Utah Rep. Chris Stewart says ‘the coup has started’ during opening day of public impeachment hearings

Washington • Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, used his few minutes in the spotlight of the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump to boil the whole issue down to a single phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s leader.

“There is one sentence, one phone call,” Stewart said. “That is what this entire impeachment proceeding is, basically. And I got to tell you, if your impeachment case is so weak that you have to lie and exaggerate about it to convince the American people that they need to remove this president, then you’ve got a problem.”

The impeachment inquiry involves more than a rough transcript of the single phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Wednesday’s hearing focused on testimony by two career State Department officials who raised concerns about a shadow foreign policy move by Trump to urge Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter as well as debunked allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified Wednesday that one of his aides overheard U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland speaking with Trump, who said he cared more about the investigation into the Bidens than other issues in Ukraine.

Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, asked only a few questions of the witnesses during his time in the hearing, opting instead to vent about the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry that he characterized as a “coup” against the president (citing a years-old tweet by an attorney now representing a whistleblower who first raised questions about Trump’s call with Zelenskiy).

“We first heard a lot about quid pro quo and then many people realized that was meaningless,” Stewart said. “So they said, ‘Let’s go for the fences and let’s talk about extortion. Let’s talk about bribery. Let’s talk about cover-up and obstruction’ — for which there is zero evidence of any of that.”

Several witnesses in the impeachment inquiry have testified under oath that the Trump administration had withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine as well as a White House meeting with Zelenskiy at the same time that Trump’s team was demanding the Ukrainian leader publicly say his government was opening an investigation into the Bidens and dubious claims that Ukraine had a hand in meddling in the 2016 election.

Stewart noted that military aid had been held up — but pointed out that when Congress approved the $250 million in funds, it specifically said that the Pentagon had to certify Ukraine was tackling corruption in the country.

“Are you surprised that there would be questions about corruption in Ukraine and it would be discussed withholding some of this aid that's actually required by law that it be withheld if they can't certify that corruption has been eliminated or is being addressed?” Stewart asked.

George Kent, the deputy secretary of state overseeing European and Eurasian affairs, responded that the secretary of defense was responsible for certifying Ukraine was tackling corruption and had already done so.

“We were fully supportive of that conditionality,” Kent said. “And the secretary of defense had already certified that that conditionality had been met.”

Stewart also followed the lead of several GOP colleagues who attempted to turn Wednesday’s hearing about Trump’s actions into questions about the Bidens and whether the former vice president was helping his son, who sat on the board of an Ukrainian energy company.

The Utah congressman alleged Joe Biden had pushed for the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor to get him to halt a probe of that energy company, Burisma.

“It’s interesting that out of hundreds of corrupt individuals, dozens of corrupt nations, that happened one time and it happened with the individual whose son was being paid by the organization that was under investigation,” Stewart said. “One other thing very quickly. If someone was a candidate for political office, even for a president of the United States, should they be immune from investigation?”

“No one is above the law, sir,” Kent responded.

Joe Biden had fought to remove the Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin — a move sought by the State Department and European allies who contended Shokin was actually protecting rather than prosecuting corrupt individuals. Burisma was not under investigation at that time.

(Photo courtesy of the White House) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, posted this photo on Twitter on Nov. 5, 2019, saying he had recently met with President Donald Trump. He said they talked about the nation's "most pressing issues." He declined to elaborate when asked by The Tribune for more information.

Stewart is the most vocal defender of the president among Utah’s delegation and earlier this month had a meeting in the Oval Office. He later declined to say what he had discussed with Trump beyond describing the topic as nationally “pressing issues.”

Utah Rep. John Curtis has avoided making pronouncements about the president’s innocence or guilt.

In a prepared statement issued Wednesday afternoon, he said he intends to listen and learn over the next few weeks and will have little to say about the merit or lack of the impeachment inquiry.

“My constituents have elected me to be their eyes, ears, and eventually their voice, and I will reserve my comments and judgment until it’s time to vote on the House Floor. I commit to Utah’s 3rd District that I will listen to all the evidence presented over the proceedings with an open mind and a pragmatic rationale," he said.

Wednesday’s hearing is one of several scheduled by the Intelligence Committee, which is leading the initial phase of the impeachment process. Friday, the panel will hear from former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed from her job at the urging of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Republicans, in defending Trump, said there was no quid pro quo in Trump wanting investigations into corruption before handing over hundreds of millions of dollars and that there’s no evidence of wrongdoing. GOP members also noted that neither Kent nor Taylor had firsthand knowledge and were offering hearsay as their only proof.

“This is a sad day for this country,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “The American people see through all this. … They see through the whole darn sham.”

Taylor, though, noted under questions from the Democrats’ lawyer that he had never in his career seen another time when foreign aid was "conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States.”

“It’s one thing to try to leverage a meeting in the White House,” Taylor testified. “It’s another thing, I thought, to leverage security assistance.”

The career diplomat said that Ukraine was essentially at war with Russia, which invaded and still holds the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine, and holding up military aid was “much more alarming.”