Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified on Wednesday that a staff member recently told him that they overheard a phone conversation between President Trump and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in which the president asked about “the investigations.”
Taylor, who was appearing in the first public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry, said some of his staff were at a restaurant in Ukraine with Sondland when he made a phone call to Trump. The staffer told Taylor they could hear Trump on the phone asking about “the investigations,” he said.
Sondland purportedly replied that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Taylor said. The phone call took place the day after Trump had his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that sparked a whistleblower complaint. The new claim from Taylor would connect Trump more closely to the pursuit of investigations from Ukraine; Taylor clarified that he understood "investigations" to refer to the Biden family.
Republicans, however, noted that Taylor was still not providing first-hand information to the committee.
“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” Taylor said in his opening statement. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump’s personal attorney Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.”
Taylor’s comment was immediately picked up by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., following the ambassador’s statement.
"I think you said that after the call when your staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought of Ukraine, his response was that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, is that right?" Schiff asked.
"And Burisma, yes, sir," Taylor responded, in reference to the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings — where former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, was on the board.
"And I take it the import of that is he cares more about that than he does about Ukraine? Schiff then asked.
"Yes, sir," Taylor said.
Taylor has already testified behind closed doors to congressional investigators that the president pushed Ukraine to investigate election interference, Joe and Hunter Biden, and their Ukraine dealings. The ambassador said that at the time of his closed-door testimony, he was not aware of the information regarding the phone call.
Republicans have been critical of Taylor’s testimony, arguing that the acting ambassador does not have first-hand knowledge of the events in question, pointing out that he was not on the call between Trump and Zelensky that is at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
“Neither of [Schiff 's] witnesses testifying today listened to the original Ukraine call,” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., tweeted. “Both admitted ZERO firsthand knowledge of a ‘quid-pro-quo.’ They have as much inside knowledge about Ukraine call as you and me, since we can all read the transcript.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent also appeared Wednesday. Kent testified behind closed doors last month and told the committees he had concerns about Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma Holdings in 2015 but was rebuffed by the former vice president’s staff, which said the office was preoccupied with Beau Biden’s cancer battle.
At the heart of the impeachment inquiry is Trump's attempt to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens' dealings in the country, and whether that was linked to military aid.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.