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‘The directive had come from the president’; Longtime diplomat details quid pro quo with Ukraine

William B. Taylor Jr., the United States’ top diplomat in Ukraine, arrived at the Capitol in Washington for a closed door session with impeachment investigators on Tuesday.
Anna Moneymaker/New York Times
William B. Taylor Jr., the United States’ top diplomat in Ukraine, arrived at the Capitol in Washington for a closed door session with impeachment investigators on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — William B. Taylor Jr., the United States’ top diplomat in Ukraine, told impeachment investigators privately on Tuesday that President Trump held up vital security aid for the country and refused a White House meeting with Ukraine’s leader until he agreed to make a public pledge to investigate Trump’s political rivals.

In testimony built around careful notes he took during his tenure and delivered in defiance of State Department orders, Taylor sketched out in remarkable detail a quid-pro-quo pressure campaign on Ukraine that Trump and his allies have long denied, one in which the president conditioned the entire United States relationship with Ukraine on a promise that the country would investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his family, along with other Democrats.

His account implicated Trump personally in the effort, citing multiple sources inside the government, including a budget official who said during a secure National Security Council conference call in July that she had been instructed not to approve a $391 million security assistance package for Ukraine, and that, Taylor said, “the directive had come from the president.”

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Taylor, in his opening statement obtained by The New York Times, described Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, as being at the center of what he called an “irregular policy channel” that operated outside of — and at odds with — normal American foreign policymaking. He further characterized the situation as “a rancorous story about whistle-blowers, Giuliani, side channels, quid pro quos, corruption, and interference in elections.”

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When he objected to Trump’s efforts to tie security aid and a White House meeting to the investigations, Taylor said Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union and a Trump campaign donor, told him there was no quid pro quo.

But then Sondland described just that, telling Taylor to think of Trump as a businessman looking to make sure he would benefit before he closed a deal.

“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 testified, quoting Sondland.

Taylor’s testimony directly contradicted repeated assertions by Trump and his Republican allies that there was never a direct linkage involving investigations into Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that employed Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, or other Democrats.

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It also raised questions about the veracity of the testimony of other prominent impeachment witnesses, including Sondland and Kurt D. Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, who have said behind closed doors they had not been aware of any improper pressure tactics.

That is not true, Taylor told the committee. He said the president had explicitly made it clear that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would not be invited to the White House or secure much-needed security aid unless the Ukrainian leader made a public announcement that his country would start the investigations that Trump so badly wanted.

Taylor testified that he was told of Trump’s demands for investigations during a telephone call with Sondland.

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

“During that phone call,” Taylor said, “Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election.”

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One lawmaker described the testimony as drawing a “direct line” between American foreign policy and Trump’s own political goals.

In his statement, Taylor described a July 18 call in which he learned that the directive to withhold Ukraine’s aid had come to the White House budget office directly from Trump, through his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

“In an instant I realized one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened,” Taylor said in his testimony.

In his statement, Taylor described with almost cinematic sweep his return to Ukraine in mid-June, after a long diplomatic career in the country, only to discover with dismay in the months that followed “a weird combination of encouraging, confusing, and ultimately alarming circumstances.”

A West Point graduate with a nearly 50-year career as a diplomat, Taylor testified about his growing realization that Trump had put in place “two channels of US policymaking and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular,” with the latter group made up of Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Volker, and Giuliani.

Throughout the summer, Mr. Taylor said, it became clear that the irregular group was focused on only one thing: the investigations sought by the president.

And at a July 18 meeting, Taylor said he learned that the president had held up “until further notice” all military aid needed to repel attacks from Russian-backed forces.

About 10 days later, Taylor said, he traveled to the front lines of Ukraine fighting in northern Donbass for a briefing from the country’s commanders, who thanked him for the security assistance being provided by the United States government — assistance that Taylor by then knew was no longer coming.

Taylor said he 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 the US assistance.”

In an almost hour-by-hour recitation, Taylor laid out his increasing panic through the summer and into September as he realized that the security aid Ukraine needed was being held up because of Trump’s political demands. In one text message to Sondland, he threatened to quit if Ukraine didn’t get the assistance.

“I was serious,” Taylor wrote in his statement.

The intelligence whistle-blower’s complaint that prompted the impeachment inquiry said that Trump’s effort to pressure Zelensky during a July phone call to open an investigation of Burisma was part of a concerted effort to use the power of his office to enlist foreign help in the 2020 election.

Taylor was the latest in a string of career diplomats and current and former administration officials who have defied a White House blockade of the impeachment inquiry and submitted to closed-door depositions with investigators digging into whether Trump abused his power to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political adversaries.