Transcript: The Witnesses: Kent and Taylor

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, The Witnesses: Kent and Taylor.
Image: William Taylor, George Kent
Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, right, and career Foreign Service officer George Kent, left are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2019.Alex Brandon / AP

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

The Witnesses: Kent and Taylor

Adam Schiff: Meeting will come to order. (MUSIC) This is the first in a series of public hearings. With that, I now recognize myself to give an opening statement in the impeachment inquiry into Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States.

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, November 13th. House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff kicked off the new phase of the inquiry today.

Schiff: If you would both rise and raise your right hand, I will begin by swearing you in.

Kornacki: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and Ukraine envoy Bill Taylor appeared for testimony under subpoena. They were sitting at the same table and facing lawmakers.

George Kent: I have served proudly as a nonpartisan career foreign service officer for more than 27 years under five presidents: three Republican and two Democrat.

William Taylor: I want to emphasize at the outset that while I am aware the that committee has requested my testimony as part of impeachment proceedings, I am not here to take one side or the other, or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings.

Kornacki: One of the most surprising moments of today's hearing came an hour and a half in when Ambassador Taylor in his opening statement revealed new information in the inquiry about an aide who overheard President Trump ask EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland on the phone about, quote, "the investigations."

Taylor: At the time I gave my deposition on October 22nd, I was not aware of this information. I am including it here for completeness.

Kornacki: So a bit of bombshell news there, some testy exchanges, and more than five hours of testimony. Today on Article II, we're telling you what you need to know from today's hearings. And with Democrats and Republicans each trying to make their point to voters on impeachment, we're asking: Did they get their messages across?

Geoff Bennett is NBC News White House correspondent. He has been covering this impeachment drama on Capitol Hill. Geoff, you were there all day today for this sort of marathon hearing. Thank you for checking in with us. Just set the scene for us if you could. Historic impeachment hearings opening. What was it like in that hearing room this morning when Chairman Adam Schiff gaveled it to order?

Geoff Bennett: Well, for the 22 members on the House Intelligence Committee, this will certainly be the most important thing they ever do in their careers. And you certainly felt that in the moment. It was only the fourth time in the history of the republic really that this Congress or that a Congress had opened impeachment proceedings against a president.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said time and time again that when Democrats approach this question of impeachment they should be somber, they should be solemn, and that certainly came across in the way Adam Schiff opened up the proceedings and then delivered his opening statement.

Schiff: Must we simply get over it? Is this what Americans should now expect from their President? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?

Kornacki: Kent and Taylor, they then gave opening statements. What did they say in those opening statements?

Bennett: Kent's opening statement really spoke to his long, storied career. He talked about why the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship was so important, how 30 years of U.S. public policy was all about making sure that Ukraine was strong and successful.

Kent: Ukraine's success is very much in our national interest in the way we have defined our national interests broadly in Europe for the past 75 years.

Bennett: He also talked about how, you know, he was on the front lines of diplomacy. And he also spoke to the importance that this new Ukrainian government had placed on American support.

Kent: I am grateful to all the members of Congress and staffers, including many of you sitting here today, who have traveled to Ukraine over the past five years and appropriated billions of dollars of assistance in support of our primary policy goals. Those funds increase Ukraine's ability to fight Russian aggression in the defense, energy, cyber, and information spheres, and they also empower state institutions and civil society to undertake systemic reforms and tackle corruption.

Bennett: And that was important because that was the thing that President Trump had withheld, this all-important aid to Ukraine. And then Bill Taylor said much of the same thing, in the sense that he, you know, reiterated what we had learned from his private testimony, as evident in the transcript that came out.

And he also spoke to two things: 1) this irregular backchannel that existed and that was run by Rudy Giuliani, by Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker, and Rick Perry (the Energy secretary) as they sought to force the Ukrainians to open these investigations that would have been politically beneficial to President Trump. And then he also laid out what is this now quid pro quo.

Taylor: Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling Ukrainian officials that only a White House meeting with President Zelenskiy was dependent on a public announcement of the investigations. In fact, Ambassador Sondland said everything was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance.

