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George Kent (L) and Bill Taylor. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent testified Wednesday in the House's first public impeachment hearing.

Driving the news: In a new revelation, Taylor testified that a member of his staff overheard EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland on July 26 discussing "the investigations" on a phone call with Trump. When the staffer asked Sondland what Trump thought of Ukraine, "Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for," Taylor said.

Highlights
  • Taylor testified that the harm of withholding aid to Ukraine is that it sends a signal to Russia — which is currently waging a war in eastern Ukraine — of weakened U.S. support. Under questioning from the Democratic counsel, Taylor said he was not aware of any other instance of a president conditioning foreign aid on his personal or political interests.
  • Asked what it meant that Trump wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a "public box," as he testified in private, Taylor responded: "Trump through Ambassador Sondland was asking for Zelensky to very publicly commit to these investigations. It was not sufficient to do this in private, that this needed to be a very public statement."
  • Kent was asked by Democratic counsel about the allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election and that Biden acted improperly while pushing Ukraine to fire a corrupt prosecutor. Kent testified that there is "no factual basis" for either allegation. On the 2016 election, Kent said: "I think it's amply clear that Russian interference was at the heart of the interference."
  • Under questioning from Adam Schiff, Taylor said that Zelensky and his aides believed it was a bad idea to interfere in U.S. elections, but that the Ukrainian president was still planning to go on CNN to announce the investigations Trump wanted.
  • Asked if they are "Never Trumpers," as the president has alleged, Taylor said that he is not. Kent said he is a career diplomat who has carried out the policies of both Democratic and Republican presidents. Asked if the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky was a "perfect call," as the president has repeatedly argued, both Taylor and Kent said that it raised concerns.
  • Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) asked if the "anti-corruption" statement being negotiated between special envoy Kurt Volker, Gordon Sondland, Rudy Giuliani and an aide to Zelensky was ever issued. Kent responded: "That was not an anti-corruption statement, sir. ... Rudy Giuliani said it would not be acceptable if it didn't mention Biden, Burisma and 2016."
  • Kent testified that he does not believe Rudy Giuliani was protecting U.S. interests with regard to his Ukraine activity, and that he believes Giuliani "was looking to dig up political dirt." Bill Taylor said he agreed.

The other side: Republicans on the committee attempted to delay the start of Taylor and Kent's testimonies by demanding that Schiff answer questions about when the GOP's list of witnesses will be called. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) accused Schiff of being the only member of Congress to know the Ukraine whistleblower's identity, which Schiff disputed.

  • In the second half of the hearing, Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and the Republican counsel ran through a list of allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and asked Taylor if he was aware of them. Taylor testified that he was not. The counsel argued that it's a "very reasonable belief" for Trump to think the Ukrainians were out to get him.
  • Jordan, a Trump loyalist who was moved to the House Intelligence Committee for the public hearings, went after Taylor for not having firsthand knowledge of Trump's decision to halt military aid. “And you’re their star witness,” he said.
  • Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) spent most of his question time listing all of the instances in which Zelensky told the press publicly that he felt no pressure to open investigations, before finishing: "If House Democrats impeach President Trump for a quid pro quo involving military aid, they have to call President Zelensky a liar."
  • Taylor later said in response to a prompt from a Democratic member that it would be a sign of weakness for Zelensky to acknowledge to Ukrainians that he capitulated to a foreign leader, and that Ukrainian voters pay very close attention to U.S.-Ukraine relations.

Between the lines: One of the core arguments Republicans deployed on Wednesday was that Taylor and Kent had no direct discussions with Trump about his thinking on Ukraine. However, the White House has blocked all administration officials who have had conversations with Trump from complying with House subpoenas — other than EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who will testify in public next week.

What's next: Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch will testify on Friday.

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Schumer: Trump impeachment trial to start week of Feb. 8

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: The Washington Post via Getty

The Senate will begin former President Trump's impeachment trial the week of Feb. 8, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday on the Senate floor.

Why it matters: Trump is the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice for “incitement of insurrection" after a violent pro-Trump mob breached the U.S. Capitol, resulting in five deaths.

57 mins ago - Health

CDC extends interval between COVID vaccine doses for exceptional cases

Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty

Patients can space out the two doses of the coronavirus vaccine by up to six weeks if it’s "not feasible" to follow the shorter recommended window, according to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.

Driving the news: With the prospect of vaccine shortages and a low likelihood that supply will expand before April, the latest changes could provide a path to vaccinate more Americans — a top priority for President Biden.

Texas AG sues Biden administration over deportation freeze

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks to members of the media in 2016. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing the Biden administration in federal district court over its 100-day freeze on deporting unauthorized immigrants, and he's asking for a temporary restraining order.

Between the lines: The freeze went into effect Friday, temporarily halting most immigration enforcement in the U.S. In the lawsuit, Paxton claims the move "violates the U.S. Constitution, federal immigration and administrative law, and a contractual agreement between Texas" and the Department of Homeland Security.

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