Diplomat Stuns at Capitol Hill With Testimony on Key Ukraine Texts

Ambassador William Taylor, is escorted by U.S. Capitol Police as he arrives to testify before House committees as part of the Democrats’ impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The diplomat’s own text messages show that he thought it “crazy” the Trump administration would condition U.S. military assistance to a foreign power on help with a political campaign.

And on Tuesday, William Taylor finally appeared before lawmakers to share what some lawmakers described as the most impactful insights yet to emerge from depositions regarding the quid pro quo that is the beating heart of the President Donald Trump impeachment inquiry.

The path to Taylor’s testimony began in earnest in July when President Trump, on a call with Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky, pressured the newly elected foreign official to investigate one of his expected 2020 election rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump had for months at that point been quietly withholding roughly $400 million in military assistance from Ukraine. In the weeks that followed, according to texts messages that former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker gave early this month to House lawmakers, Taylor repeatedly expressed concerns about the U.S. president’s motives.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor, America’s top diplomat in Ukraine, wrote on Sept. 1 to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

“Call me,” Sondland replied.

During the phone call, Taylor testified, Sondland described Trump as having informed him that he wanted Zelensky to state publicly Ukraine would investigate Burisma and the alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Sondland then conceded that he made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations.

“In fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky in a “public box” by making a public statement ordering such investigations,” Taylor testified.

Taylor said he asked Sondland to push back on Trump’s request but Sondland only said he would try.

It would be a week before Sondland confirmed in text messages that “multiple conversations” had taken place between Zelensky and Trump. Taylor sounded the alarm again.

On a phone call with Sondland, Taylor said, Sondland relayed that Trump heard the suggestion to lay off Zelensky but the president was insistent.

“President Trump was adamant that President Zelensky himself had to ‘clear things up and do it public,’” Taylor said Tuesday. “President Trump said it was not a quid pro quo. Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelensky and Mr. Yermak and told them, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelensky did not clear things up in public, we would be at a stalemate.”

Andriy Yermak is an adviser to President Zelensky.

Taylor understood the stalemate would mean Ukraine would not get its military assistance. It was after this call that Taylor aired his concerns over a nightmare scenario.

“The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance,” Taylor wrote. “The Russians love it. (And I quit).” (Parentheses in original.)

Within 24 hours, Taylor pinged Sondland twice more. First, Taylor reiterated concerns that withholding military assistance would worsen an already “shaken” relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine. Then, in a pleading text to Sondland, he wrote: “Counting on you to be right about this interview, Gordon.”

Sondland demurred, telling Taylor he never said he was “right.”

“I said we are where we are and believe we have identified the best path forward.,” Sondland wrote. “Let’s hope it works.”

Within 10 minutes, Taylor replied again: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Sondland, was dismissive, telling Taylor he was “incorrect” about Trump’s intentions, there was “no quid pro quo of any kind,” and that they should stop discussing the matter over text.

Before the texts between Taylor and Sondland on Sept. 8, Taylor said Sondland tried to explain to him that Trump “is a businessman.”

“When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check,” Taylor said Tuesday, quoting Sondland.

Kurt Volker had also referred to Trump in the same way, Taylor noted, adding that he argued his point to both men. The explanation they offered made “no sense,” Taylor said.

“The Ukrainians did not owe President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for domestic political gain was crazy as I had said in my text messages to Ambassadors Sondland and Volker on September 9,” Taylor said.

Taylor had been retired when he was tapped to lead the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine after ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was abruptly booted from the role following a campaign for her ouster led by Giuliani.

The Trump administration saw Taylor’s experience, specific to Ukraine, as a good fit. Taylor served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, oversaw reconstruction in Iraq for a year and coordinated U.S. assistance to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003.

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