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Pressure builds as Prez Trump's impeachment probe proceeds

Key evidence is official White House transcript of a July 25 call between Trump & Zelensky in which the US Prez asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Bidens

Pressure builds as Prez Trumps impeachment probe proceeds

Washington: Two top US diplomats delivered gripping testimony Wednesday about Donald Trump's efforts to get Ukraine to investigate his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden, as the impeachment inquiry into the president shifted into a new phase of high-stakes televised hearings. Trump dismissed the probe in the Democratic-led House of Representatives as a "witch hunt" and said he was "too busy" to watch the first public hearings, during which he received staunch backing from Republican lawmakers.

William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, began his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee with a new revelation about Trump's efforts to pressure Kiev -- the main issue of just the fourth impeachment process in US history.

Democrats accuse Trump of abusing his power by using US military assistance and a possible White House meeting to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky into opening a probe into the Democrat Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma. The key evidence is the official White House transcript of a July 25 telephone call between Trump and Zelensky in which the US president asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the Bidens.

Taylor testified that he was told Trump cared more about the probe than he did about Ukraine.

The grey-haired former Army officer and veteran diplomat, who testified in a closed hearing last month, said he had since become aware of a telephone call between Trump and the US's EU ambassador Gordon Sondland, which a member of Taylor's staff overheard.

The staffer asked Sondland after the call what Trump thought about Ukraine and was told that "President Trump cared more about the investigations of Biden," Taylor said.

Freshman House Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken Trump critic, said the new Taylor comment added "a layer of proximity" for the president.

"(Trump) himself was making and partaking in some of these phone calls... And that really adds a much more disturbing degree of the involvement that he had in using the powers of government to create politically motivated investigations," the New York representative told CNN.

Asked about the new allegations, while hosting his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House, Trump replied: "First time I've heard it." Sondland "did speak to me for a brief moment, and I said no quid pro quo under any circumstances."

Republicans sought to undercut the witnesses' testimony by focusing on Hunter Biden's role on the Burisma board, pointing out that he was paid 50,000 a month and questioning his qualifications.

They also stressed that the Ukrainians were not aware for months that the White House had put a hold on the nearly 400 million in military assistance and that it was eventually released in September.

"What did President Zelensky actually do to get the aid?" asked John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican congressman. "The answer is nothing. He didn't open investigations. "He didn't do any of the things that House Democrats say that he was being forced and coerced and threatened to do."

In his opening statement, Taylor recalled opposing making US military aid to Ukraine or a White House visit by Zelensky contingent on Kiev investigating the Bidens.

"Withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be crazy," he said. "I believed that then and I believe it now."

Taylor said an "irregular policy channel" involving former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, was pushing for the Ukrainian probe into the Bidens. Fellow witness George Kent, a career diplomat, was asked what interests Giuliani was promoting.

"I believe he was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival in the next election cycle," said the deputy assistant secretary of state.

"I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power because such selective actions undermine the rule of law."

If the House impeaches Trump, it would then go to trial in the Senate, where Republicans enjoy a 53-47 majority.

The next hearing is scheduled for Friday, featuring the US ambassador to Ukraine who Kent said was recalled by Trump after being subjected to a "smear campaign" by Giuliani.

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