WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives opened historic impeachment hearings on Wednesday and took startling new testimony from a senior American diplomat that further implicated President Trump in a campaign to pressure Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
In a nationally televised hearing from a stately committee room across from the Capitol, William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, brought to life Democrats’ allegations that Mr. Trump had abused his office by trying to enlist a foreign power to help him in an election.
Mr. Taylor testified to the House Intelligence Committee that he learned only recently of a July telephone call overheard by one of his aides in which the president was preoccupied with Ukraine’s willingness to say it would look into Mr. Biden and work by his son Hunter Biden for a Ukrainian energy firm. Immediately afterward, Mr. Taylor said, the aide had been informed that Mr. Trump cared more about “investigations of Biden” than he did about Ukraine.
A powerful witness for Democrats, Mr. Taylor appeared as Congress embarked on the third set of presidential impeachment hearings in modern times. Forceful, detailed and unflappable in the face of Republican taunts, the veteran diplomat delivered a remarkable rebuke of the actions taken by the president and his allies inside and outside of the government who placed Mr. Trump’s political objectives at the center of American policy toward Ukraine.
“Security was so important for Ukraine, as well as our own national interests,” Mr. Taylor testified, describing his growing sense of alarm at learning that $391 million in vital military aid for the former Soviet republic had been held up. “To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense. It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”
The proceedings pushed into the public gaze an epic impeachment clash between Mr. Trump, his Republican allies and Democrats that has shifted into high gear less than a year before the presidential election. In the first impeachment hearing in more than two decades, Mr. Taylor and another seasoned diplomat, George P. Kent, sketched out, in testimony by turns cinematic and dry, a tale of foreign policymaking distorted by a president’s political vendettas with a small country facing Russian aggression caught in the middle.
Democrats toiled to make their case to a deeply divided nation that Mr. Trump had put the integrity of the 2020 election at risk by withholding the security assistance for Ukraine’s war with Russia to try to extract a political advantage for his re-election campaign.
“If this is not impeachable conduct,” demanded Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the committee, “what is?”
Showing no sign of doubts, Mr. Trump’s Republican defenders raged against a process they called unfair and illegitimate. They dismissed Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent — who between them have 70 years of experience as public servants under presidents of both parties — as part of a “politicized bureaucracy” who were offering nothing more than hearsay and supposition, rather than evidence of impeachable conduct.
“The American people see through all this,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio. “They understand the facts support the president. They understand this process is unfair. And they see through the whole darn sham.”
At the White House on Wednesday, Mr. Trump sought to project an air of confidence in the face of an existential threat to his presidency. Before a working meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Mr. Trump told reporters of the hearing: “It’s a hoax. I’m too busy to watch it.”
But even so, Mr. Trump was busy all day retweeting allies defending him. His re-election campaign blasted out a fund-raising solicitation accusing Democrats of “playing a sick game.” And the Republican National Committee circulated memes making fun of the witnesses as gossips who lacked firsthand information.
Asked for his reaction after the hearing ended, Mr. Trump said he had heard “it is a joke” and insisted that he had not watched it “for one minute.” He called the impeachment effort a sham and said, “It shouldn’t be allowed.”
Even as the public recitation of facts unfolded in the hearing room, there were signs that Democrats’ investigation was still expanding. Investigators scheduled depositions with David Holmes, an official in the United States Embassy in Kiev, and Mark Sandy, of the Office of Management and Budget, for Friday and Saturday. According to an official involved in the inquiry, Mr. Holmes was the aide Mr. Taylor referred to in his new testimony, who told Mr. Taylor about Mr. Trump’s singular interest in investigating the Bidens.
Mr. Taylor said a member of his staff overheard a telephone conversation in which the president mentioned “the investigations” to Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, who then told Mr. Trump “that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.”
The conversation took place in a restaurant in Kiev one day after the July 25 phone call in which Mr. Trump personally pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and unproven allegations that Ukraine conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 election.
When Mr. Holmes inquired after the call what the president thought about Ukraine, Mr. Sondland “responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” in Mr. Taylor’s telling. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, led what Mr. Taylor called a “highly irregular” policymaking channel on Ukraine that ran counter to goals of longstanding American policy.
