PLATTSBURGH — Following the first public hearing in the House impeachment inquiry, North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, like her Republican colleagues, argued that witnesses put forth hearsay testimony and that no crime was actually committed by President Donald Trump.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent and acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor testified before the House Intelligence Committee Wednesday.
"Both of the witnesses have long lives of public service and have served this country honorably," Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) told the Press-Republican Thursday.
"But the fact of the matter is neither of those witnesses had ever met with President Trump, had ever spoken with President Trump."
At the center of the inquiry is a whistleblower complaint that called into question whether, during a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump conditioned the release of hundreds of millions in military aid in exchange for investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
"One of the most important questions that was asked by one of my colleagues John Ratcliffe was, 'Do you know of any impeachable offenses?' and there was a resounding silence," Stefanik said.
That was true for a few seconds, but after that brief pause Taylor went to reply.
Ratcliffe cut him off, saying he only had one minute left of questioning.
Following the short back-and-forth, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-California) intervened to suspend the clock and allow Taylor to answer the question.
“Mr. Ratcliffe, I would just like to say that I’m not here . . . to decide about impeachment," Taylor said.
"That is not what either of us are here to do. This is your job."
During his opening statement, Taylor shared some new information not included in his original closed-door deposition.
He told the committee that, last week, one of his staff members told him he had overheard a phone call between U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Trump on July 26.
When the staff member asked Sondland about the president's thoughts on Ukraine following the call, the ambassador "responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which (Trump's personal attorney Rudy) Giuliani was pressing for," Taylor said.
Stefanik said she does not believe this information amounts to strong evidence.
"I care about firsthand evidence. We heard ... third-hand, fourth-hand, fifth-hand hearsay," she said.
"In the court of public opinion and also as a legislator, I want to know firsthand about ... this information."
The staffer, David Holmes, is scheduled to come in for closed-door depositions Friday.
'NO CRIME COMMITTED'
During his five minutes of questioning, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) asked the two witnesses whether attempted murder and robbery are crimes, to which Taylor responded yes.
He stated, "I don't know," when Castro asked him the same of attempted extortion and bribery.
"The most important facts are aid was provided to Ukraine — in fact there was more aid provided to Ukraine than under the Obama administration," Stefanik said.
"The second fact is there was no crime committed here."
The funds were released on Sept. 11, several weeks after the phone call between Trump and Zelensky.
Stefanik did not respond yes or no when asked whether it would have constituted a high crime if the aid had not been given to Ukraine.
"The aid was given!" she exclaimed.
"First of all, the president is the decision-maker, ... as commander-in-chief, when it comes to our foreign policy and the fact of the matter is the aid was delivered to Ukraine."
Stefanik pointed to Ukraine's history of corruption, and said the law requires a focus on anti-corruption efforts in order for the country to get the aid.
"Again, we don’t want to be sending taxpayer’s hard-earned dollars to countries where there ... is not enough of an effort on corruption."
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Schiff is the only member who knows the whistleblower's identity, which Schiff said is false.
Stefanik did not say one way or the other whether she believed Schiff is lying about that point, but asserted that he is refusing to be questioned by the committee because the whistleblower reached out to him and his staff prior to making a complaint.
"The good news is ... he’s going to have to answer questions from the Republican Senate," she said.
"He’s not going to be able to pick and choose by the time this gets to the Senate."
Though Schiff cautioned Taylor against assumption of "facts not in evidence" from both the minority and the majority when he interjected during Minority Counsel Steve Castor's line of questioning, Stefanik contends Schiff has only interrupted Republican questions.
"There were many leading questions," she said.
"If it was in a courtroom, there would have been many objections."
This interruption occurred within 20 minutes of the start of Republican questions, she continued.
"The constituents that I am hearing from are flabbergasted at how Chairman Schiff has conducted himself and how partisan and how this has been a blatant abuse of power."
Stefanik did not come up with what she sees as the strongest points for the Democrats' case when asked.
"I think every member should actively listen to all the testimony, should read all the depositions, which I have done, and make their decision based upon the facts, not make their decision based upon wishful political thinking," she said.
The congresswoman reiterated a point she has made before that impeachment should not be a political buzzword or "last resort when a party loses an election.
"You have to respect the will of the American people.
"We are less than a year away from the presidential election and people are going to be able to make their voices heard."
Asked what she would focus on during her questioning of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch Friday, Stefanik said she would not telegraph her questions.
"Of course, I will be prepared as I am before every hearing.
"I’m sure constituents and folks in the media will be tuning in so I would just suggest you listen."
The hearing for Yovanovitch's testimony is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. EST Friday.
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