Bennett: He says the delivery of the military aid, the offer of this White House meeting was explicitly linked to the Ukrainians opening these investigations.

Kornacki: Taylor in his opening statement made a little bit of news. He revealed information that he said he had not known when he testified behind closed doors. What was it that he told the committee this morning?

Bennett: Well, he testified about what had been a previously undisclosed exchange between President Trump and Gordon Sondland. And this happened on July 26th, he says. This is the day after the Trump-Zelenskiy call.

Taylor: The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations. Ambassador Sondland told President Trump 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.

Bennett: That staffer is actually going to be deposed on Friday after the hearing with Marie Yovanovitch. So House investigators will get a better sense of precisely what happened on that phone call and what, if anything, it means for their overall impeachment inquiry.

Kornacki: And after Taylor and Kent gave those opening statements, there were then 45 minutes where one person, the lawyer for the Democrats, Daniel Goldman, he got 45 minutes to interview Kent and Taylor uninterrupted. How did he use that time?

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Bennett: Well, he used it to basically bring about and to shed light on this quid pro quo. Democrats intentionally did not use that phrase today. They're trying to move away from the Latin and use words that regular people understand. So "extortion" and "bribery scheme."

Daniel Goldman: Now, just to summarize what we've just read in this July 25th call between the presidents, the Ukrainian president thanked President Trump for security assistance that President Trump had just frozen, to which President Trump responded that he wanted President Zelenskiy to do him a favor though by investigating the 2016 U.S. election and the Bidens. And President Zelenskiy says that he will pursue these investigations right after he mentions the White House visit. Is that your understanding, Ambassador Taylor, of what we just read?

Taylor: Yes.

Goldman: And, Mr. Kent, is that yours?

Kent: Yes.

Bennett: And so one of the things that came forward in Goldman's inquiry, his questioning of Taylor, was that there all of these instances where Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador who President Trump had deputized to run this pressure campaign or at least be involved in it, had said that, "Oh, there is no quid pro quo," yet Sondland would telegraph that there in fact was, suggesting that there would be a stalemate if the Ukrainians didn't open the investigations or saying that President Trump as a businessman had an expectation that people would pay up before any sort of aid or money would be delivered.

Kornacki: So then later on in the day, every Democratic member of the committee got a chance at the witnesses to this open question round, five minutes for each member. So when the rest of the Democrats on the committee got to ask questions, what approach did they take? What was the tone they were setting there?

Bennett: I think they were on the same page and they were deeply respectful. It came forward in the testimony that both men really had a career of public service, working in hot spots all around the world. And that was the other thing that came forward in some of the Democrats' questioning, was that this issue of withholding aid to Ukraine, it wasn't just that there was this casual conversation between Presidents Trump and Zelenskiy; and he, like any world leader, Zelenskiy would want some assistance from (SIC) Ukraine.

Both men made the point that what is in the best interests of Ukraine, that the success and the security of Ukraine is in the direct interest, the national security interests of this country, and that to undermine that you undermine national security and basically you're working in the service of Russian interests.

Eric Swalwell: You described in your text message exchanges that engaging in a scheme like this is, quote, "crazy." Can we also agree that it's just wrong?

Taylor: Yes.

Swalwell: Why is it wrong?

Taylor: Again, our holding up of security assistance that would go to a country that is fighting aggression from Russia for no good policy reason, no good substantive reason, no good national security reason is wrong.

Kornacki: So that's where the Democrats went in terms of their questioning, in terms of what message they were trying to push. Let's talk about the Republicans here. Before there were even opening statements, before the Republican ranking member even gave an opening statement, first, there was as bit of a back-and-forth involving Elise Stefanik, Republican from New York, a back-and-forth with her and Schiff, the chairman, over this issue of the identity of the whistleblower. What was Stefanik and what were Republicans trying to achieve there?

Bennett: At 10:06, Adam Schiff gaveled in the hearing. And at 10:07, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York interrupted with a procedural motion.

Elise Stefanik: Mr. Chairman, will you be prohibiting witnesses from answering members' questions as you have in the closed door depositions?

Schiff: As the gentlewoman should know, if she was present for the depositions.

