Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump say congressional testimony by William Taylor, America’s top diplomat in Kiev, provides the clearest evidence that the president engaged in a quid pro quo arrangement with his Ukrainian counterpart by withholding US military aid in exchange for political favours.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic congresswoman from Florida who sits on the House oversight committee, said the “damning” testimony drew a “direct line” between withholding foreign aid and opening investigations into Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter, as well as interference in the 2016 US election.
Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary, insisted Mr Trump had done nothing wrong. “There was no quid pro quo,” she said.
Mr Taylor’s testimony took place behind closed doors on Tuesday. But his publicly available 15-page opening statement detailed months of interactions with US officials, including the US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, and Tim Morrison, Mr Trump’s top Russia adviser. Here are key passages and their significance to the inquiry.
The Pompeo link
On May 28 of this year, I met with Secretary [of state] Mike Pompeo who asked me to return to Kiev to lead our embassy in Ukraine. It was — and is — a critical time in US-Ukraine relations . . . But it was not an easy decision. The former Ambassador, Masha Yovanovitch, had been treated poorly, caught in a web of political machinations both in Kiev and in Washington. I feared that those problems were still present.
The White House has claimed that Mr Taylor, a longtime diplomat, was part of a “co-ordinated smear campaign” against the president involving “radical unelected bureaucrats”. But Mr Pompeo, a close ally of Mr Trump, asked Mr Taylor to take up his post in Ukraine after Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, was abruptly removed.
Ms Yovanovitch, another longtime diplomat, told lawmakers in a separate closed-door deposition earlier this month that Mr Trump had led a “concerted campaign” to have her fired based on “unfounded and false claims”.
An ‘irregular’ foreign policy
There appeared to be two channels of US policymaking and implementation [in Ukraine], one regular and one highly irregular . . . there was an irregular, informal channel of US policymaking with respect to Ukraine, one which included then-Special Envoy Kurt Volker, Ambassador Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and as I subsequently learned, [Mr Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy] Giuliani . . . it became clear to me by August that the channels had diverged in their objectives.
House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry have scrutinised Mr Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine as part of their probe. The former mayor of New York City has refused to co-operate with the investigation.
Mr Taylor went on to detail interactions with top US officials that led him to believe by mid-July that the meeting sought by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky with Mr Trump was conditional on opening the investigations.
“It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr Giuliani,” Mr Taylor added.
Bolton walks out
They told me that Ambassador Sondland had connected ‘investigations’ with an Oval Office meeting for President Zelensky, which so irritated [National security adviser John] Bolton that he abruptly ended the meeting, telling [Fiona] Hill, [Trump’s former top Russia adviser,] and [Alexander] Vindman, [director of European affairs at the National Security Council] that they should have nothing to do with domestic politics. He also directed Dr Hill to “brief the lawyers”. Dr Hill said that Ambassador Bolton referred to this as a “drug deal” after the July 10 meeting. Ambassador Bolton opposed a call between President Zelensky and President Trump out of concern that it “would be a disaster”.
Mr Taylor recounted a call detailing a July 10 meeting Ms Hill and Mr Vindman had with Ukrainian officials, Mr Volker, Mr Sondland and Mr Bolton at the White House.
Mr Bolton had reportedly referred to the linking of a White House meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky and the opening of investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 US elections as a “drug deal”. He left the administration last month and has yet to testify before the impeachment inquiry.
Mr Taylor also said that during a visit to Kiev in late August, he told Mr Bolton about his concerns about the withholding of military assistance to Ukraine. He said Mr Bolton told him to send a cable to directly to Mr Pompeo voicing his concerns:
I wrote and transmitted such a cable on August 29, describing the “folly” I saw in withholding military aid to Ukraine at a time when hostilities were still active in the east and when Russia was watching closely to gauge the level of American support for the Ukrainian government . . . Although I received no specific response, I heard that soon thereafter, the Secretary carried the cable with him to a meeting at the White House focused on security assistance for Ukraine.”
‘Quid pro quo’
I sent Ambassador Sondland a text message asking if “we [are] now saying that security assistance and [a] WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Ambassador Sondland responded asking me to call him, which I did. During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election . . . in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, “everything” was dependent on such an n announcement, including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky “in a public box” by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.
Mr Taylor said he realised that US military aid, and not just a White House meeting, were conditioned on public investigations being announced by Ukraine’s president during a September 1 phone conversation with Mr Sondland.
Mr Taylor also detailed a September 7 phone call with Mr Morrison, the president’s Russia adviser, which suggested that Mr Trump sought a “quid pro quo” arrangement on aid as well as a White House meeting between the two leaders — even if the White House insisted the president had not:
According to Mr Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a “quid pro quo”. But President Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself.”
Mr Taylor also said that, during a September 8 phone call, Mr Sondland denied any “quid pro quo” but insisted that Mr Trump was a “businessman”.
When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, [Mr Sondland] said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check . . . I argued . . . the explanation made no sense: the Ukrainians did not “owe” President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for domestic political gain was “crazy”.
Three days later, the military aid to Ukraine was released.