Diplomats accuse Trump as impeachment hits Americans’ TVs

George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, testify in a House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearing into President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 13, 2019. (REUTERS/Erin Scott)
Updated 14 November 2019

Diplomats accuse Trump as impeachment hits Americans’ TVs

WASHINGTON: For the first time, the Democrats’ case for President Donald Trump’s impeachment streamed from Americans’ TVs Wednesday, including a new contention that he was overheard asking about political “investigations” that he demanded from Ukraine in trade for military aid.
On Day One of extraordinary public US House hearings — only the fourth formal impeachment effort in US history — career diplomats testified in the open after weeks of closed-door interviews aimed at removing the nation’s 45th president.
The account they delivered was a striking though complicated one that Democrats say reveals a president abusing his office, and the power of American foreign policy, for personal political gain.
“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, as he opened the daylong hearing. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself.”
Career diplomat William Taylor, the charge d’affaires in Kyiv, offered new testimony that Trump was overheard asking on the phone about “the investigations” of Democrats that he wanted Ukraine to pursue that are central to the impeachment inquiry.
Trump said he was too busy to watch on Wednesday and denied having the phone call. “First I’ve heard of it,” he said when asked.
All day, the diplomats testified about how an ambassador was fired, the new Ukraine government was confused and they discovered an “irregular channel” — a shadow US foreign policy orchestrated by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that raised alarms in diplomatic and national security circles.
The hearing, playing out on live television and in the partisan silos of social media, provided the nation and the world a close-up look at the investigation.
At its core, the inquiry stems from Trump’s July 25 phone call when he asked Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for “a favor.”
Trump wanted the Ukraine government to investigate Democrats’ activities in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden — all while the administration was withholding military aid for the Eastern European ally that is confronting an aggressive neighbor, Russia.






A text exchange between US Ambassador Bill Taylor (Ukraine) and Gordon Sondland (EU) shows on a screen as Taylor (R) testifies on the Trump impeachment inquiry in Washington on Nov. 13, 2019. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)


Both sides tried to distill it into soundbites.
Democrats said Trump was engaged in “bribery” and “extortion.” Republicans said nothing really happened — the military aid was ultimately released after Congress complained.
Trump restated his aggressive defense with rapid-fire tweets, a video from the Rose Garden and a dismissive retort from the Oval Office as he met with another foreign leader.
“It’s a witch hunt. It’s a hoax,” he said as he appeared with visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by his side.
Across the country, millions of Americans were tuning in — or, in some cases, deliberately tuning out.
Viewers on the right and left thought the day underscored their feelings. Anthony Harris, cutting hair in Savannah, Georgia, had the hearing on in his shop, but he said, “It’s gotten to the point now where people are even tired of listening.”
The hours of partisan back-and-forth did not appear to leave a singular moment etched in the public consciousness the way the Watergate proceedings or Bill Clinton’s impeachment did generations ago.
“No real surprises, no bombshells,” said committee member Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.
Still, the session unspooled at least partly the way Democrats wanted with the somber tones of career foreign service officers telling what they knew. They sounded credible.
The witnesses, the graying Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent in his bow tie, defied White House instructions not to appear. Both received subpoenas.
They are among a dozen current and former officials who already testified behind closed doors. Wednesday was the start of days of public hearings that will stretch into next week.
Taylor, who was asked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to return to Ukraine as Trump was firing Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, introduced new information Wednesday.
He testified that a staff member recently told him of overhearing Trump when they were meeting with another diplomat, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call to the Ukraine president that sparked the impeachment investigation.
The staff member explained that Sondland had called the president and they could hear Trump on the phone asking about “the investigations.” The ambassador told the president the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Taylor testified.
In the face of Trump’s denial, Schiff expects the person to appear before investigators for a closed-door deposition. He is David Holmes, the political counselor at the embassy in Kyiv, according to an official unauthorized to discuss the matter and granted anonymity.
Republicans argued that even with the diplomats at the witness table the Democrats have only second- or third-hand knowledge of Trump’s alleged transgressions.
A Trump ally on the panel, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, mockingly called Taylor the Democrats’ “star witness” and said he’d “seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.”
Taylor, a West Point graduate and former Army infantry officer in Vietnam, responded: “I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything.”
The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said Trump had a “perfectly good reason” for wanting to investigate the role of Democrats in 2016 election interference, giving airtime to a theory that runs counter to mainstream US intelligence which found that Russia intervened and favored Trump.
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.
The veteran foreign service officers delivered heartfelt history lessons about Ukraine, a young and hopeful democracy, situated next to Russia but reaching out to the West.
Asked about Trump’s withholding military aid from such an ally, Taylor said, “It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”
Both men defended Yovanovitch, a career officer who Kent has said was subject to Giuliani’s “campaign of lies.” She is to testify publicly Friday.
Kent, in his opening remarks, directly contradicted a core complaint against Joe Biden being raised by allies of the White House. While he said he himself raised concerns in 2015 about the vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, being on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine gas company, he “did not witness any efforts by any US official to shield Burisma from scrutiny.”
Republicans sought to hear from the anonymous whistleblower by subpoenaing him for a closed-session. The panel voted down the request and Schiff and repeatedly denied the GOP claim that he knows the person.
“We will do everything necessary to protect the whistleblower’s identity,” Schiff declared.
The Constitution sets a dramatic but vague bar for impeachment, There’s no consensus yet that Trump’s actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to concerns about the Trump phone call with Zelenskiy. The White House released a rough transcript of the telephone conversation, with portions deleted.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. But she pressed ahead after the whistleblower’s complaint. She said Wednesday it was sad that the country has to undergo the inquiry with Trump, but “he will be held accountable.”


