The release of US military aid to Ukraine was contingent on its president publicly declaring that he was opening an investigation into the Bidens and the 2016 US presidential election, the top American diplomat in Kiev told Congress on Tuesday, in testimony that Democrats said provided the clearest evidence yet that Donald Trump had engaged in a “quid pro quo” arrangement with his Ukrainian counterpart.
William Taylor, a career diplomat, has been the US chargé d’affaires to Ukraine since June, after Marie Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine, was abruptly removed from her post. Ms Yovanovitch told lawmakers in a closed-door deposition earlier this month that President Trump had led a “concerted campaign” to have her fired based on “unfounded and false claims”.
Members of Congress leading an impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump had been eager to hear from Mr Taylor, who said in a text message sent to Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, on September 8: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
In a 15-page opening statement, first obtained and published by The Washington Post, Mr Taylor told lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Tuesday that both a meeting between Volodymyr Zelenksy, the Ukrainian president, and Mr Trump at the White House and the release of US military aid were conditioned on Ukraine investigating both Burisma, an oil and gas company whose board included Hunter Biden, the son of former US vice-president Joe Biden, and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US elections.
Mr Taylor said Mr Trump insisted that Mr Zelensky “go to a microphone” and “clear things up and do it in public”, and Mr Sondland had told him that “everything” was dependent on such an announcement, including US military aid.
In his detailed statement, Mr Taylor recounted months of interactions with US officials, including Mr Sondland and Fiona Hill, Mr Trump’s former top Russia adviser. Both Mr Sondland and Ms Hill testified before the impeachment inquiry in closed-door hearings last week.
Mr Taylor described “two channels of US policymaking and implementation in Ukraine” — one regular channel and one “highly irregular . . . informal” channel including Mr Sondland, then-US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, US energy secretary Rick Perry and Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump’s personal lawyer.
The chargé d’affairs detailed numerous phone calls, meetings and text messages, as well as a cable sent to Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, on August 29. Mr Taylor said he used the cable to describe the “folly” he saw in withholding US military aid to Ukraine.
Mr Taylor also described a September 7 phone call he had with Tim Morrison, Ms Hill’s successor, who said Mr Trump had told Mr Sondland that he was not asking for a “quid pro quo”. Mr Taylor added: “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.”
In a September 8 phone call, Mr Sondland repeated Mr Trump’s assertion that there was no quid pro quo, but told Mr Taylor that he had told Mr Zelensky and Andrey Yermak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, that if Mr Zelensky did not “clear things up” in public, he would be at a “stalemate”, according to the opening statement. Mr Taylor said Mr Sondland said the conversation ended with Mr Zelensky agreeing to make a public statement in a television interview with CNN.
US military aid to Ukraine was released three days later, on September 11, and the CNN interview apparently never took place.
Democratic war room director Daniel Wessel said Mr Taylor’s testimony “made it clear that Trump engaged in a quid pro quo”.
“Today he testified that the president extorted a foreign country in order to sway an election,” Mr Taylor said. “Trump must be held accountable.”
Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary, said in a statement that Mr Trump had “done nothing wrong”.
“This is a co-ordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the constitution,” Ms Grisham said. “There was no quid pro quo.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Trump sparked outrage after saying on Twitter that impeachment proceedings against him were 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,” he said. “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching.”
Critics said his use of the word lynching, which is associated with the killing of thousands of black Americans by white mobs in the 19th and 20th centuries, were the latest example of the president using offensive, racially charged language.
Karen Bass, the Democratic congresswoman who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said Mr Trump’s comment “shows not only a complete lack of appreciation for United States history, but also an absolute absence of understanding of the constitution”.
The president found a defender, however, in Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, who said the impeachment inquiry was a “lynching in every sense”.
Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the US president and Mr Graham “should know better”.