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Career Foreign Service officer George Kent and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, right, are sworn in to testify during the first public impeachment hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday Nov. 13, 2019 in Washington.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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Takeaways from first day of public impeachment hearings

Day One: revelations, hearsay, redirections, redefinitions

Wednesday’s start of public impeachment hearings in Congress marked the first time that the American public could watch and listen to the witnesses whose testimony is at the core of the Democrats’ investigation.

In several hours of testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, punctuated by occasional bickering among lawmakers, some memorable moments emerged.

Some key takeaways from the first public witnesses, George Kent and William Taylor:

Hearings like this one can be scripted affairs. But there was an early surprise.

Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, revealed for the first time that his staff members overheard President Donald Trump speaking on the phone to another diplomat about investigations.

Taylor said some of his staff members were at a restaurant with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, the day after the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Sondland used his cellphone to call Trump from the restaurant, and the staff members could hear Trump on the phone asking about “the investigations.” Taylor took that to mean investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, and the Burisma Group, the Ukrainian firm that had hired Hunter Biden as a director in 2014, he told lawmakers.

The impeachment inquiry in many respects is about controlling the narrative. On Wednesday, Democrats seemed to start to frame Trump’s actions as possible “bribery” and “extortion” rather than emphasizing a “quid pro quo.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, introduced the notion of bribery when he criticized the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, for saying that people concerned about Trump’s requests that Ukraine do political investigations should “get over it,” and that there is political influence in all foreign policy.

If the investigation finds that Trump “sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection 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?’’ Schiff asked.

A Democratic staff lawyer, Daniel Goldman, also talked of possible “extortion and bribery” — a gradual change in wording that could preview Democrats’ approach going forward.

Later, Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, questioned the witnesses about the idea of bribery and noted that merely attempting the act could be considered a crime.

Republicans dismissed the testimony of the witnesses as mere “hearsay.” They said the witnesses didn’t provide firsthand knowledge of suspected back-door dealings on Ukraine and did not speak directly with Trump.

Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, suggested that Taylor’s understanding was basically a bad game of telephone, in which one person tells a second person something and that second person tells a third person, and so on.

“We’ve got six people having four conversations in one sentence, and this is where you told me you got your clear understanding,” Jordan said.

Taylor and Kent believed their understanding of the phone calls, security aid and other issues were sound, gathered from their own knowledge and conversations with trusted staff.

And Democrats had another argument for Republicans: Trump could clear up the ambiguity by allowing those with firsthand knowledge to testify, such as Mulvaney, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and former national security adviser John Bolton.

The hearing also had elements of misdirection. Names familiar during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but not particularly relevant to the impeachment inquiry, received attention during questioning from some GOP lawmakers and the lawyer who was representing their interests.

There was a reference by Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican, to the “Steele dossier” — a compilation of opposition research against candidate Trump compiled by a former British spy during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Also invoked were discredited allegations that Ukraine interfered in the most recent presidential election. Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman who did lucrative political consulting work in Ukraine, was cited, too. Manafort was sentenced to more than seven years in prison, in part for financial crimes arising from his Ukraine work.

Taylor is a Vietnam War veteran and West Point graduate. Kent is a career foreign service officer whose family has served the country for generations.

Both referenced serving under presidents of both parties, aiming to preempt Republican attacks on them as political partisans. That didn’t stop Nunes from deriding them as being part of a smear campaign from within the civil service.

Taylor capped his opening statement with an ode to how Americans feel in their best moments about their country: “less concerned about what language we speak, what religion if any we practice, where our parents and grandparents came from; more concerned about building a new country.”

Kent singled out by first name other impeachment-related witnesses who were born abroad, likening them to 20th-century national security policy: Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, both immigrants.

“They all made the professional choice to serve the United States as public officials, helping shape our national security policy, towards Russia in particular. And we and our national security are the better for it,” Kent said.

Giuliani’s role, allegedly as Trump’s point person on the ground in Ukraine, was denounced as not in United States interests, when Taylor and Kent were questioned by Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings, Florida’s only member of the Intelligence Committee.

“I believe he was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival in the next election cycle,” Kent said.

“I agree with Mr. Kent,” Taylor added.

Scott Powers of the Florida Politics staff contributed to this report.

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