America’s influence, once so dominant, waning under Trump

Updated 09 December 2019

America’s influence, once so dominant, waning under Trump

  • Trump insists abandoning globalism for bilateral ties more beneficial to the US
  • Once-close allies including France, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have quietly edged away from Washington over the past three years

It’s whispered in NATO meeting rooms and celebrated in China’s halls of power. It’s lamented in the capital cities of key US allies and welcomed in the Kremlin.
Three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, America’s global influence is waning. In interviews with The Associated Press, diplomats, foreign officials, and scholars from numerous countries describe a changing world order in which the United States has less of a central role.
And in many ways, that’s just fine with the White House. Trump campaigned on an “America First” foreign policy and says the strong United States will mean a stronger world.
“The future doesn’t belong to globalists,” Trump told the UN General Assembly in September. “The future belongs to patriots.”
Trump insists he’s abandoning globalism for bilateral ties more beneficial to the US.
But there’s little sign of that.
Instead, once-close allies — France, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mexico, Turkey, Germany and more — have quietly edged away from Washington over the past three years.
Sometimes it’s not so quiet.
In a Buckingham Palace reception room during the recent NATO summit, a TV camera caught a cluster of European leaders grinning as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to mock Trump.
“You just watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” Trudeau said, apparently speaking about his meeting with Trump, talking to a group that included the leaders of France, Britain and the Netherlands.
Trudeau quickly tried to walk back his words, telling reporters that he and Trump have a “good and constructive relationship.” But the footage brought into the open the increasing divide between the United States and its allies.
This is a major change. For generations, America saw itself as the center of the world. For better or worse, most of the rest of the world has regarded the US as its colossus — respecting it, fearing it, turning to it for answers.
“We are America,” said Madeleine Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration. “We are the indispensable nation.”
To be sure, America is still a global superpower. But now, the country’s waning influence is profoundly redrawing the geopolitical map, opening the way for Washington’s two most powerful foes — Russia and China — to extend their reach into many countries where they had long been seen with suspicion.
Because of those longtime friends of Washington? Many are now looking elsewhere for alliances. Very often, they look to China or Russia.
In Islamabad, for example, where the US was once seen as the only game in town, Pakistan’s government now gets military aid and training from Russia and billions of dollars in investment and loans from China. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is nurturing closer ties to Beijing despite his nervousness over its expansionism in the South China Sea. In Egypt, long one of America’s closest Middle Eastern allies, Cairo now lets Russian military planes use its bases and the two countries recently held joint air force exercises. In Ukraine, which has looked to US military aid for years to try to keep an expansionist Russia in check, Trump’s questionable loyalty is seen as creating a dangerous vacuum.
“Once the US role in Europe weakens, Russia’s influence inevitably grows,” Vadim Karasev, head of the Kyiv-based Institute of Global Strategies said.
Or there’s France, whose friendship with America goes back to the days of George Washington. Perhaps more than any other Western leader, French President Emmanuel Macron has made clear that Europe should look to Beijing, not Washington, when it comes to addressing global issues from trade wars to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Macron’s recent trip to China was choreographed in part to convey that the European Union has little faith in Washington anymore.
Europe is on “the edge of a precipice,” Macron told The Economist magazine in a recent interview. “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” he said, a reference to the announced US withdrawal from northern Syria.