Stefanik: Which I was, Mr. Chairman.

Schiff: For some of them, yes.

Stefanik: Correct.

Schiff: The only times I prevented witnesses from answering questions, along with their counsel, was when it was apparent that members were seeking to out the whistleblower. We will do everything necessary to protect the whistleblower's identity, and I'm disturbed to hear members of the committee who have in the past voiced strong support for whistleblower protections seek to undermine those protections by outing the whistleblower.

Bennett: And one of the things that that was aimed at doing was to get Adam Schiff off kilter. But Democrats, I'm told, had been in practice sessions for the last week or so, and they prepared for Republican interruptions. They had prepared for Republicans to try to introduce the name of the whistleblower into the proceedings. For the most part, Democrats stayed on track with their line of questioning and the kind of inquiry they wanted to focus on.

Kornacki: Devin Nunes, ranking Republican member of the committee, it seemed to me the decision he made there was to talk about this idea of, "Hey, look. Ukraine interfered on behalf of Hillary Clinton in 2016," to go down that road. That was the emphasis there in the opening statement. What did that tell you? What did that suggest to you?

Bennett: Well, that was one of the many debunked conspiracy theories that Devin Nunes introduced in his opening statement. And, again, I think it spoke to this Republican strategy of sowing doubt and confusion. And they tried to suggest that President Trump, he was right to be concerned about corruption in Ukraine, he was right to think that Ukraine was out to get him because they were, according to this conspiracy theory.

Devin Nunes: Now, they accuse President Trump of malfeasance in Ukraine, when they themselves are culpable. The Democrats cooperated in Ukrainian election meddling, and they defend Hunter Biden's securing of a lavishly paid position with a corrupt Ukrainian company.

Bennett: But this notion that President Trump was trying to root out corruption in Ukraine, that talking point is so easily dismantled when you consider that instead of focusing on the whole of corruption in that country, he was only focused on Burisma. He was only focused on Joe Biden. He was only focused on Hunter Biden. And it suggests that he was doing that because he wanted the Ukrainians, again, to open investigations and to do something that would be politically beneficial for him. And that goes to the heart of the Democratic case.

Kornacki: And, again, so Nunes gave the opening statement. He focused on this issue of Ukraine and 2016. Then he turned it over to Steve Castor. So the Republicans had their own lawyer, who also got 45 minutes. And Castor also went down pretty much the same road that Nunes had. Did he achieve anything? Was it surprising that that was the approach he took?

Bennett: I think his approach was surprising in this way: Republicans rallied around President Trump today to be sure, but they did not give him the defense that President Trump wanted. President Trump wanted Republicans to defend him on the merits. And instead, Republicans didn't necessarily try to prove his innocence.

What they said was that what he did was inappropriate but it wasn't impeachable. And Republicans have floated that talking point before, and President Trump tweeted, "That is a trap. You'd be a fool if you fell for that trap. My call was perfect. What I did was fine."

There was a point today during which Castor had a back-and-forth with Ambassador Bill Taylor and Taylor spoke of this irregular backchannel that Rudy Giuliani, Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker, and Rick Perry were a part of. And Castor came back to him and said, "Well, that irregular backchannel was irregular but not outlandish."

Steve Castor: Now, Ambassador Taylor, I want to turn to the discussion of the irregular channel you described. And in fairness, this irregular channel of diplomacy, it's not as outlandish as it could be. Is that correct?

Taylor: It's not as outlandish as it could be. I agree, Mr. Castor.

Bennett: And so what that meant was is that you had the Republican counsel and Republican members on the panel basically accepting the underlying premise, basically accepting the theory of the Democratic case, but their point was: "It was bad, but what the President did wasn't that bad."

Kornacki: Well, it seemed after Nunes and then after Castor, the lawyer for the Republicans, went, again, that open question period there where each member got five minutes, Jim Jordan from Ohio, who was added to this committee by Republican leadership at the last minute for the purpose of being here for these hearings, he had five minutes. He had a couple five-minute shots because some of the members deferred to him.

