The impeachment inquiry around US President Donald Trump continues to pick up pace. Most recently, testimony from the former top American envoy to Ukraine William Taylor has seriously damaged the Trump Administration’s position. His testimony makes impeachment charges against Trump by the Democrats exceedingly likely. Defending the content of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky becomes more difficult when the claim that nothing wrong took place is exhaustively refuted by those with knowledge of the wider context and diplomatic situation. Taylor took over as Ukraine’s interim chargé d’affaires in mid June, 2019 around a month after former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was recalled from Ukraine. A Vietnam War veteran and diplomat with 50 years of government experience, Taylor referred to many pages of notes he had taken during his months of alarm about the Trump-Ukraine situation.
What Taylor Said
Taylor claimed in ten hours of closed-door testimony that Trump specifically wanted to keep aid from Ukraine unless they helped him dig up dirt on his political opponent Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. In text messages to the US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, Taylor expressed concern about the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call. Sondland said that US decision-making going forward depended on Ukraine’s willingness to look into the Bidens. Additionally, Trump wanted an investigation into whether the Democratic National Committee was somehow hiding a hacked server in Ukraine that proves that Russia wasn’t behind the 2016 election leaks and in fact that Democrats had colluded with Ukraine’s pre-Zelensky government to try to undermine Trump in the last election.
Taylor said Sondland told him that the president wanted public announcements from Ukraine that investigations were going to be opened and that he would then unfreeze aid. As a businessman, Trump wanted guarantees “before signing the check,” Sondland explained to Taylor. Upset by the situation, Taylor wrote in a Sept. 9 text that it would be “crazy” to withhold aid to a key regional ally because of domestic political efforts and partisan reasons. Sondland said it wasn’t a quid pro quo and said that despite his high opinion of Taylor he felt the career diplomat was misunderstanding Trump’s intentions behind withholding aid which was to check whether Ukrainian efforts against corruption were really proceeding in an effective manner. In his deposition before committee, Sondland, who was a 2016 donor to Trump and political appointee, said that while he still did not perceive the situation to have been a quid pro quo he cannot be “certain.” Military aid to Ukraine was unfrozen Sept. 11.
In his released opening statement, Taylor highlighted how bad freezing aid had been for US-Ukraine diplomacy (“a nightmare”), especially as Kiev was trying to tackle incompetence and corruption under the newly-elected Zelensky and deter ongoing Russian incursions in the contested separatist areas of the east in Donbass. Throughout his remarks, Taylor emphasized the strategic importance of Ukraine to US policy and highlighted that he himself has served under Democrats and Republicans in a nonpartisan” fashion. He expressed feeling undermined by Trump as he visited Ukrainian frontline troops at the line of contact in Donbass and being thanked for US assistance but knowing it was currently on hold. Taylor characterized himself as a supporter of stronger sanctions on Russia and personally and professionally invested in helping achieve a better future for Ukraine and a “secure and prosperous life.”
Ambassador Rudy Giuliani?
Both Sondland and previous US Ambassador Kurt Volker said in their testimony that a lot of diplomatic go-between work was being done by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Taylor corroborated this, as did Yovanovitch, who said she was removed because she did not fall in line with Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine. In his conversations with Sondland, Taylor also expressed a lot of worry about building a good relationship between Ukraine and the United States if it was just going to be used as a cudgel for Trump’s reelection by figures like Giuliani skirting normal diplomatic channels. Upon arrival in Ukraine, Taylor said he was surprised and disappointed at how the regular channels of diplomatic communication began to be undermined by special envoy to Ukraine Volker, outgoing Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Sondland and Giuliani.
By late July, Taylor said he realized “the irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of longstanding US policy.” Taylor described Giuliani’s ongoing efforts to “undercut” regular diplomacy and US relations with Ukraine. Both Sondland and Volker indicated to him in text and phone conversations that an investigation by Ukraine was the most important matter going forward, whereas regular channels (and the Ukrainians) were confused and more focused on talking about energy, security and their future cooperation. Zelensky indicated through his office he did not want to be a “pawn” in US political campaigns, but later said the controversial July 25 call with Trump went fine.
How The Trump Admin Is Responding To Taylor’s Testimony
The Trump Administration’s strategy seems to be to deflect attention and go on the attack. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham denied any quid pro quo and slammed what she referred to as a vast “smear campaign” full of “nonsense” and wasted taxpayer money organized by the Democratic party against the President. The State Department tried to bar Taylor from testifying but that was clearly unsuccessful. Trump has repeatedly denied any quid pro quo and demanded that the public hear from the original whistleblower on the phone call, who he has characterized as essentially equivalent to a hostile foreign spy. Trump has also launched the DOJ into a criminal probe of the origins of the Russia collusion accusations against him. Nonetheless, these tactics may well prove unsuccessful to distract from the impeachment furor if the quid pro quo allegation regarding Ukraine aid is further corroborated by reputable officials such as Morrison.
Hedging his bets, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a key Trump ally, said that while he won’t claim Trump did nothing wrong, the manner in which the Democrats are going about their drive to impeach the president is without past precedent and is “dangerous for the country.” The White House has maintained that it will not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry and referred to Taylor as essentially part of the Deep State, or specifically one of various “radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.”
What Comes Now?
The Democrats are getting their ducks lined up in a row and the splash all the revelations they will make when they are revealed is likely to be significant. NSC official Tim Morrison who was in on the call is reportedly set to confirm some key details of Taylor’s testimony, although he apparently does not believe Trump did anything fundamentally wrong. Further, Sondland claimed in his deposition that he did not know of an attempt to pressure investigation of Burisma energy company, Hunter Biden’s former employer, which is seemingly contradicted by Taylor’s testimony about what Sondland said to him, so it is possible Sondland will be found to have committed perjury.
Former NSA John Bolton is also potentially on deck to provide details of his concerns over behavior from the President and Taylor and Yovanovitch could be called on for further public statements. Former Deputy National Security Advisor to the President Charles Kupperman, who was on the call, is also lined up to testify. Several Democratic US representatives said Taylor’s testimony will help their impeachment inquiry and and was shocking. Rep. Steven Lynch (D-MA) on the House’s Oversight and Reform Committee said Taylor’s further details are a “sea change.”