Trump's furious tweets at impeachment inquiry kicks off
The process which could end in a Senate vote on Donald Trump's removal from office has opened with public impeachment hearings now underway.
The US House of Representatives launched the televised inquiry before the House Intelligence Committee in Capitol Hill Wednesday as Democrats seek to make the case to the American public that President Donald Trump abused the powers of his office.
Democrats who control the House plan to prove over several weeks of hearings that Mr Trump asked Ukraine to conduct a politically motivated investigation into his potential 2020 Democratic president rival Joe Biden.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, the California congressman overseeing the historic inquiry in the Democratic-controlled House, said there were "few actions as consequential as the impeachment of a president".
"The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit (Ukraine's) vulnerability and invite Ukraine's interference in our elections," Mr Schiff said.
"If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?"
Speaking minutes before the start of the hearings, Democratic speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said the probe was necessary to show Mr Trump he can't do "whatever he wants".
"That he is not above the law," Ms Pelosi said.
"And that he will be held accountable."
Mr Trump, 73, faces the most perilous challenge of his tumultuous three-year tenure in the White House as the public impeachment hearings play out under the glare of live television cameras.
Mr Trump, who maintains he did nothing wrong, lashed out at the inquiry with a series of tweets early Wednesday, morning citing prominent supporters who called it a "partisan sham".
The President furiously sent out 24 tweets in just six hours, writing: "READ THE TRANSCRIPT!" in reference to a non-verbatim record of his conversation with the president of the Ukraine - which sparked the probe. He also tweeted "NEVER TRUMPERS!".
READ THE TRANSCRIPT!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019
'CARES MORE ABOUT BIDEN'
The first witness Wednesday was William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, followed by George Kent, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.
Both have already testified in private that Mr Trump clearly used his power and aid to pressure Mr Zelensky for investigations that would help him in the 2020 vote. Mr Taylor today provided a full account of his staffer overhearing Mr Trump asking about "investigations" in Ukraine.
"Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26," Mr Taylor said.
" While Ambassador Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with (a senior adviser to the Ukrainian president, Mr Yermak).
"Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv.
"The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about 'the investigations.' Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.
"Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.
"At the time I gave my deposition on October 22, I was not aware of this information. I am including it here for completeness. As the Committee knows, I reported this information through counsel to the State Department's Legal Adviser, as well as to counsel for both the Majority and the Minority on the Committee. It is my understanding that the Committee is following up on this matter."
Mr Kent told investigators he "had concerns that there was an effort to initiate politically motivated prosecutions that were injurious to the rule of law, both in Ukraine and the US".
The White House claimed Mr Trump would not tune in to the first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry, even though his public schedule was cleared until noon.
"He's in the Oval in meetings. Not watching. He's working," White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.
Soon after, Mr Trump retweeted a White House video with the caption, "New hoax. Same swamp".
When pressed by reporters about the hearing, Mr Trump said: "It's a witch hunt, it's a hoax. I'm too busy to watch it. I have not been briefed".
"They're using lawyers that are television lawyers," he continued.
Addressing the intelligence committee hearing, the panel's top Republican Devin Nunes assailed the impeachment process as "a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign" that was part of a "scorched-earth war against President Trump".
The investigation threatens to make Mr Trump only the third US president to be impeached, after Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, although to be removed from office he would need to be convicted by the Republican-led Senate.
Neither Mr Johnson or Mr Clinton was convicted and removed. But in 1974 Richard Nixon resigned in the face of certain impeachment and removal from office for the Watergate scandal.
FIERY HEARINGS EXPECTED
Hearings are expected to be fiery as a series of government officials take the stand to testify about Mr Trump's Ukraine machinations during the middle of this year.
Coming just one year before national elections, the hearings carry great risks for both parties and no certain reward, with a divided US electorate weary of Washington infighting.
Polls show a slim majority of Americans favour impeaching the president.
But they also show that Mr Trump's sizeable voter base, which delivered his shock victory in 2016, rejects the allegations. Mr Trump has focused his personal defence on ensuring Republicans in Congress heed their views.
Republicans accuse the soft-spoken and prosecutorial Schiff of an unfair and unconstitutional process.
They have also sought, in closed door depositions over the last six weeks, to refocus attention on Mr Biden's link, through his son, to Ukraine, and on the widely discredited theory Mr Trump apparently believes that Ukraine assisted Democrats in the 2016 election.
But Mr Schiff has said he will not put up with attempts to hijack the hearings and turn them into a political circus.
Democrats have amassed evidence that Mr Trump sought to leverage Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky's desire for a meeting between the two leaders and for some $391 million in aid to get Ukraine to find dirt on Mr Biden, who could face Mr Trump in next year's presidential election.
The key evidence is the official White House transcript of a July 25 phone call showing Mr Trump pressuring Mr Zelensky to open investigations into Biden and the 2016 conspiracy theory.
The White House has refused to hand over other records on Ukraine policy or allow top Mr Trump aides involved in the decision to pressure Zelensky to testify.
'POLITICALLY MOTIVATED PROSECUTIONS'
On Tuesday Mr Trump's chief of staff Mick Mulvaney - who has publicly confirmed the broad outlines of Democrats' allegations - rejected a subpoena to appear before the committee.
On Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine whom Mr Trump removed earlier this year, will testify.
Democrats on Tuesday unveiled the schedule for public testimony next week by eight more witnesses, all of whom previously testified behind closed doors.
- With wires
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