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Impeachment witness says Trump asked about Ukraine probes

WASHINGTON — A top American diplomat revealed new evidence Wednesday of President Donald Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate political rivals as House investigators launched public impeachment hearings for just the fourth time in the nation’s history.

William Taylor, the highest-ranking United States official in Ukraine, said for the first time that Trump was overheard asking another ambassador about “the investigations” he had urged Ukraine’s leader to conduct one day earlier. Taylor said he learned of Trump’s phone call with the ambassador only in recent days.

Republicans retorted that the Democrats still have no more than second- and third-hand knowledge of allegations that Trump held up millions of dollars in military aid for the Eastern European nation facing Russian aggression. Trump is accused of trying to trade that aid for Ukrainian investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee.

The hearing, the first on television for the nation to see, provided hours of partisan back-and-forth but so far no singular moment etched in the public consciousness as grounds for removing the 45th president from office. Trump, who was meeting at the White House with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared he was “too busy” to watch.

The long day of testimony unfolded partly the way Democrats leading the inquiry wanted: in the somber tones of two career foreign service officers who described confusion both within the United States government and in Ukraine about what Trump wanted from Kyiv. Taylor testified alongside George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department.

Taylor said his staff recently told him they overheard Trump’s phone call with another diplomat, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with the new leader of Ukraine that sparked the impeachment investigation. The staffer explained that Sondland had called the president and Trump could be heard asking about “the investigations.” Sondland told the president the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Taylor testified.

The impeachment inquiry was launched after an anonymous whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, including a July phone call in which he urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate unfounded corruption allegations into Biden and Biden’s son — all while the United States was holding up U.S. military aid.

At the start, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, outlined the question at the core of the impeachment inquiry — whether the president used his office for personal political gain.

“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” said Schiff of California. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander in chief.”

Republicans lawmakers immediately pushed Democrats to hear in closed session from the anonymous whistleblower. Schiff denied the request at the time but said it would be considered later.

“We will do everything necessary to protect the whistleblower’s identity,” Schiff said.

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said Trump had a “perfectly good reason” for wanting to investigate the role of Democrats in 2016 election interference, giving airtime to a theory that runs counter to mainstream U.S. intelligence which found that Russia intervened and favored Trump.

Nunes accused the Democratic majority of conducting a “scorched earth” effort to take down the president after the special counsel’s Russia investigation into the 2016 election failed to spark impeachment proceedings.

“We’re supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out new allegations?” said Nunes, a top Trump ally.

Nunes called the Ukraine matter a “low rent” sequel to the Russia probe. “Democrats are advancing their impeachment sham,” he said.

Both Taylor and Kent defied White House instructions not to testify. They both received subpoenas to appear.

The veteran foreign service officers delivered heartfelt history lessons about Ukraine, a young and hopeful democracy, situated next to Russia but reaching out to the West.

Asked about a text message released earlier in the probe in which Taylor called it “crazy” to withhold the security aid to a foreign ally, he said, “It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”

Kent, in his opening remarks, directly contradicted a core complaint against Joe Biden being raised by allies of the White House, saying he never heard any United States official try to shield a Ukraine company from investigations.

Kent acknowledged that he himself raised concerns in 2015 about the then vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, being on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine gas company. He warned that it could give the “perception of a conflict of interest.” But Kent indicated no one from the United States was protecting the company from investigations in Ukraine as Republicans have implied.

“Let me be clear; however, I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny,” Kent said.

He did not go into detail about the issues central to the impeachment inquiry, but he voiced his concerns with them.

“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 regardless of the country,” he said.

So far, the narrative being unspooled in weeks of investigations for the inquiry is splitting Americans, mostly along the same lines as Trump’s unusual presidency. The Constitution sets a dramatic but vague bar for impeachment, and there’s no consensus yet that Trump’s actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

At its core, the inquiry stems from Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy when he asked the Zelenskiy for “a favor.”

Trump wanted the Ukraine government to investigate Democrats in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden.

The anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to concerns about the phone call. The White House released a rough transcript of the conversation, with portions deleted.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. But she pressed ahead in September after the whistleblower’s complaint.

Over the past month, witness after witness has appeared behind closed doors to tell the investigators what they know.

Whether Wednesday’s proceedings begin to end a presidency or help secure Trump’s position, it was certain his chaotic term had finally arrived at a place he could not control and a force, the constitutional system of checks and balances, that he could not ignore.

Unlike the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon, there is not yet a “cancer-on-the-presidency” moment galvanizing public opinion. Nor is there the national shrug, as happened when Bill Clinton’s impeachment ultimately didn’t result in his removal from office. It’s perhaps most like the partisanship-infused impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War.

Murphy's first bill seeks honor for Jones

Pitt County’s new congressman filed his first legislation this week, a bill honoring the late Walter B. Jones Jr., according to a news release.

U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy, who replaced Jones as North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District representative, submitted legislation which would rename a post office in Farmville for the late congressman. Jones was born and raised in Farmville.

