Taylor arrived on Capitol Hill Tuesday with the potential to deliver some of the most revealing testimony to date in the House’s impeachment inquiry. Weeks before Taylor testified, it emerged that he had deep concerns that Trump was possibly withholding military aid to the eastern European nation to pressure Ukrainian leaders to launch the investigations — one of which centers on an unsubstantiated claim about the origins of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Taylor, who replaced U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch after her unceremonious ouster by Trump in May, raised alarms with colleagues on Sept. 1 in a text message exchange released earlier this month by the three committees spearheading the inquiry.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and [White House] meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he wondered, referring to a potential meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Eight days later, Taylor’s concerns grew more urgent. In texts with two other diplomats, Taylor said it was “crazy” that military aid to Kiev was being blocked in order to force “help with a political campaign.” Nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine was put on hold in late July by the White House but was released in September two weeks after POLITICO revealed that it was frozen. Taylor described the hold on aid as a “nightmare” and said it had already shaken Ukraine’s faith in the United States.
“The Russians love it. (And I quit.),” Taylor said of the prospect that the aid would be blocked even after Ukraine agreed to open Trump’s preferred investigations.
Trump, who urged Zelensky to investigate Biden in a July 25 phone call, has denied the charge that military assistance was used as leverage to bend Zelensky to his will. But the episode is at the heart of Democrats’ deepening impeachment investigation over whether Trump abused his power by leveraging America’s diplomatic and military might to benefit his 2020 re-election campaign.
The House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the inquiry, issued a subpoena to Taylor early Tuesday morning, according to an official, because the State Department tried to block Taylor from appearing. The official also cited “efforts by the State Department to also limit any testimony that does occur,” adding that Taylor was complying with the subpoena.
Other State Department officials have spoken with investigators under subpoena after the State Department and White House sought to block them from appearing — a sign that the White House’s stranglehold on testimony has begun to slip.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the president’s lead defender in the room, was tight-lipped as he emerged from the closed-door deposition for a lunch break. He praised what he described as GOP lawyers’ effective questioning of Taylor but declined to say whether it yielded exculpatory information.
Taylor’s lengthy diplomatic service occurred under Republican and Democratic presidents. He served as ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush and Barack Obama from 2006 to 2009. Before that, he held numerous diplomatic posts in the Middle East, advised the U.S. ambassador to NATO and worked on Capitol Hill for former Sen. Bill Bradley. He graduated from West Point and served in Vietnam.
Taylor had left government service for a senior position at the U.S. Institute of Peace but returned to the diplomatic corps in June after Yovanovitch’s ouster. She testified to lawmakers earlier this month that her removal was the result of a smear campaign engineered by Trump allies who portrayed her as disloyal for rebuffing Giuliani’s mission in Ukraine.
Taylor’s two correspondents in the text exchanges — former ambassador Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union — have already testified to impeachment investigators. They painted a portrait of a foreign policy that had been outsourced by Trump to his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Both described deep discomfort with the arrangement and worried that Giuliani’s freelancing — especially in a country fending off Russian aggression and battling systemic internal corruption — could undermine America’s years-long diplomatic efforts.
Taylor voiced those concerns in a July text exchange days before Trump called Zelensky, who was elected in the spring on a platform of fighting corruption.
“Gordon, one thing Kurt and I talked about yesterday was Sasha Danyliuk’s point that President Zelenskyy is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics,” he said. Danyliuk is likely a reference to Oleksandr Danyliuk, Ukraine’s former finance minister.
Sondland replied, “Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.”
After Trump canceled a late August trip to Poland, where he was to meet Zelensky, the ambassadors again fretted about building a relationship between Trump and Zelensky. Volker said he hoped Vice President Mike Pence would attend in Trump’s place and set up a White House visit for Zelensky. He also said he hoped Energy Secretary Rick Perry would join.
But Taylor, on Sept. 1, worried that the White House visit itself would be conditioned on Trump’s demand for Ukraine to investigate Biden as well as an unfounded conspiracy theory that Ukraine — not Russia — interfered in the 2016 election.
As Taylor’s concerns about a quid pro quo grew more explicit, Sondland sought to put him at ease.
“Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” Sondland texted on Sept. 9, urging his colleagues to stop the text message exchanges.
Last week, Sondland told House investigators that he sent this message after speaking directly to Trump and that he could not speak to whether it was true.