Ambassador William Taylor brings receipts: a quid pro quo direct line to Donald Trump

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In the Watergate scandal, White House counsel John Dean had a photographic memory and near total recall of events in delivering his devastating testimony before Congress. The Nixon tapes later confirmed John Dean’s testimony in astonishing detail.

Ambassador William Taylor may not have John Dean’s photographic memory, but he does appear to have near total recall of events, aided by “receipts”: his detailed contemporaneous notes of conversations that he had with Trump administration officials, and memorandums to file. (Pro Tip: this is the type of evidence that is pure gold to attorneys).

The Washington Post reports, Trump made Ukraine aid contingent on public pledge to investigate Bidens and 2016 election, U.S. envoy says he was told:

America’s top diplomat in Ukraine delivered a forceful blow to President Trump’s account of his “perfect” dealings with that nation, telling lawmakers Tuesday that the White House had threatened to withdraw much-needed military aid unless Kyiv announced investigations for Trump’s political benefit.

The explosive, closed-door testimony from acting ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. undermined Trump’s insistence that he never pressured Ukrainian officials in a potentially improper “quid pro quo.” It also offered House investigators an expansive road map to what Taylor called a “highly irregular” channel of shadow diplomacy toward Ukraine that lies at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

In a 15-page opening statement (.pdf), obtained by The Washington Post, Taylor repeatedly expressed his shock and bewilderment as he watched U.S. policy toward Ukraine get overtaken by Trump’s demand that newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky “go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of [Democratic presidential candidate Joe] Biden and 2016 election interference.”

“ ‘Everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,” Taylor said he was told by Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

A seasoned diplomat, Army veteran and meticulous note taker, Taylor told lawmakers that former national security adviser John Bolton and other officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA tried unsuccessfully to get a meeting with Trump to persuade him to release the money — nearly $400 million intended to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia.

But Trump’s hold on the aid extended well into September, and Taylor said he found himself considering resignation. “I could not and would not defend such a policy,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s unspooling of events not only contradicted Sondland’s testimony, delivered last week, but also posed a test for Republicans who have uniformly defended Trump amid the fast-moving Ukraine saga. Many have cast evidence of a “quid pro quo” — U.S. aid used as leverage for political favors — as the red line that would cause Trump to lose their support.

Ambassador Taylor just provided the evidence of a quid pro quo, calling Republicans’ bluff. Not one of them have announced that Trump has lost his or her support. There has been no comparable trip to the White House by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, House Republican Leader John Rhodes, and Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott to tell Richard Nixon that he has lost support among his party and urged him to resign, or be impeached and removed.

The Washington Post editorialized today, Here’s the quid pro quo proof, Lindsey Graham. After laying out a detailed tick-tock of events and the supporting evidence, the editors conclude “Mr. Graham is himself a lawyer and former military prosecutor. He surely can recognize this corrupt campaign for what it is. The question is whether he, and other Republicans, have the moral courage to do so.”

Courage is a virtue in short supply among Republicans.

Taylor’s testimony made plain that, even as Sondland and others told him that the president was not seeking a “quid pro quo,” it was clear to him that the arrangement met the dictionary definition.

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In his testimony, Taylor told lawmakers that on Sept. 8, after he had begun raising alarms about pressure on Zelensky, Sondland explained that Trump approached the foreign policy matter as a business proposition.

“Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President 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.”

Ukraine did not “owe” Donald Trump anything. The security assistance was appropriated by Congress, and the president had no lawful right to withhold it, certainly not withholding it to extort a “favor” from Ukraine, i.e., manufacturing dirt on his political opponent, Joe Biden and his son, or to bribe a foreign government.

Sondland told House investigators last week that he recalls “no discussions” with anyone at the State Department or White House about investigating Biden or his son Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma.

Sondland will now be recalled as a witness to clarify or correct his testimony, or face perjury or lying to Congress charges.

Taylor also pointed to Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani as a source of trouble.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has coffee with Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, U.S. September 20, 2019. REUTERS/Aram Roston/File Photo

“The push to make President Zelenskyy publicly commit to investigations of Burisma and alleged interference in the 2016 election showed how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani,” Taylor wrote, using an alternate spelling for the Ukrainian leader’s name.

Giuliani has advanced a baseless allegation that Joe Biden had intervened in a corruption investigation involving Burisma to keep his son out of trouble. Giuliani has also promoted a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved in 2016 election interference that U.S. intelligence agencies have blamed on Russia.

“It was just the most damning testimony I’ve heard,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said in an interview partway through Taylor’s testimony.

“He drew a very specific, direct line from President Trump to the withholding of foreign aid and the refusal of a meeting” between Trump and Zelensky, Wasserman Schultz said.

Upon arriving in Kyiv this past spring, Taylor became alarmed by U.S. officials’ involvement in secondary diplomatic channels that he called “weird,” he said.

Taylor walked lawmakers through a series of conversations he had with other U.S. diplomats who were trying to obtain what one had called the “deliverable” of Ukrainian help investigating Trump’s political rivals.

House Democrats are expected to use Taylor’s account of his conversations with Sondland to show that Trump had issued clear orders about what he wanted from Zelensky.

