Audible gasps are said to have rippled across the room as Bill Taylor, the United States’ top diplomat in Ukraine, delivered a 15-page opening statement to House impeachment investigators on Tuesday. Taylor described in detail, with the help of contemporaneous notes, extensive efforts to leverage hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign assistance and a White House meeting in exchange for investigations into a 2020 rival and a debunked theory about 2016 election interference.
He also illustrated the stakes of Trump’s capricious decision to withhold security assistance, recounting a visit to northern Donbas, the frontlines of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where a military commander thanked him for the security assistance he knew was being held up. “I could see the armed and hostile Russian-led forces on the other side of the damaged bridge across the line of contact. Over 13,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war, one or two a week. More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without U.S. assistance,” Taylor recalls in the statement.
Taylor was subpoenaed, Politico reports, early Tuesday morning amid concerns the State Department would block him from appearing. In the statement, obtained by the Washington Post, Taylor, a career diplomat who worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations, spoke of his reluctance to return earlier this year to Ukraine (he had been an ambassador under George W. Bush) after his most recent predecessor, Masha Yovanovitch, was treated so “poorly” there, “caught in a web of political machinations both in Kyiv and in Washington.”
Before agreeing to return to Ukraine, Taylor says he asked for and received assurances from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the U.S. remain a strong ally of Ukraine’s in its ongoing war with Russia. Taylor arrived in Ukraine, he recalls, with a letter from Trump congratulating President Volodymyr Zelensky on his election and inviting him to the White House. But, he says that, shortly after landing in Kiev, “I discovered a weird combination of encouraging, confusing, and ultimately alarming circumstances.”
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“I found a confusing and unusual arrangement for making U.S. policy toward Ukraine. There appeared to be two channels of U.S. policy-making and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular.” The “regular” went through the embassy, of which Taylor was in charge. The irregular was comprised of Kurt Volker, then special envoy to Ukraine; Gordon Sondland, the E.U. ambassador; Rick Perry, the recently-resigned Secretary of Energy; and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.
Taylor goes on to detail the parallel channels working, at first, toward a shared goal: setting up the promised White House visit. He would later learn from both Volker and Sondland that the president wasn’t on board. He “wanted to hear from Zelensky” before scheduling a White House visit. “It was not clear to me what this meant” Taylor recalls, but he came to understand that President Trump expected President Zelensky to confirm he would not stand in the way of any “investigations.”
According to Taylor, by mid-July: “It was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I came to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.”
Taylor also testified that Sondland made efforts to conceal the details of at least one conversation with Zelensky, insisting that the regular participants in such calls not be invited and by explicitly asking that the call not be transcribed or monitored. (He later recalls being puzzled when he, who, again, is the U.S.’s top diplomat in Ukraine, did not receive a readout of the now-infamous call between Trump and Zelensky as he normally would.)
Taylor also described finding out that the security assistance was being withheld in a video conference. “Toward the end of an otherwise normal meeting, a voice on the call — the person was off-screen — said that she was from OMB and that her boss had instructed her not to approve any additional spending of security assistance for Ukraine. I, and others, sat in astonishment — the Ukrainians were fighting the Russians and counted on not only the training and weapons, but also the assurance of U.S. support.” The orders, the person said, came directly from the president.
He went on to confirm his understanding that Sondland had communicated to Ukranian emissaries that Zelensky’s Oval Office invitation was conditioned on whether the country opened investigations. (He also confirms that John Bolton, present at the meeting, called it a “drug deal,” and said a conversation between Trump and Zelensky would be a “disaster.”)
As Taylor would go on to explain, it was a disaster. Ahead of time, Sondland had encouraged Zelensky to promise he would leave “no stone unturned,” while Zelensky told aides he worried about being used “as a pawn in a U.S. re-election campaign.”
Taylor says he finally saw the transcript of the phone call when it was released publicly, but says he was not surprised by what was said. “I had come to understand well before then that ‘investigations’ was a term that Ambassadors Volker and Sondland used to mean matters related to the 2016 elections, and to investigations of Burisma and the Bidens.'”
Taylor’s decision to comply with Congress’ subpoena constituted an act of defiance within the administration: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo forbade State Department employees like Taylor from cooperating, and the White House has issued a blanket denial.
“This testimony is a sea change,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) said as he left the hearing. He added that he believed the revelations could accelerate impeachment proceedings in the House. “This will, I think, answer more questions than it raises. Let’s put it that way.”
In the meantime, support for impeachment continues to grow. A CNN survey released the morning of Taylor’s testimony found that, for the first time, a majority of Americans support impeachment and removal of the president.