US envoy says Trump used military aid to push Ukraine to investigate Biden
The acting US ambassador to Kyiv has told congressional committeesconducting impeachment hearings that military aid to Ukraine was made conditional on its government investigating the president’s political opponents.
In the latest damning deposition by a serving state department official, Bill Taylor presented a written statement to the three House committees holding hearings on whether Donald Trump abused his office to seek political advantage.
Democrats declared it to be the clearest account to date of Trump’s abuse of office in the Ukraine scandal.
According to Taylor’s statement, as quoted by the Washington Post, the US ambassador to the EU and a major Trump donor, Gordon Sondland, made clear to Taylor in a phone call that both military aid and a White House meeting with Trump were dependent on the launch of two investigations.
One was into a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, which had employed Hunter Biden, the son of former vice-president and 2020 Democratic contender Joe Biden. The second was into Ukraine’s role in the 2016 presidential election, a reference to a conspiracy theory that – counter to the consensus view of US intelligence agencies - held that it was Ukraine that had interfered in the vote in the Democrats’ favor, rather than Russia in favor of Trump.
“During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election,” Taylor said in his statement.
He added: “Sondland said ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance.”
The Democratic representative Stephen Lynch, a senior member of the House oversight and reform committee, was quoted in Politico as saying the testimony was a “sea change” that “could accelerate” the impeachment inquiry.
The New Jersey , representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, said it was “the most thorough accounting we’ve had of the timeline”.
Taylor had flown to Washington in response to a congressional subpoena and in defiance of an administration gag order.
The Politico website quoted a source in the private briefing as saying Taylor’s opening statement was 15 pages long and prompted “a lot of sighs and gasps”.
Taylor’s testimony was keenly awaited by Democrats on the House committees, who saw him as a key witness. The long-serving diplomat was brought out of retirement in June after the former ambassador to Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch, was abruptly removed from her post.
In diplomatic texts released by Congress, it is Taylor who most clearly expresses the quid pro quo being presented to the Ukrainian government by Trump’s emissaries, and his deep concern about it.
“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote on 9 September to Sondland, who was coordinating efforts to persuade the government in Kyiv to conduct investigations of Trump’s political opponents. Taylor threatened to quit over the issue.
Trump suspended $400m in military aid to Ukraine a few days before a 25 July phone call to Zelenskiy. In the released version of the call, when the Ukrainian president raised the matter of US military support Trump responded: “I would like you to do us a favour though …”
The US president went on to ask for the investigation aimed at discrediting former vice-president Joe Biden and the Democratic party.
Taylor’s text makes clear that the trade-off was apparent to the US diplomats involved in discussions with the Ukrainian leadership, and that at least one senior diplomat, the US envoy in Kyiv, had raised a red flag about it.
Congressional investigators were expected to question Taylor about the events leading up to that text that convinced him military aid was being held in an effort to pressure Kyiv.
The White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, admitted last week that a deliberate trade-off was presented to the Ukrainian government.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he told reporters at the White House. “I have news for everybody. Get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy. Elections have consequences.”
Mulvaney later tried to withdraw the remarks, claiming they had been misconstrued. The Democratic leaders of the House committees believe Taylor’s testimony will put in the spotlight the most damaging allegation, that Trump withheld aid that was essential to Ukrainian efforts to confront Russian military intervention in its Donbass region, in order to secure political advantage in the 2020 election.
“I think the written record is very significant because it demonstrates that there was a clear understanding, amongst the participants who spoke with Ukrainian authorities, that there was a quid pro quo and the security aid was being used to leverage,” said Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who covered Ukraine issues in the Obama administration.
“Bill Taylor is a very credible person who has an unimpeachable record and so what he says about those messages and how he conveys his concerns about the quid pro quo is going to be very important to the inquiry going forward.”
Taylor is a tough witness for the White House and its supporters to undermine. He is a Vietnam war veteran with a long and distinguished record as a diplomat, including a prior stint as ambassador to Ukraine.
After Yovanovitch was removed, Taylor was recommended as a replacement by the then special envoy on Ukraine, Kurt Volker. From his position at a thinktank, the US Institute of Peace, Taylor had closely followed Ukrainian politics. He needed no preparation to take on the role.
Before taking up the post, however, Taylor requested a meeting with the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and other top officials for reassurance about administration policy, according to a friend.
“He was not happy about what happened to Ambassador Yovanovitch but he saw there was a need for someone with ambassadorial title who was well-known to the Ukrainians,” Taylor’s friend said.
“He wanted to do a quick check on the administration policy on Ukraine,” the friend added. Taylor had been an early supporter of supplying US lethal military aid to Ukraine to confront Russian intervention. “The administration has actually been quite good on Ukraine but there was the question of whether the president was fully invested in it.”
Taylor was assured the administration was a firm supporter of arms supplies to Ukraine, so Trump’s order to suspend deliveries came as a shock.
In appearing before the committees, Taylor is not observing a gag order imposed by the White House and the state department – a further sign that the wall of silence the administration has sought to erect around the Ukraine scandal continues to crumble.
“I think it’s very difficult for people who don’t seek the limelight,” said Tara Sonenshine, a former under secretary of state for public diplomacy. “I think it’s also very difficult to be in this foreign policy community and have to buck the tide.
“But he’s a man of honour and a man of honesty and can always be counted on to do what’s right.”