“Dedicating my first piece of legislation in honor of Congressman Walter B. Jones, Jr. is an appropriate way to honor my distinguished predecessor, friend and mentor,” Murphy said.

“Congressman Jones was a dedicated steward of the citizens in eastern North Carolina, particularly the men and women in our armed forces stationed at Camp Lejeune, Air Stations Cherry Point and New River, and Base Elizabeth City,” he said. “I thank my colleagues in the North Carolina delegation for unanimously supporting this bill and I hope for its swift passage.”

Jones served in the North Carolina National Guard for four years and served the people of eastern North Carolina in the House of Representatives for 24 years. Upon passage, the post office located at 3703 N. Main St., Farmville would be renamed the “Walter B. Jones Jr. Post Office.”

Pitt County’s other congressman, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, co-sponsored the legislation along with the state’s 11 other members of Congress.

New website up and running

The Daily Reflector has launched a new version of reflector.com that updates the site with a responsive design, a new e-edition and more modern features.

The site went live on Tuesday and is easily viewable on any device: phone, tablet, laptop and desktop. It features all the content available in the daily print edition and more, including breaking news updates, extended stories and additional photos, photo galleries live streams from the Associated Press, links to the paper’s social media feeds and more.

The new e-edition — a digital replica of the print product — is easier to read and navigate and includes several interactive features.

The site will be free to all users for a brief trial period. Starting Tuesday, all content on the site will be available only to subscribers. All existing print and web subscribers will be notified about usernames and passwords. Subscriptions are available for as low as $15 per month.

The new site is cleaner, faster, more reliable and easier to navigate. The staff is continuing to make modifications to ensure it is functioning properly. Critiques are appreciated. Click the feedback link at the bottom of the page.

Schoolrooms, not courtrooms

Young people thrive in schoolrooms, not courtrooms.

That idea is the impetus behind an agreement that aims to reduce the number of juveniles in the criminal justice system.

School, court, law enforcement, juvenile justice and county officials met at the Pitt County Courthouse on Wednesday to sign the School Justice Partnership Memorandum of Understanding.

The School Justice Partnership is a group of community members who will consider and recommend evidence-based strategies to address student misconduct. The formation of this partnership dovetails with a change is state law on how young people are charged for some crimes.

Starting on Dec. 1, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act will classify 16- and 17-year-olds who commit low-level misdemeanor and felony crimes as juveniles. Previously, they were charged as adults.

The change means district courts may have to deal with an influx of juvenile cases. Pitt County Chief District Court Judge G. Galen Braddy said he and other justices were asked to put partnerships in place to deal with the change.

“Basically, it’s an acknowledgment that we may have minor offenses that we can take another look at and see if it’s going to be in the best interest of the kid and the school (to pursue it in the courts),” Braddy said. “Nothing about this memorandum of understanding takes away the discretion of teachers, principals or law enforcement officers.”

Students who commit more serious offenses still can be referred to the justice system and parents can press charges against a student in a case where their child was a victim, Braddy said.

The agreement is about making sure students are successful in school, according to Cheri Beasley, a justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

“We know that we can further increase the likelihood of success for these young people by reducing the number of referrals into our criminal justice system,” Beasley said. “It is important to think about how it is we handle and address those kinds of issues, while also making sure (students will) be successful in schools.”

In North Carolina, school-based referrals make up about 40 percent of all referrals to the juvenile justice system. Most of these are for minor, nonviolent transgressions, according to a news release from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.

In the 2016-17 school year, only 8 percent of referrals statewide were for serious offenses, the release said.

Other counties that have signed agreements similar to the School Justice Partnership Memorandum have seen a decrease of at least 60 percent in school-based referrals to the juvenile justice system, according to Beasley.

“Last year in North Carolina, 11,000 young people were referred from the school system to the juvenile justice system,” Beasley said. “When you think about the fact that young people are more likely to be successful when they stay in school and not in our courtrooms, this partnership is giving them a real chance to be successful and grow.

“We know that when young people get in trouble and frankly, when they get arrested, they are more likely to repeat a grade and we know they are more likely to be charged with a crime as an adult,” she said. “That’s what we don’t want.”

Pitt County Schools superintendent Ethan Lenker said the partnership will aim to get everyone to work toward the goal of keeping students in schools.

“We’ve been actively trying to keep kids in schools for years,” he said. “In the last six years, we’ve cut down long-term suspensions probably 90 percent. It’s not really changing what we do; it’s just getting everybody on the same page.

“Our ultimate goal is to graduate students ready for their future, whether that’s college, career or military,” Lenker said. “Everybody here is working toward that.”

The agreement allows young people to make mistakes without paying for them as adults, according to Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance.

“This partnership will give our kids a fighting chance when mistakes are made and to recover from those mistakes as they enter into adulthood,” she said. “This initiative is necessary to give our kids an equitable opportunity to have a bright future.”

Chief Mark Holtzman of the Greenville Police Department said that while the agreement means more work for juvenile justice and school resource officers, it is a move in the right direction.

“These are kids at the end of the day,” he said.