“He shared important information about the events surrounding the president’s effort to pursue another foreign country to interfere in the American presidential election,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who was in the room for the deposition. “I think his testimony was devastating to the president. I think he’s filled in a lot of the gaps and connected the dots.”

Taylor testified that he first learned about U.S. military aid being leveraged on a promise by Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political foes in an early September phone call with Tim Morrison. The top National Security Council official described how Sondland had told a Ukrainian official that “the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation,” Taylor testified.

Taylor told lawmakers he was “alarmed” by the news. “This was the first time I had heard that security assistance — not just the White House meeting — was conditioned on the investigations,” he told lawmakers.

The same day, he texted Sondland to ask whether this was correct, a message that was made public earlier: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he wrote.

Sondland responded by telling Taylor to call him instead of texting.

A few days later, on Sept. 7, Taylor sent Sondland a series of text messages laying out his concerns about holding up the military aid. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he wrote.

Sondland responded nearly five hours later after he spoke with Trump, insisting there was “no quid pro quo’s of any kind” and asked to “stop the back and forth by text.”

Taylor said he agreed to go to Kyiv in June as a placeholder ambassador because he thought the U.S.-Ukraine relationship was at a critical moment following Zelensky’s election in the spring.

Taylor said that he wanted to reinforce U.S. support for Zelensky’s anti-corruption agenda and his independence from Russia, and that he worried the relationship would drift after the forced recall of former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. He made it clear within the State Department that he objected to her treatment and that he thought the external political “machinations” involving Giuliani that led to her ouster were still present, Taylor said.

Taylor said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked him to take the job with the assurance that “the policy of strong support for Ukraine would continue and that he would support me in defending that policy.”

Taylor, who has served in government posts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, is expected to return to his senior position at the U.S. Institute for Peace sometime next year.

An official working on the impeachment inquiry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations, said Tuesday that Taylor testified under subpoena after the State Department attempted to block his appearance. His was the first of two planned closed-door depositions this week.

Jesse Wegman writes at the New York Times, Donald Trump’s Quid Pro Quo Is Now a Smoking Gun (excerpts):

If Tuesday’s congressional testimony by William Taylor, the actingUnited States envoy to Ukraine, is to be taken at face value — and no one in the Trump administration has yet denied a word of it — then it is now beyond doubt: President Trump placed his personal political future above the national-security interests of the United States. He did so at the expense of longstanding foreign policy, a critical international alliance and the stability of the global order — and he used hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to do it.

[I]n 15 pages, Mr. Taylor laid out with a stunning degree of detail the extent of Mr. Trump’s effort to extort Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his son over supposed corruption.

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Mr. Taylor described to lawmakers how, after agreeing to take over as interim head of the United States Embassy in Ukraine last spring, he soon realized something was very wrong. There were “two channels of U.S. policymaking and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular.” The regular one was what it had long been: support, with bipartisan backing in Congress, for Ukraine against Russian aggression from the east. The irregular one was a concerted effort, led by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, to get Ukraine to investigate purported corruption by Mr. Biden and his son, as well as alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 United States election.

There is no evidence to support the first allegation, and the second has been thoroughly debunked by the American intelligence community. But Mr. Trump doesn’t care about details like that — he is hungry to damage Mr. Biden and he wanted Mr. Zelensky to state publicly that there would be a thorough investigation. He dangled two carrots: a White House visit and nearly $400 million in desperately needed military aid that the United States had promised to Ukraine for its war with Russia.

Mr. Taylor’s alarm bells went off when, shortly before one call with Mr. Zelensky, Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union, said he didn’t want most of the normal interagency participants to be on the line, and didn’t want anyone monitoring or transcribing the call.

Later, Mr. Taylor said, Mr. Sondland told him that “everything” — the White House visit and the military aid — depended on Mr. Zelensky’s willingness to start a high-profile, public investigation. That sure sounds like a threat to withhold money unless Mr. Zelensky did the president’s bidding — what sticklers might call a quid pro quo. Mr. Trump has denied this, repeating “no quid pro quo” as though it were a magical incantation. After reading Mr. Taylor’s testimony, I don’t think that phrase means what the president thinks it means.

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What comes through most clearly in Mr. Taylor’s written testimony, which he supplemented with oral testimony to three House committees behind closed doors, is the sheer shock that an American president would be so reckless with both human lives and international relations, all for his own political gain.

Mr. Taylor laid out the real-world stakes of Mr. Trump’s decision to play politics with Ukraine’s military aid. He recalled a visit to the front lines in eastern Ukraine that he and Kurt Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, made in late July, from where they could see armed Russian forces gathered on the other side of a bridge. “Over 13,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war, one or two a week. More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance,” he wrote.

There are two stories to tell about Ukraine, Mr. Taylor said. One story, the bad one, involves whistle-blowers, back channels and quid pro quos. The other is a positive one — about “a young nation, struggling to break free of its past” and eager to “enjoy a more secure and prosperous life.” Mr. Taylor might have added that there are also two American stories — one in which politicians use foreign policy to maneuver for domestic advantage, and one in which there is bipartisan support for fledgling democracies that share our values and there are diplomats who devote their lives to delivering on that support.

In that America, there should be no room in the Oval Office for someone like Donald Trump.