During more than 5 1/2 hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Democrats found two witnesses who came across as experts in their field, looking and sounding as if they knew far more about the subject matter than any member of the committee on either side of the dais.
Kent sported a bow tie, with a three-piece suit, while Taylor wore a traditional dark power suit that was amplified with a booming voice that some TV viewers likened to America’s most famous 20th-century newsman, the late Walter Cronkite.
They aren’t household names and lacked the blockbuster revelations — there was no disclosure of secret White House tapes, like there was during the Watergate hearings in 1973 — but Taylor and Kent brought to life the story that Democrats have been telling only in bits and pieces.
Even Trump’s staunchest allies vouched for their character when the testimony concluded.
“They’re credible public servants,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who watched the hearing in a seat behind the media, told reporters afterward.
He quickly suggested they lacked credibility because they never spoke directly to Trump or to other senior White House officials, dismissing their story as hearsay evidence as most GOP members of the committee had done. Meadows even belittled their testimony as a bit boring.
“More people were yawning than applauding,” Meadows said.
But Democrats saw these witnesses, the first public testimony in what will be a few weeks of open hearings, as laying the foundation to impeach Trump over his intervention into Ukrainian affairs. Taylor and Kent testified that Trump pressuring Ukrainian officials to launch investigations into Democratic rivals violated their understanding of diplomatic norms and that his personal intervention in delaying nearly $400 million in security aid violated several decades of bipartisan foreign policy.
That their testimony came across a bit dry at times reinforced what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called “a prayerful day for all of us” in a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting before Wednesday’s hearing started, according to the notes of a Democrat in the room. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting.
“You exemplify so many courageous men and women who serve in the diplomatic corps, who’ve served in our military, who represent the United States so well around the world,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said as the hearing wrapped up.
From their opening statements, the diplomats tried to set the tone by each outlining their long tenures in public service and their family’s history in the military, giving them an extra amount of heft before a 22-memeber committee in which only three lawmakers served in the military and another in the CIA before coming to Congress.
Five of Kent’s great uncles served in the Navy and Army during World War II, including one who survived the Bataan Death March only to end up spending three years in Japanese prisoner of war camps.
“Indeed, there has been a George Kent sworn to defend the Constitution continuously for nearly 60 years, ever since my father reported to Annapolis for his plebe summer,” Kent said.
Taylor outlined more than 50 years of service, starting as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy and then as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He worked at the Department of Energy, on the Senate staff, and at NATO, before joining the State Department for stints that included a previous tenure as ambassador to Ukraine.
“I am nonpartisan and have been appointed to my positions by every president from President Reagan to President Trump,” Taylor said in opening his testimony.
Taylor brought with him one piece of new information, revealing that one of his aides in Kyiv just told him about a phone conversation July 26 between Trump and the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland.
That came the day after Trump’s now-famous call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in which, according to a partial transcript released by the White House, the president asked Zelensky to “do us a favor” to conduct investigations into his political rivals.
On that call, Taylor’s aide could hear the president’s voice, and afterward the aide inquired about Trump’s views of Ukraine.
“President Trump cares more about the investigations,” Sondland replied, according to Taylor’s testimony Wednesday.
Republicans tried at times to knock the diplomats off their position or at least to demean their testimony as third-hand whispers about what the president might have thought. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), newly installed to the panel for his bulldog style, lived up to that reputation with a rapid-fire style of questions that few people in attendance could follow, let alone the witnesses.
In one exchange Jordan sent a copy of Sondland’s testimony to Taylor and started rattling off questions before Taylor finally interjected: “Mr. Jordan, should I read this?”
Jordan explained that he would read it and then ask questions. “Oh, very good, very good,” Taylor responded.
When he slowed down, Jordan made the GOP’s strongest point of the day by focusing on the facts that Zelensky never publicly stated that he would investigate Burisma, the energy company that placed former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter on its board in 2014, and that by Sept. 11 the security aid was released to Kyiv.
“Your clear understanding was obviously wrong because it didn’t happen. President Zelensky didn’t announce he was going to investigate Burisma or the Bidens,” Jordan said.
When Democrats pushed too far, Taylor and Kent pushed back, diplomatically.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) raised concerns that the “irregular channels” of Ukraine diplomacy that the diplomats derided in their testimony might be happening in other corners of the State Department.
“I’ve not heard of any other separate channel that has this kind of influence,” Taylor said.
“I have no basis to make a determination,” Kent replied.
That might not have been dramatic, but most Democrats came away pleased with their overall demeanor.
“I appreciate how you endeavor to stay out of the fray, to relate what you heard, what you saw without additional commentary,” Schiff said. “That is as it should be.”