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Jon Tester

Sen. Jon Tester listens to questions during a town hall at MSU Billings' Petro Theater in Billings on Thursday. 

U.S. Sen Jon Tester said Congress needs to wrap up impeachment proceedings well ahead of the 2020 elections to avoid politicizing the proceedings.

The third-term Democrat was in Billings on Thursday for a town hall meeting following a meeting at Montana State University Billings. Tester fielded a few questions about President Donald Trump allegedly seeking help from a foreign country to undermine 2020 presidential challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden. Tester spoke at length after the event about the impeachment proceedings ahead and how the process might bleed into Montana’s 2020 elections.

“Boy that’s hard to say. I don’t know,” Tester said of impact on Montana elections. “But I think if we try to depoliticize it as much as possible, and look there’s going to be people who try to politicize it to the max. They’re going to try to drag it on through the election.

“I think you’ve got to stay focused. I said this on the news the other night, I said ‘you got to stay laser focused. Stay laser-focused on what’s happening in the Ukraine because that’s where it was brought up,'” Tester said. “And I know they are likely to — today he was talking about China; that’s all well and good — but the truth is you stay laser focused on Ukraine. Otherwise, you’ll be all over the board, and you won’t get to the facts. And I think it’s really important to get to the facts and hold people accountable, either because they did something wrong, or say no — there’s no wrongdoing.”

Tester’s China reference concerned Trump remarking to reporters Thursday that China, as well as Ukraine, should investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter. On July 25, Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Hunter Biden and Ukraine gas company Burisma. Hunter Biden was on the gas company’s board of directors starting in 2014, for which he drew a $50,000-a-month salary.

During that time there was mounting international pressure on Ukraine to crack down on corruption. Then in 2015, Joe Biden speaking to the Ukrainian Parliament called for a corruption crackdown, saying that Ukraine’s Office of Inspector General needed reform. Biden later recounted telling the Ukrainian prime minister that the U.S. would withhold a $1 billion loan if the inspector general wasn’t fired. The Ukrainian government fired the inspector general.

The Trump campaign has tried to spin the firing as an attempt by former Vice President Biden to protect Hunter Biden. There’s been no proof of illegal activity in Ukraine by either Biden. And U.S. allies have come forward to say nations offering aid to Ukraine, which had been invaded by Russia, say the Ukrainian inspector general was slow to investigate corruption and needed to be removed.

Thursday, a town hall attendee asked whether Tester would support investigating the Bidens.

“I think they need to be investigated like anybody else, but I don’t want China doing the investigation. I don’t want Ukraine doing the investigation. I want the United States to do the investigation,” Tester said. “I still have faith in this country.”

Afterward, Tester clarified to journalists that he wasn't calling for a Biden investigation, but rather stating that investigations are warranted anytime there is potential wrongdoing.

Earlier in the meeting, Tester said it was important that lawmakers remained open-minded about the impeachment investigation. If the House votes to impeach President Trump, the Senate will take on a jury role in weighing the evidence. Like a jury, senators shouldn’t jump to conclusions, he said.

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“As far as proceedings with what happened with the president’s conversations with the president of Ukraine, look, I take this position as a U.S. senator very seriously, not as a Democrat or a Republican, but a United States senator. I think the accusations are serious, very serious. I don’t think they should be taken lightly. I’ve read the transcript … ” Tester said, adding that because he’s never been involved in an impeachment process, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

At the end of September, Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said House Democrats sounded like a broken record calling for Trump's impeachment. Daines is up for re-election in 2020.

Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a 2020 candidate for Montana governor, said House Democrats had impeachment fever and misplaced priorities.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Biden rival for the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nomination, has said there was no other option but impeachment if Congress didn't receive a whistleblower's complaint about Trump's Ukraine dealings. The report has since been made public.

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