WASHINGTON — Last week’s impeachment testimony was brutal for President Trump — and things are about to get worse.
Next up: Bill Taylor, a central player in the Ukraine scandal, who’s already made some of the most damning statements on record in the saga. Oh, and he's hired a hardcore anti-Trump conservative lawyer to represent him.
Taylor, the top American diplomat to Ukraine, will testify Tuesday in a closed Congressional session about the Trump administration’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to “look into” former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think Bill will give an account that lays out the way the pressure was exerted on [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky and the Ukrainians, and how he tried to caution against it,” Daniel Fried, a career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Poland, predicted to VICE News. “He won’t duck.”
Taylor is an especially unique threat to Trump because he’s a widely-respected career diplomat with inside knowledge on Ukraine, who has already expressed alarm about the pressure campaign in no uncertain terms.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor texted former U.S Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in early September, according to previously released messages.
House Democrats now have a golden opportunity to press Taylor about exactly what was said on that July 25 phone call — and for his take on the “crazy” diplomatic overture.
An American in Ukraine
Taylor was sent to Kyiv in June to serve as the top American diplomat to Ukraine on a temporary basis after the abrupt ouster of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch in May.
Yovanovitch’s removal came at the urging of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney. Her sudden recall to Washington alarmed career State Department officials, who have been deeply critical of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for not supporting her more forcefully in the face of what’s been widely seen as a right-wing smear campaign against her in the media.
Taylor’s appointment to replace Yovanovitch made sense, on paper: He was already deeply familiar with Ukraine, having served as U.S. ambassador in Kyiv from 2006 to 2009. Prior to returning to Kiev, he was working in D.C. as executive vice president for the U.S. Institute for Peace.
But he hardly fit the profile of someone prepared to work with Giuliani’s back-door pressure campaign on Ukraine, and appeared to clash with his counterparts, Sondland and Volker.
Taylor’s text messages suggest he was deeply uncomfortable with their discussions.
He warned Sondland and Volker that Ukraine’s president was sensitive to his country “being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.”
At another point, he raised the prospect of quitting if aid to Ukraine wasn’t released.
Multiple former State Department officials who spoke with VICE News described Taylor as a straight-shooting, non-partisan career diplomat.
Taylor is “very loyal to public service and he knew Ukraine inside and out,” and would be “outraged” by the notion that military aid to Ukraine “was tied to the notion of an investigation into our election, either 2016 or into the Bidens,” Tara Sonenshine, a former undersecretary of State in the Obama administration who worked closely with Taylor, told VICE News.
Taylor has prepared for his appearance Tuesday by hiring John Bellinger, a vocally anti-Trump conservative lawyer to represent him.
Bellinger served in top legal roles in George W. Bush’s White House and State Department before taking a public stand against Trump’s candidacy during the 2016 campaign. Lately, he’s allied himself with George Conway, the husband of Trump communications advisor Kellyanne Conway, in urging conservative lawyers to speak out against the Trump administration’s policies.
Taylor is just the latest high-level official to signal deep concerns about the State Department’s role in the Ukraine saga and defy Trump’s blanket ban on cooperating with the House impeachment inquiry.
Bellinger represents another such official: Michael McKinley, a former top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who resigned in protest. McKinley testified last week that he quit because Pompeo failed to protect Yovanovitch, and because of “what appears to be the utilization of our ambassadors overseas to advance domestic political objectives” in Ukraine.
“Conservative lawyers are not doing enough to protect constitutional principles that are being undermined by the statements and actions of this president,” Bellinger told The New York Times last year.
By representing Taylor, Bellinger has inserted himself into one of the president’s most dramatic disputes over the use, or abuse, of presidential power.
Taylor made his own feelings on the issue pretty clear in his now-public messages to Volker and Sondland.
Taylor’s admonition that inserting Ukraine into U.S. politics looked “crazy” left a clear paper trail for later investigators — whether intentionally or not. It prompted Sondland to reach out to Trump before replying hours later that there were “no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” and insisting that future conversations happen on the phone (where there would be no record).
House Democrats will undoubtedly ask Taylor why he was so alarmed — and those who know Taylor well say he’ll likely be just as blunt in his testimony as he was in his text messages.
“He’s a straight shooter whom I would expect to answer the questions that are asked directly,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst.
Cover: President Donald Trump gestures while speaking during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Washington. Sitting on the right is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)