Jim Jordan: Now, with all due respect, Ambassador, your clear understanding was obviously wrong, because it didn't happen. President Zelenskiy didn't announce he was going to investigate Burisma or the Bidens. So three face-to-face meetings, it doesn't come up. No linkage whatsoever. President Zelenskiy doesn't announce it before the aid is released on the 11th. And yet you said you have a clear understanding that those two things were gonna happen.

Bennett: Right. And, again, that's a Republican point that is easily dismantled. Why was the aid ultimately released? Because the scheme was revealed, because the whistleblower blew the whistle. We have reporting, and this is borne out in the testimony, too, that President Zelenskiy was planning to give an interview to CNN, to CNN's Fareed Zakaria, where he was going to make that announcement about these investigations into the Bidens that President Trump wanted.

But word of the withheld aid had leaked by way of a Politico report to Congress, Congress was in an uproar, the Trump administration released the aid, and Zelenskiy canceled the interview. You have to wonder where Republicans go from there. They might not really go anywhere because there was certainly an asymmetry here today where you had Democrats, you know, pushing the theory of the case based on evidence and facts and then you had Republicans on the other hand really dipping into conspiracy theories and floating these talking points, again, that didn't have any real basis in the tapestry of testimony and evidence.

And when I say that, I realize that we live in an era in which the President has cast the pursuit of truth as a partisan enterprise. And so saying things that are steeped in my own reporting and my own just knowledge of how this whole thing has worked because I've been so close to it for three months, it sounds as if I'm editorializing. It sounds as if I'm being partisan. But it really is not. It's a reflection of the now 15 witnesses who have provided 112 hours of testimony, our reporting based on that testimony, and then the 11 transcripts that we've read so far.

Kornacki: As this wraps up for the day, what is your sense of each party's mood afterwards? Do Democrats feel they achieved a breakthrough here that might change public opinion in some way? Do Republicans feel they achieved something politically today?

Bennett: I talked to a number of Democrats after the hearing wrapped up, and they do feel as if the American people only tuned in for the first hour or two of this hearing, and for the most part I think that will cover most people. Most people did not watch the entirety of the hearing.

Most people will hear about it on this podcast. They'll see it on nightly news. They'll see it on MSNBC. And Democrats feel as if for the most part the facts that came forward from these two fact witnesses, mind you, they feel like that really buttresses the case that Democrats are making for impeachment.

And they have sequenced, Democrats have, they've sequenced the hearings so that it tells the story. Every good story has a strong beginning, middle, and end. Democrats hope by next Thursday when we expect at this point that the public hearings will wrap up that they will have fully made what they hope will be an ironclad case for impeachment. It'll ultimately be up to the American people to make a choice about impeachment, and that will be reflected in the votes that members of Congress take.

Kornacki: Final question. The President himself, he was meeting today with the Turkish president, Erdogan. Any sense if he watched any of the hearings? Any reaction coming out from him? And any reaction coming out from folks around him in the White House?

Bennett: Well, the White House press secretary today said that President Trump wouldn't be watching the proceedings, as if he couldn't be bothered to watch it. But he was actually retweeting video of it today. And in that Q&A with Turkish President Erdogan he said that he watched some of it, but then he referred to it as he has in the past, calling it a witch hunt, a partisan enterprise, suggesting that, again, he says, that the call was perfect.

Interestingly enough, he's the only one who says that. I have not talked to a Republican yet who says that the call in question was perfect. As we talked about before, there's a lotta caveating around that. Generally, Republicans say it was inappropriate, his behavior, but that it wasn't impeachable. But they are not backing him up entirely on the merits, as he would hope that they would.

Kornacki: NBC News White House correspondent Geoff Bennett covering the impeachment hearings. Thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Bennett: Yeah, sure thing. Take care. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: Open testimony will resume on Friday with the former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. And the closed-door hearings aren't over yet. Lawmakers added David Holmes to the schedule for Friday. Remember, Holmes is Ambassador Taylor's staffer who overheard that conversation where President Trump asked Gordon Sondland about the, quote, "investigations." Eight more people are scheduled for open testimony for next week, including Ambassador Sondland.

Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, Aaron Dalton, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Friday.