Trump impeachment probe goes public as political drama mounts

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U.S. President Donald Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump will reach a critical juncture on Wednesday when lawmakers launch their first televised public hearings, marking a new phase that could determine the fate of his tumultuous presidency.

Democrats leading the U.S. House of Representatives probe have summoned three U.S. diplomats – all of whom have previously expressed alarm in closed-door testimony about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine – to detail their concerns under the glare of wall-to-wall news coverage this week. The public hearings are scheduled for Wednesday and Friday.

With a potential television audience of tens of millions looking on, two witnesses – William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state overseeing European and Eurasian affairs – will testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.

Taylor, a career diplomat and former U.S. Army officer, previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and is now the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Kiev. Kent oversees Ukraine policy at the State Department.

Trump’s fellow Republicans, who will also be able to question the witnesses, have crafted a defense strategy that will argue he did nothing wrong when he asked Ukraine’s new president to investigate prominent Democrat Joe Biden, a former U.S. vice president and key 2020 re-election rival.

This week’s hearings may pave the way for the Democratic-led House to approve articles of impeachment – formal charges – against Trump. That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to convict Trump of those charges and remove him from office. Republicans control the Senate and have shown little support for Trump’s removal.

Both sides are playing to a sharply polarized electorate as they move deeper into a six-week-old investigation that has cast a shadow over Trump’s tumultuous presidency with the threat of being removed from office even as he campaigns for a second term.

It has been two decades since Americans last witnessed impeachment proceedings against a president, and these will be the first of the social media era. Republicans, who then controlled the House, brought impeachment charges against Democratic President Bill Clinton in a scandal involving his sexual relationship with a White House intern. The Senate ultimately voted to keep Clinton in office.

Only two U.S. presidents ever have been impeached and none have been removed through the impeachment process.

For a graphic version of the impeachment inquiry, click: here

FOCUS ON UKRAINE

The focus of the inquiry is on a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open a corruption investigation into Biden and his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Hunter Biden had worked for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.

Democrats are looking into whether Trump abused his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine – a vulnerable U.S. ally facing Russian aggression – as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting investigations politically beneficial to Trump. The money – approved by the U.S. Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country – was later provided to Ukraine.

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