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Ukraine envoy testifies Donald Trump linked military aid to investigations

In testimony to impeachment investigators delivered in defiance of State Department orders, the diplomat, William Taylor, sketched out in remarkable detail a quid pro quo pressure campaign on Ukraine that Trump and his allies have long denied.

By: New York Times | Washington | Published: October 23, 2019 7:59:46 pm
Ukraine envoy testifies Trump linked military aid to investigations Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, after a closed-door session with impeachment investigators in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Written by Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Fandos

The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine on Tuesday gave impeachment investigators a vivid and impassioned account of how multiple senior administration officials told him that President Donald Trump blocked security aid to Ukraine and refused to meet the country’s leader until he agreed to publicly pledge to investigate Trump’s political rivals.

In testimony to impeachment investigators delivered in defiance of State Department orders, the diplomat, William Taylor, sketched out in remarkable detail a quid pro quo pressure campaign on Ukraine that Trump and his allies have long denied. He said the president sought to condition the entire U.S. relationship with Ukraine — including a $391 million aid package whose delay put Ukrainian lives in danger — on a promise that the country would publicly investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family, along with other Democrats, in an effort to incriminate his adversaries.

His account implicated Trump personally in the effort, citing multiple sources inside the government. Those include a budget official who said during a secure National Security Council conference call in July that she had been instructed not to approve the security assistance for Ukraine, and that, Taylor said, “the directive had come from the president.”

It was the latest instance of a veteran civil servant corroborating and expanding substantially on the allegations of an intelligence whistleblower whose anonymous complaint accused Trump of trying to enlist a foreign power to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf, the issue now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

Taylor unspooled the story in a dramatic 40-minute recitation in a secure room in the Capitol, as lawmakers listened silently. He described an awkward West Wing meeting where senior U.S. officials brought competing agendas, leaving Ukrainian officials confused; a directive by a top diplomat to bar the transcribing or monitoring of a June phone call between U.S. officials and the Ukrainian president; and Taylor’s own growing sense of bewilderment and alarm as he realized that State Department diplomats were being sidelined in what he feared would be a nightmare situation.

In a statement issued Tuesday evening, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, called the impeachment inquiry “a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution,” adding that Trump “has done nothing wrong.”

It was a striking description of Taylor, a West Point graduate with a nearly 50-year career as a diplomat, and the other officials who have testified privately to fill out the picture of the president’s conduct.

In his opening statement obtained by The New York Times, Taylor described Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, as being at the center of what he called an “irregular policy channel” that operated outside of — and at odds with — normal American foreign-policymaking. He called the situation “a rancorous story about whistleblowers, Mr. Giuliani, side channels, quid pro quos, corruption and interference in elections.”

When he objected to Trump’s efforts to tie security aid and a White House meeting to the investigations, Taylor said Gordon D. Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a Trump campaign donor, told him 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.

He also said it was Sondland who first told him that Trump was tying the entire relationship with Ukraine to his demands for investigations and to squeeze President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“Ambassador Sondland said that ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,” Taylor told lawmakers on Tuesday. “He said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskiy ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.”

Even as Taylor made his way to Capitol Hill to testify early Tuesday for what would be a nearly 10-hour deposition, the president sought to discredit the inquiry with attention-grabbing language, comparing the impeachment investigation against him to a “lynching.”

The president’s comment on Twitter drew bipartisan outrage in public as the diplomat made his case behind closed doors. And it proceeded amid signs that Republicans have grown weary of defending Trump’s every utterance in his own defense.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and the Senate majority leader, refused on Tuesday to confirm Trump’s claim that the senator had described his July call with Zelenskiy as “perfect.”

“I don’t recall any conversation with the president on that phone call,” McConnell told reporters.

Taylor’s testimony directly contradicted Trump’s denial of a direct link involving investigations into Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that employed Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, or other Democrats. Taylor returned to the top post in Ukraine after Marie L. Yovanovitch, the ambassador to the country, was ousted in what she later testified was her attempt to stand up to Giuliani.

Taylor referred repeatedly to notes and memos — including a June 30 account of his conversation with the Ukrainian president — that could provide new and potentially explosive avenues of investigation for Democrats as they march toward writing articles of impeachment.

The testimony also raised questions about the veracity of other prominent witnesses, including Sondland and Kurt Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, who have said behind closed doors they had not been aware of any improper pressure tactics. While Volker offered a more innocuous version of events, investigators noted last week that Sondland repeatedly said he could not remember details about what they characterized as key events.

In his version, Taylor explicitly made it clear that Zelenskiy would not be invited to the White House or secure much-needed security aid unless the Ukrainian leader publicly announced that his country would start the investigations that Trump so badly wanted.

One lawmaker described the testimony as drawing the clearest of connections between U.S. foreign policy and the president’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’s testimony shed new light on a previously revealed text message in which Taylor wrote that 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 President Trump’s decision to withhold funds and refuse a meeting with Zelenskiy,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Republicans defended Trump, accusing Democrats of exaggerating Taylor’s testimony to generate headlines.

“I’ve been in there for ten hours — I can assure you there was no quid pro quo,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. “I can tell you there is not evidence that there was any condition placed on the aid.”

But in his testimony, Taylor captured in stunning relief the angst among diplomats and national security officials that the whistleblower described. Where that official said that “more than a half-dozen U.S. officials have informed me of various facts related to this effort,” Taylor told lawmakers of specific conversations among diplomats and members of the administration who were alarmed by what they were seeing and hearing.

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 acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

“In an instant I realized one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened,” Taylor said in his testimony. He described how the entire national security apparatus — including John Bolton, the national security adviser, the Defense Department and the State Department — all objected to withholding the aid.

While Trump and Republicans have insisted that Ukraine’s president did not feel any pressure from the United States, Taylor testified that the country’s officials were well aware — and wary — of being drawn into actions that would involve them in determining the president’s political fortunes.

He told lawmakers that Alexander Danyliuk, the Ukrainian national security adviser, “conveyed to me that President Zelenskiy did not want to be used as a pawn in a U.S. reelection campaign.”

Taylor described with almost cinematic sweep his own return to Ukraine in mid-June, in the twilight of a long diplomatic career, only to discover with dismay “a weird combination of encouraging, confusing and ultimately alarming circumstances.”

He testified about his growing realization that Trump had put in place “two channels of U.S. policymaking and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular,” with the last group made up of Sondland; the 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 ten days later, Taylor said he traveled to the front lines of Ukraine fighting in northern Donbass for a briefing from the country’s commanders, who thanked him for the security assistance being provided by the U.S. government — a moment he said made him “uncomfortable,” because Taylor by then knew the aid was on hold.

He described seeing “armed and hostile Russian-led forces,” and thinking that “more Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance.”

In one text message to Sondland, Taylor threatened to quit if Ukraine did not get the assistance. “I was serious,” he said.

It was not the first time that Taylor said he had threatened to resign. He told lawmakers that he had informed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May that he was prepared to resign if the U.S. stopped strongly supporting Ukraine. Days later, Taylor said he expressed his concerns to Bolton, who told him to raise them directly with Pompeo through official channels.

“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,” Taylor wrote in his statement. “I told the secretary that I could not and would not defend such a policy.”

By September, Taylor said, Sondland told him that if Zelenskiy did not “clear things up” in public, the United States and Ukraine would be at a stalemate.

“I understood a ‘stalemate’ to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance,” Taylor told the committee members.

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