WASHINGTON — Bill Taylor is known as a “straight shooter” — and he just fired a shot in President Trump’s direction.
Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told lawmakers of a back-door pressure campaign to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to personally announce investigations relating to the 2016 election and Democrat Joe Biden.
Taylor testified he was told that the release of hundreds of millions in U.S. military aid to Ukraine had been made contingent on a public commitment to investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election, according to a copy of his opening statement obtained by the Washington Post.
Trump wanted to put Zelensky “‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations,” Taylor said, adding that he became so alarmed by the secondary, “irregular” diplomatic channel led by Trump’s private attorney Rudy Giuliani that he prepared to resign.
Taylor recounted EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland telling him that Trump had explicitly denied any quid pro quo by way of aid for investigations — but then, practically in the same breath, expressing that the money wouldn’t flow if Zelensky didn’t personally announce investigations.
“Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelensky and [Zelensky adviser] Mr. Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelensky did not ‘clear things up’ in public, we would be at a stalemate,” Taylor said. “I understood a ‘stalemate’ to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed assistance.”
Sondland then said Zelensky had agreed to make a public statement in an interview with CNN, although such an announcement did not ultimately happen.
Democrats emerged from his closed-door appearance to describe Taylor’s testimony as extensive, detailed, and “dramatic,” and drawn from contemporaneous notes he took during multiple conversations with top Trump administration officials about Ukraine.
“It was the most damning testimony that I’ve heard so far,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, told VICE News.
“Based on the opening statements in the public domain, Ambassador Taylor drives a stake through any possible legal defense that Donald Trump would have,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) told VICE News as he headed in to listen to more of Taylor’s ongoing testimony. “He’s very clear in that statement.”
“It was the most damning testimony that I’ve heard so far”
Democrats called the career diplomat’s version of events credible and troubling, and said it added detail to Taylor’s previously released text messages in which he expressed alarm about Trump tying military assistance to Ukraine to “help with a political campaign.”
“He had a very long opening statement. And it was based on meticulous notes he had taken of meetings and phone conversations and the like,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), another Oversight Committee member, told reporters.
Taylor was one of the few people running U.S. policy toward Ukraine in the last few months after the Trump administration pushed out Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Unlike others involved in the saga, Taylor’s a career diplomat with no direct loyalty to Trump. He raised the alarm multiple times about the Trump administration’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine until its leaders agreed to investigate Trump’s Democratic political rivals.
That includes a text message where Taylor made sure to put his concerns into writing to then-U.S. special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Sondland.
“As I said on the phone, I think it is crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor texted.
Taylor’s testimony was “excruciatingly detailed,” and included details of that key phone call, Wasserman Schultz said.
“His testimony really stood in stark contrast to Ambassador Sondland’s, who had a non-credible amount of lapses in memory,” she added.
That could spell trouble for Sondland, who in testimony to the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees last week sought to protect himself even as he pointed the finger at Rudy Giuliani. Sondland repeatedly said he didn’t remember the details of their conversations, and multiple Democrats who heard both Sondland’s and Taylor’s testimony implied that Sondland hadn’t been straight with the committee.
"After today, Mr. Sondland is going to have some explaining to do,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence and Oversight committees.
“Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,’” Taylor reportedly told House investigators.
Democrats declared themselves bowled over by Taylor’s opening statement in particular. But one prominent Trump supporter in the room said things got better for Trump after that.
“I think pieces of the puzzle are being put together”
“I thought the second hour was very good,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), adding that he viewed Taylor’s testimony as “consistent” with what other witnesses like Sondland have said.
Jordan said that after Taylor’s opening statement, his remarks “buttressed” some of Trump’s concerns about Ukraine. Trump’s defenders have suggested his administration withheld hundreds of millions in aid to Ukraine approved by Congress out of concerns about corruption.
“There’s information that I think came out, I think, particularly in the second hour, that underscores concerns that the president had about Ukraine in general,” Jordan said.
Jordan is in the minority, however.
Taylor’s testimony was “disturbing,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).
“I think pieces of the puzzle are being put together,” Phillips said. “It’s becoming more distinct.”
Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) told reporters that Taylor’s testimony “was very compelling, detailed and specific,” and elicited “a lot of sighs and gasps” with his opening testimony.
“All I have to say is that in my 10 short months in Congress… this is my most disturbing day in Congress so far,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.).
Cover: UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 22: Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, arrives to the Capitol for a deposition related to the House's impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, October 22, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call),