Perhaps no US ally is more worried than the Kurds, America’s longtime battlefield allies. They bore the brunt of the combat as the Daesh group was driven from the territory it held across a swath of Iraq and Syria.
“Betrayal process is officially complete,” a Kurdish official said in a WhatsApp message sent to journalists after Trump’s defense secretary announced US troops would fully withdraw from northeastern Syria. That pullout paved the way for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters and signaled to the world that the US may no longer be as reliable as it once was.
The Kurds weren’t taken completely by surprise. Kurdish officials had been holding back-channel talks with Syria and Russia for more than a year before the announcement. The Kurds feared they would be abandoned by Washington.
China has been delighted by what it sees as the voluntary abdication of US leadership, particularly on free trade and climate change.
Trump’s pullout from the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, opened the way for Beijing to push ahead with its own alternative free-trade agreement.
Meanwhile, China has gone from being a climate change curmudgeon to sometimes reaping praise as a global leader on the issue.
The White House’s National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment about this story.
Trump insists he is not pulling the US off the world stage. He cites partnerships with other nations to fight terrorism and his administration highlights a recent high-profile raid in Syria that killed the leader of the Daesh group.
Trump has successfully coaxed NATO allies to spend billions more on their own defense to lessen the burden on the US He complains that America should not be the world’s policeman or its piggy bank, and needs to get out of what he calls “endless wars.”
Some former administration officials have cited Trump’s business background to describe him as having a “transactional” approach to foreign policy. He has pulled out of multilateral agreements, such as the Iran nuclear deal, yet he needs international support to pressure Tehran for its regional aggression and nuclear program. He gets credit for opening dialogues with the Afghan Taliban and North Korea, although efforts to end America’s longest war and get Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons have so far been unsuccessful.
He also has set about negotiating bilateral trade agreements with many countries because he says deals made by previous administrations were unfair to the US He had success with South Korea, yet has not yet sealed a deal with China.
In some ways, Washington’s declining influence is simply a reflection of history: America is no longer the singular economic and military giant that overshadowed nearly every other nation.
In 1945, America had the world’s only nuclear weapons and produced roughly half the world’s gross domestic product. Today, the US has perhaps 15 percent of global GDP and even North Korea has nuclear weapons. Other countries have grown immensely. China, once a poverty-battered behemoth, has become a financial giant and an emerging superpower. Countries from Brazil to India to South Korea have become serious regional powers.
But if history plays a role, the diplomatic shifts of the Trump years are more about a White House unapologetically focused on the US
Globalism was once one of Washington’s few unifying themes. Now, it’s an insult in the capital, and the US gets more attention for rejecting multilateral agreements, from Trump pulling out of the Asia-Pacific deal to his rejection of the Paris climate accords. The president has hosted only two state dinners and has repeatedly sought to slash the State Department budget.
Trump insists talk of American decline is nonsense.
“The Fake News Media is doing everything possible to belittle my VERY successful trip to London for NATO,” Trump tweeted after the summit, adding that there was “only deep respect” for the United States.
America still has enormous power.
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey done across 25 countries found that only 25 percent of people believed the US plays a less important role now than it did a decade ago.
Another of the survey’s findings: People in nearly every country said they preferred a world order led by the United States.