The episode was not included in Mr. Taylor’s interview with investigators last month because he was not aware of it at the time. But the new disclosure promises to figure prominently when Mr. Sondland appears next week for his own public testimony.
Asked Wednesday afternoon about the call, Mr. Trump said, “I know nothing about that.”
Standing beside Mr. Erdogan during a joint news conference at the White House, Mr. Trump pledged to release on Thursday a reconstructed transcript of another phone conversation he had with Mr. Zelensky, that one in April, additional evidence that the White House hopes can distract from the Democrats’ case.
The revelation came as Mr. Taylor recounted publicly what he had already told investigators privately. He said he had discovered that Mr. Trump was conditioning “everything” about the United States’ relationship with Ukraine — including needed military aid and a White House meeting for Ukraine’s president — on the country’s willingness to commit publicly to investigations of his political rivals. Mr. Taylor’s testimony made it clear that the Ukrainians were well aware of the prerequisite at the time.
Asked by a Democratic lawyer if he had ever seen “another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States,” Mr. Taylor, in a sonorous voice that echoed through the hearing room, said, “I have not.”
In his opening statement, Mr. Kent said he had concluded by mid-August that Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to pressure Mr. Zelensky to open investigations into Mr. Trump’s rivals “were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting.”
Mr. Kent also assailed what he called a “campaign to smear” American officials serving in Ukraine, which succeeded with the ouster of Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former United States ambassador there.
“In my opinion, those attacks undermined U.S. and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship,” Mr. Kent said in his opening statement.
Both witnesses forcefully rejected attempts by Republicans and Democrats to draw them into a partisan drama over the impeachment inquiry, declaring they are not “Never Trumpers.” Responding to Mr. Jordan’s assertion that he was the star witness for the Democrats, Mr. Taylor insisted that he was not a political pawn of either party.
“I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” he said. “I think I was clear I’m not here to take one side or the other.”
And Mr. Taylor refused to take a position on whether Mr. Trump’s actions were impeachable, telling Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas: “That is not what either of us are here for. This is your job.”
Even so, with the help of another nine public witnesses over the coming 10 days, Democrats hope to lay out a case that will capture the public’s attention and convince a majority of Americans that Mr. Trump’s actions are worthy of the Constitution’s gravest reprimand: possible removal from office.
“I don’t think President Trump was trying to end corruption in Ukraine,” said Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut. “I think he was trying to aim corruption in Ukraine at Vice President Biden and at the 2020 election.”
Determined to seize what is plainly their best chance to capture the attention of the American public, Mr. Schiff, the committee’s chairman, laid out the stakes. He invoked the words of Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who defiantly told reporters to “get over it” when questioned about conditioning military aid to Ukraine to investigations Mr. Trump wanted.
“If he sought to condition, coerce, extort or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his re-election campaign, and did so by withholding official acts — a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid — must we simply ‘get over it’?” Mr. Schiff asked. “Is this what Americans should now expect from their president?”
Mr. Schiff gaveled in Wednesday’s hearing exactly 50 days after Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened the impeachment inquiry.
The public hearings are a turning point for House Democrats from which they are unlikely to turn back. The Ukraine inquiry, after months of pursuit of Mr. Trump and years of Democratic agony over his flouting of political norms, now appears to have too much momentum to be turned back short of impeachment, even if it means muscling through a partisan vote akin to Republicans’ impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Whether the inquiry has any chance of penetrating the intense partisan polarization that has gripped the country in recent years remains the central question for Democrats and Mr. Trump. Public polling suggests a slight majority of the country supports the inquiry, but Democratic leaders privately concede that given Mr. Trump’s fervent base of support, almost no scenario could tip the country more decisively against him.
Republicans cannot stop Democrats from impeaching Mr. Trump, but they are determined to ensure that any vote to do so is partisan. Their strategy is multipronged. It includes defending Mr. Trump’s interest in Ukrainian corruption as legitimate, and portraying Democrats as desperate to find something, anything, to take out Mr. Trump.
“The main performance, the Russia hoax, has ended, and you’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel,” said Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, said Wednesday in an opening statement.
He spoke of a “politicized bureaucracy” working against Mr. Trump, saying that diplomats in the State Department had worked to undercut the president. In the process, Mr. Nunes said, they had “lost the confidence of millions of Americans who believe that their vote should count for something.”