WASHINGTON — Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat to Ukraine, shared new details with members of Congress on Tuesday about President Donald Trump’s efforts to secure Ukraine’s help investigating Joe Biden and the 2016 election in exchange for US financial support, laying out in clear terms a quid pro quo request by the president.
Trump has repeatedly insisted that there was no “quid pro quo” in his dealings with Ukraine, but Taylor described just that in a prepared statement he submitted as part of his closed-door testimony Tuesday before congressional committees involved in the impeachment investigation into Trump. A copy of Taylor’s written remarks were first published by the Washington Post and Axios.
Taylor said he was “alarmed” to learn for the first time in early September that the Trump administration was withholding much-needed financial assistance from Ukraine unless Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky committed to helping Trump with investigations that Trump wanted, including into Biden.
“[A]s the Committees are now aware, I said on September 9 in a message to Ambassador Gordon Sondland that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be ‘crazy.’ I believed that then, and I still believe that,” Taylor said in the statement.
House Democrats who heard Taylor’s testimony said that it was one of the most impactful depositions they had held so far, after hearing weeks of closed-door testimony from current and former Trump administration officials.
Rep. Ted Lieu, a Foreign Affairs Committee member, said the testimony was “incredibly damning to the president,” and Rep. Harley Rouda, an Oversight Committee member, told Politico, “The body language of the people hearing it was ‘holy shit,’ seriously.”
Rep. Tom Malinowski, who sits on the Foreign Affairs committee, told reporters Tuesday that Taylor’s testimony was meaningful in part because career officials like Taylor “take better notes” and implied that he has been less impressed with political appointees like European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who testified last week. Witnesses weren’t “contradicting each other,” Malinowski said, but “some people remember more.”
“It’s just the most thorough accounting we’ve had of the timeline,” Malinowski said of Taylor’s testimony Tuesday. “It fills in details that some other witness somehow forgot about… He just went over basically everything he experienced.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham released a statement in response to Taylor's testimony saying Trump "has done nothing wrong" and calling Democrats' investigation "a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution."
"There was no quid pro quo. Today was just more triple hearsay and selective leaks from the Democrats’ politically-motivated, closed door, secretive hearings," Grisham said, although Taylor's prepared statement was made public in its entirety. "Every day this nonsense continues more taxpayer time and money is wasted. President Trump is leading the way for the American people by delivering a safer, stronger, and more secure country — the do-nothing Democrats should consider doing the same."
Taylor previously served as US ambassador to Ukraine under the George W. Bush administration from 2006 to 2009, and agreed to return to the lead US diplomatic efforts there earlier this year; he has not been confirmed by the Senate as ambassador and is currently serving in an acting capacity with a title of chargé d’affaires ad interim.
Taylor said he received assurances from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before taking the job that the US would continue to have a policy of “strong support for Ukraine,” but that when he arrived in Kyiv in June, he “discovered a weird combination of encouraging, confusing, and ultimately alarming circumstances.”
Taylor told lawmakers that in early September, he learned that Sondland had told a Ukrainian official that the US would withhold money for security assistance until Zelensky committed to investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company where Biden’s son Hunter served on the board. Trump and his supporters have pushed unsubstantiated accusations that Biden tried to abuse his power as vice president to interfere with a Ukrainian investigation into the company.
Taylor said he was “alarmed” by the revelation, and that it was the first time he’d heard that US financial assistance, as well as the possibility of a meeting between Trump and Zelensky, “was conditioned on the investigations.”
Taylor said Sondland then told him over the phone that Trump had communicated he wanted Zelensky “to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election” — and that the flow of US security assistance money to Ukraine depended on that.
Several days later, Taylor told Sondland in a text message that it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland replied that Taylor was wrong about Trump’s “intentions,” and that the president had been “crystal clear” there was no “quid pro quo.” But Taylor also said Sondland had previously told him that Trump was a “businessman,” and that a businessman asks someone who owes them something to pay up before signing a check. Kurt Volker, who until September served as a special envoy to Ukraine, used the same language, Taylor said.
“I argued to both that the explanation made no sense: the Ukrainians did not ‘owe’ President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for domestic political gain was ‘crazy.’”
Taylor also said that he sent a message to Sondland threatening to quit if the Trump administration insisted Zelensky go on CNN and make a public show of supporting the investigations Trump wanted in exchange for US financial assistance. He told Sondland that his “nightmare is they [the Ukrainians] give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.).”
Taylor is the latest witness to testify before Congress about a connection between the US government’s decision to withhold security assistance aid to Ukraine and the willingness of Zelensky to commit to supporting investigations that Trump wanted into Burisma and Biden, as well as the 2016 election.
Taylor’s testimony comes just a week after acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged that the president made a quid pro quo request to Ukraine — the aid money in exchange for, among other things, Ukraine’s help investigating the origins of the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election. Mulvaney denied at the time that investigating Biden and Burisma were a part of that request, however, and he later walked back the comments entirely.
Taylor said in his opening statement that when he arrived in Ukraine this summer, he was optimistic about Zelensky, who had committed to fighting corruption in Ukraine, but concerned that there appeared to be a “highly irregular” channel for US policymaking in the region that involved some unusual players: Rudy Giuliani — a lawyer who had been working for Trump and isn’t a US government official — Volker, Sondland, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Taylor said that by mid-July, he had realized that a one-on-one meeting Zelensky wanted to have with Trump “was conditioned on the investigations into 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 had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani,” Taylor said.
On July 18, Taylor said he learned during a video conference call that the Office of Management and Budget had put a hold on US security assistance to Ukraine. Taylor said that he and others on the call “sat in astonishment” at the news. In later meetings, Taylor said that defense and national security officials expressed the “unanimous conclusion” that Ukraine should continue to receive US aid money, but they were delayed in meeting with Trump to make their case.
The day after the conference call, Taylor said he learned that then–national security adviser John Bolton was “irritated” that Sondland had met with Ukrainian officials and made a connection between a face-to-face meeting between Zelensky and Trump and “investigations” — Taylor said another official told him that Bolton referred to it as a “drug deal.”
Taylor said he was “troubled” by the decision to withhold aid from Ukraine and, at Bolton’s suggestion, sent a cable to Pompeo in August outlining his concerns and saying he would not defend such a policy. He told lawmakers he was “embarrassed” that he had no explanation for why the money was being withheld when a Ukrainian official asked about it.
Ukrainian officials also weren’t happy about what was happening, Taylor said. In a July 20 phone call, Taylor said that one of Zelensky’s advisers told him that Zelensky “did not want to be used as a pawn in a U.S. re-election campaign.” Taylor said he relayed that conversation to Volker and Sondland.
Trump and Zelensky finally spoke by phone on July 25. According to a written record of the call released by the White House — it’s styled as a transcript but is not “verbatim,” according to a notation in the document — Zelensky talked about pledging to buy more US military technology, at which point Trump asked for a “favor.” Trump asked Zelensky for help with investigations into the 2016 election and Biden, and urged Zelensky to contact Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr.
Taylor said he didn’t learn the full extent of the July 25 phone call until the White House publicly released the written record of the call in September.
Updated with comment from White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.