A top US diplomat told impeachment hearings that President Trump directly asked about a Ukrainian investigation into his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
The impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine reached a dramatic new phase on Wednesday with two senior officials testifying in the first public hearings on the controversy.
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a senior State Department official responsible for Ukraine policy, gave evidence before the House Intelligence Committee over whether Trump used military aid as leverage to secure political favors.
In new evidence before the inquiry, during a detailed opening statement, Mr Taylor said a member of his staff had overheard a telephone call in which the president inquired about “the investigations” into Mr Biden.
The call was with Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, who reportedly told the president over the phone from a restaurant in Kyiv that “the Ukrainians were ready to move forward”.
After the call, the staff member “asked ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine”, Mr Taylor said.
Mr Taylor said: “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.”
Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, which is handling the impeachment inquiry, said members would establish whether the president had “abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections.”
Devin Nunes, a prominent Trump ally and the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, denounced the inquiry as a “televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats” in the run-up to a divisive 2020 presidential election.
Responding to queries from reporters after the hearing, Mr Trump said: “I know nothing about that, first time I’ve heard it.”
He did not recall the phone call Mr Taylor described, “not even a little bit”, and “in any event it’s more second hand information”, he said.
The impeachment inquiry has been going on for more than a month – but all previous hearings were private, with reports based on leaks and sources speaking to the media.
Wednesday’s public hearings were the first time the public heard from witnesses directly and a chance for Democrats and Republicans to win over voters.