In closed-door testimony, William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, implicated President Trump personally in an effort to withhold security aid until Ukraine's leader agreed to investigate the president's political rivals.
William Taylor, the United States' top diplomat in Ukraine, told impeachment investigators privately Tuesday that President Donald Trump held up vital security aid for the country and refused a White House meeting with Ukraine's leader until he agreed to make a public pledge to investigate Trump's political rivals.
In testimony built around careful notes he took during his tenure and delivered in defiance of State Department orders, Taylor sketched out in remarkable detail a quid-pro-quo pressure campaign on Ukraine that Trump and his allies have long denied, in which the president conditioned the entire US relationship with Ukraine on a promise that the country would investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family, along with other Democrats.
His account implicated Trump personally in the effort, citing multiple sources inside the government, including a budget official who said during a secure National Security Council conference call in July that she had been instructed not to approve a US$391 million security assistance package for Ukraine, and that, Taylor said, "the directive had come from the president."
Taylor described the situation as "a rancorous story about whistleblowers, Mr. Giuliani, side channels, quid pro quos, corruption and interference in elections," to which Ukraine was subjected by the Trump administration, with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, at the center of what he called an "irregular policy channel" that operated outside of — and at odds with — normal US foreign policymaking.
When he objected to Trump's efforts to tie security aid and a White House meeting to the investigations, Taylor said in his opening statement obtained by The New York Times, Gordon D. Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union and a Trump campaign donor, said there was no quid pro quo. But then Sondland described just that, telling Taylor to think of Trump as a businessman looking to make sure he would benefit before he closed a deal.
"When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check," Taylor testified, quoting Sondland.
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Taylor's testimony directly contradicted repeated assertions by Trump and his Republican allies that there was never a direct linkage involving investigations into Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that employed Hunter Biden, the vice president's son, or other Democrats.
It also raised questions about the veracity of the testimony of other prominent impeachment witnesses, including Sondland and Kurt D. Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, who have said behind closed doors they had not been aware of any improper pressure tactics.
That is not true, Taylor told the committee. He said the president had explicitly made it clear that Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, would not be invited to the White House or secure much-needed security aid unless the Ukrainian leader made a public announcement that his country would start the investigations that Trump so badly wanted.
Taylor testified that he was told of Trump's demands for investigations during a telephone call with Sondland, who Taylor described as part of a "highly irregular" diplomatic effort aimed at pressuring Ukraine.
"Ambassador Sondland said that 'everything' was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance," Taylor told lawmakers. "He said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskiy 'in a public box' by making a public statement about ordering such investigations."
Taylor added that: "During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskiy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election," Taylor said.
One lawmaker described the testimony as drawing a "direct line" between US foreign policy and Trump's own political goals.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who sat in on the deposition as a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said that Taylor relied in part on detailed "notes to the file" that he had made as he watched the pressure campaign unfold. His testimony shed new light on the circumstances around a previously revealed text message in which Taylor wrote to colleagues that he thought it was "crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."
He "drew a very direct line in the series of events he described between Trump's decision to withhold funds and refuse a meeting with Zelenskiy unless there was a public pronouncement by him of investigations of Burisma and the so-called 2016 election conspiracy theories," Wasserman Schultz said.
In his statement, Taylor described a July 18 call in which he learned that the directive to withhold Ukraine's aid had come to the White House budget office directly from Trump, through his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
"In an instant I realised one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened," Taylor said in his testimony.
In his statement, Taylor described with almost cinematic sweep his return to Ukraine in mid-June, after a long diplomatic career in the country, only to discover with dismay in the months that followed "a weird combination of encouraging, confusing and ultimately alarming circumstances.
A West Point graduate with a nearly 50-year career as a diplomat, Taylor testified about his growing realisation that Trump had put in place "two channels of US policymaking and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular," the latter made up of Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Volker and Giuliani.
Throughout the summer, Taylor said, it became clear that the irregular group was focused on only one thing: the investigations sought by the president. And at a July 18 meeting, Taylor said he learned that the president had held up "until further notice" all military aid needed to repel attacks from Russian backed forces.
About 10 days later, Taylor said he traveled to the front lines of Ukraine fighting in northern Donbas for a briefing from the country's commanders, who thanked him for the security assistance being provided by the US government — assistance that Taylor by then knew was no longer coming.
Taylor said he could see the "armed and hostile Russian-led forces on the other side of the damaged bridge across the line of contact. Over 13,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war, one or two a week. More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance."
In an almost hour-by-hour recitation, Taylor laid out his increasing panic through the summer and into September as he realised that the security aid Ukraine needed was being held up because of Trump's political demands. In one text message to Sondland, he threatened to quit if Ukraine didn't get the assistance.
"I was serious," Taylor wrote in his statement.
The intelligence whistleblower's complaint that prompted the impeachment inquiry said that Trump's effort to pressure Zelenskiy during a July phone call to open an investigation of Burisma was part of a concerted effort to use the power of his office to enlist foreign help in the 2020 election. Taylor was the latest in a string of career diplomats and current and former administration officials who have defied a White House blockade of the impeachment inquiry and submitted to closed-door depositions with investigators digging into whether Trump abused his power to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political adversaries.
As Taylor made his way to Capitol Hill to testify early Tuesday, the president sought to discredit the inquiry with attention-grabbing rhetoric, comparing the impeachment investigation against him to a "lynching."
So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here - a lynching. But we will WIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2019
His comment on Twitter drew bipartisan outrage in public as the ambassador made his case behind closed doors.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and the Senate majority leader, separately quibbled with an assertion by Trump that the senator had described the July call with Zelenskiy as "perfect."
"I don't recall any conversation with the president on that phone call," McConnell told reporters.
Wasserman Schultz said that in addition to referencing his notes, Taylor "had very specific recall of things," including what she said were "meetings, phone calls, what was said."
Several Democrats who participated in Taylor's questioning described his testimony as stunning. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., shook his head after exiting the deposition, saying "what he said was incredibly damning to the president of the United States."
Wasserman Schultz called it "one of the most disturbing days" she has had in Congress, and added: "It's like if you had a big, 1,000-piece puzzle on a table. This fills in a lot of pieces of the puzzle."
Republicans accused Democrats of exaggerating, but they declined to share details of the testimony.
"I don't know that any of us, if we are being intellectually honest, are hearing revelations that we were not aware of," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. "The bottom line is no one has yet to make the case for why the aid was withheld or even if the Ukrainians knew about it."
Taylor became a star witness in the Democratic impeachment probe after Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, revealed texts they exchanged. In some of the text chains, as Taylor expressed his concerns about an apparent quid pro quo, Sondland sought to take the conversation offline, telling Taylor to "call me."
Taylor's habit of keeping notes throughout his tenure has given the inquiry a boost, allowing him to recreate crucial conversations and moments even as the administration seeks to block Congress from reviewing documents related to its dealings with Ukraine.
A battle over access to Taylor's underlying notes may soon ensue. Taylor has shared them with the State Department but the department has not produced copies of them for lawmakers conducting the impeachment inquiry, a person familiar with his testimony said. The Department has already defied a subpoena from the House for any records related to their work.
Written by: Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Fandos
Photographs by: Anna Moneymaker
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES