WASHINGTON — President Trump’s White House dismissed explosive testimony by Ambassador Bill Taylor on Tuesday as “triple hearsay.”
But Trump should know just how well documented Taylor’s account really is: He’s got Taylor’s notes.
Taylor’s detailed records, which informed his damning account of the Trump administration’s backdoor pressure campaign on Ukraine, were turned over to the State Department and were not handed over to Congressional impeachment investigators, a person familiar with the situation told VICE News on Wednesday.
The withholding of Taylor’s notes raises yet more questions about the lengths to which top Trump administration officials, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have gone to shield the president from a detailed look at his own behavior. It also forces Democrats to either pry those files loose by fighting an uncooperative Pompeo in court, or to rely on the testimony and documents of others to back up their new star witness.
Democrats re-upped their demand for State Department documents on Wednesday, requesting “written readouts and write-ups of meetings and conversations that document activity and conduct under investigation by the Committees.”
Those who watched Taylor’s closed-door appearance on Tuesday praised his “excruciatingly detailed” narrative, in which he recalled top diplomats setting about fulfilling Trump’s demands to pressure Ukraine’s president into announcing investigations of Democrat Joe Biden and the 2016 election.
“He had a very long opening statement,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, Democrat of Virginia. “And it was based on meticulous notes he had taken of meetings and phone conversations and the like."
But the State Department has shown no sign of being willing to turn over those documents, or any others subpoenaed by House Democrats in late September — and legal experts say that any courtroom challenge could easily take so long that it would outlast the impeachment investigation, if not the entire Trump presidency.
My subpoena, your subpoena
Ironically, the Congressional subpoena sent to the State Department appears to be providing an additional unintended legal rationale for the Trump administration to withhold the documents from Congress.
Having received the subpoena, the department would theoretically, under normal circumstances, begin gathering files together in order to satisfy the request.
Taylor’s files were handed over to the Statement Department in connection with that Congressional subpoena, the person said.
But the department is simultaneously refusing to hand those docs over to Congress — presenting the astonishing portrait of the department both relying on the subpoena to gather records, then refusing to actually turn them over.
House investigators subpoenaed Pompeo for Ukraine records in late September, a request that so far his department has denied.
That refusal falls in line with Trump’s blanket ban on any cooperation from his administration with the impeachment inquiry, an argument legal observers have dismissed as a legally dubious Trumpian rant subsequently dressed up in legalese by top White House attorneys.
Individual diplomats like Taylor have defied that order when it comes to verbal testimony, and marched down to Capitol Hill to speak. But at the top level, Pompeo’s State Department has held firm on the request for documents, and been partly successful.
One case in point: Gordon Sondland, Trump’s EU Ambassador, who testified last week that Trump ordered him to work with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine policy.But Sondland also refused to turn over documents to the committee.
In a letter, Sondland told Congress that his records were technically government property, and couldn’t be released if the State Department didn't agree — which it didn’t.
Congress did get one big batch of damning documents, however, from Ambassador Kurt Volker, who was Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine before he abruptly resigned after his role in the scandal emerged.
Volker handed over multiple pages of a group WhatsApp chat between himself, Sondland and Taylor that showed discussions aimed at figuring out how to get Ukraine to announce investigations. Those text exchanges support Taylor’s version of events, if not in every detail.
Volker was in a different position from either Taylor or Sondland when he handed over his files to Congress: He’d quit his government job.
Both Sondland and Taylor remain State Department employees, making it much harder for them to disregard Pompeo’s orders about what should happen with their documents.
Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.
Cover: President Donald Trump delivers remarks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)(Sipa via AP Images)