US president Donald Trump was overheard asking about “the investigations” he wanted Ukraine to pursue that are central to the impeachment inquiry, a senior diplomat has said.
William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, revealed the new information as the House Intelligence Committee opened extraordinary hearings on whether the 45th president of the United States should be removed from office.
Mr Taylor said his staff recently told him they overheard Mr Trump speaking on the phone to another diplomat, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant the day after Mr Trump’s July phone call with the new leader of Ukraine.
The staff explained that Mr Sondland had called the president and they could hear Mr Trump on the phone asking about “the investigations”, he said.
The ambassador told the president the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Mr Taylor testified at the proceedings, which were broadcast live, and on social media, from a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill.
Mr Trump was asked about the phone call during a news conference with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I know nothing about that,” he said, adding that he “did not recall” the conversation.
The inquiry was launched after an anonymous whistleblower’s complaint that Mr Trump, in the July phone call, pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democratic foe Joe Biden and Biden’s son – all while the US was holding up US military aid.
At the start, Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, outlined the question at the core of the impeachment inquiry – whether the president used his office to pressure Ukraine officials for personal political gain.
“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” said Mr Schiff.
“Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander in chief.”
Republicans immediately pushed Democrats to hear in closed session from the anonymous whistleblower.
Mr Schiff denied the request at the time but said it would be considered later.
“We will do everything necessary to protect the whistleblower’s identity,” Mr Schiff declared.
The top Republican on the panel, Devin Nunes, said Mr Trump “would have a perfectly good reason for wanting to find out what happened” if there were indications that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
National security officials have told Congress they do not believe Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.
Mr Nunes accused the Democratic majority of conducting a “scorched earth” effort to take down the president after the special counsel’s Russia investigation into the 2016 election failed to spark impeachment proceedings.
“We’re supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out new allegations?” said Mr Nunes, a top Trump ally.
Mr Nunes called the Ukraine matter a “low rent” sequel to the Russia probe.
“Democrats are advancing their impeachment sham,” he said.
Both Mr Taylor and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, defied White House instructions not to testify. They both received subpoenas to appear.
Asked about a text message released earlier in the probe in which Mr Taylor called it “crazy” to withhold the security aid to a foreign ally, he said, “It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”
Mr Kent, in his opening remarks, directly contradicted a core complaint against Joe Biden being raised by allies of the White House, saying he never heard any US official try to shield a Ukraine company from investigations.
Mr Kent acknowledged that he himself raised concerns in 2015 about the then vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, being on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine gas company.
He warned that it could give the “perception of a conflict of interest”. But Mr Kent indicated no one from the US was protecting the company from investigations in Ukraine as Republicans have implied.
“Let me be clear; however, I did not witness any efforts by any US official to shield Burisma from scrutiny,” Mr Kent said.
He did not go into detail about the issues central to the impeachment inquiry, but he voiced his concerns with them.
“I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country,” he said.
At its core, the inquiry stems from Mr Trump’s July 25 phone call with Mr Zelensky.
Mr Trump wanted the Ukraine government to investigate Democrats in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden.
The anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to concerns about the phone call.
The White House released a rough transcript of the conversation, with portions deleted.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. But she pressed ahead in September after the whistleblower’s complaint.