduct the investigations - the staff member asked Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, 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, referring to Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Sondland did not recall the conversation in his closed-door testimony before House committees last month and will likely be pressed on details of the call when he appears in a public hearing next Wednesday.
Sondland will address the issue in the upcoming testimony, a person familiar with the matter said.
Trump, for his part, said on Wednesday that he did not remember the July 26 call.
David Holmes, a Taylor aide subpoenaed to testify behind closed doors in the impeachment inquiry on Friday, is the staffer who overheard the call, said a person familiar with the issue.
After Trump withheld $391 million in security aid to Ukraine and asked Ukrainian President Zelenskiy for a favour, the president’s actions were referred as a “quid pro quo,” a Latin phrase meaning a favour for a favour, which Trump denied.
But in his opening statement on Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said the House may find Trump sought to “bribe an ally” into conducting investigations to aid his re-election campaign by withholding a White House meeting or military aid.
Other Democrats have also begun to use the words bribery or attempted bribery.
The change may result from the Constitution stating that impeachable offences include “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.”
There is now talk of including bribery as an article of impeachment.
“It would be unfathomable if they don’t include it, because it’s explicitly named in the Constitution as a ground for impeachment,” said Nick Allard, who served on the Judiciary Committee under the late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.
Reporting by Chris Sanders; Editing by Peter Cooney