The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine told House impeachment investigators Tuesday that President Trump directly linked an order to withhold much-needed American security aid to Ukraine to his demand that the country’s government publicly announce investigations into his political rivals — explicitly contradicting Trump’s denial of a quid pro quo.
William B. Taylor’s deposition, recounted from copious notes and presented in exacting detail, provided Democrats with devastating corroboration of what has already been described by previous witnesses: the hijacking of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine by a “highly irregular” second channel, led by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and others.
Democrats described the testimony as conclusive evidence for the impeachment case they are investigating and indicated that Taylor would be a prime witness when they begin laying out the case to the public in hearings later this fall.
“It was the most thorough account we had so far of the events we’ve been investigating,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.). “It resolved any remaining doubts I have had.”
The White House did not seek to rebut any of Taylor’s specific statements, but denounced his account as “triple hearsay.”
“President Trump has done nothing wrong — this is a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution. There was no quid pro quo,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
In his 15-page opening statement — first obtained by the Washington Post and confirmed by the Los Angeles Times — Taylor said that he learned on July 18 during a secure video conference with National Security Council officials that the White House had ordered about $400 million in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine be held up.
“In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened,” Taylor said in the opening statement. “The irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of long-standing U.S. policy.”
He alternately described the events he was witnessing as “weird,” “alarming,” “confusing” and “crazy.”
“I became increasingly concerned,” said Taylor, who was tapped in June by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo to come out of retirement to lead the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
Walking lawmakers through conversations with other administration officials, Taylor described how Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who was involved in the shadow diplomacy with Ukraine, said Trump had told Sondland that he wanted President Volodymyr Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine would investigate Burisma, a natural gas company where former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter had served as a board member for five years.
Trump also wanted a public commitment by Zelensky that Ukraine would examine debunked claims about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Without those things, Trump would not agree to a public meeting with Zelensky, something that would help the newly elected Ukrainian leader build credibility.
There has been no evidence that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 election. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report confirmed the conclusion reached by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the presidential election to help Trump.
Taylor later described learning on Sept. 1 from a U.S. official that Sondland had told Zelensky advisor Andriy Yermak at a meeting in Warsaw that “security assistance money would not come until President Zelensky committed to pursue the Burisma investigation.”
A week later, Taylor described his own conversation with Sondland, who told him on Sept. 8 that “Trump was adamant that President Zelensky, himself, had to ‘clear things up and do it in public,’” Taylor recalled. “He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky ‘in a public box’ by making a statement about ordering such investigations.”
“Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelensky and Mr. Yermak and told them that, ‘although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelensky did not clear things up in public, we would be at a stalemate.’”
Taylor continued: “I understood a ‘stalemate’ to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance,” he said.
Taylor also wrote that Sondland tried to justify Trump’s demands as those of a “businessman” in the Sept. 8 conversation. “When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person pay up before signing the check.”
Taylor said former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, used a similar argument, and that he pushed back against both of them.
“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 wrote, quoting words he had used in a text message chain that has since become widely circulated.
Lawmakers leaving the secured hearing room after Taylor’s first hours of testimony described his account as detailed and shocking.
Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) described audible gasps from lawmakers as Taylor spoke. He “astonished all of us” with his opening statement, Rouda said. Another lawmaker described it as the most disturbing day in his 10-month congressional career.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said Taylor “drew a very direct line” between the withholding of the aid and Trump’s demands for the politically motivated investigations.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) described Taylor as an excellent potential public witness. “He’s credible, he’s consistent, he’s a career public servant — 50 years of public service, West Point graduate, served in Vietnam,” he said. “I don’t see how anybody could possibly think this man was telling anything but the truth.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee and a key Trump defender, suggested that some of Taylor’s testimony reinforced the president’s assertion that he was concerned about corruption in Ukraine.
“There was information that came out, particularly in the second hour, that underscores concerns that the president had about Ukraine in general,” Jordan said.
The House impeachment inquiry began after the White House released an account of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky. In the call, Trump asked Zelensky to do “a favor” after Zelensky mentioned Ukraine’s desire to buy Javelin antitank weapons from the U.S., according to the White House account.
Trump then went on to talk about investigating the 2016 campaign and Biden, and told Zelensky he should talk with Giuliani.
Trump has confirmed that at the time of the call, he was withholding the aid, though he insisted that the money was held up over his concerns about corruption in Ukraine and his desire to pressure European nations to contribute more to the country as it confronts military aggression from Russia.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote in a text message, a characterization he told lawmakers Tuesday that he stands behind.
About four hours later, Sondland texted Taylor that Trump “has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind.”
Sondland told House investigators last week that Trump personally told him in a short phone call that there was no quid pro quo. Two Democratic lawmakers suggested that Sondland may have to reappear before the committees based on new information they learned from Taylor’s testimony.
On Thursday, White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney confirmed that Trump’s decision to withhold aid was in part due to his desire for Ukraine to look into claims that the nation interfered in the 2016 election. Mulvaney later tried to walk back his comments.
Taylor’s testimony comes as Trump compared the Democrats’ impeachment investigation to a “lynching,” a tweet that sparked a backlash from both Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) agreed with Trump that the process was “not fair” but said, “I don’t agree with that language.”
“The House Democrats are clearly pushing really hard and playing politics with all this stuff,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “I get his frustration. I probably wouldn’t use that language.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) called it irresponsible for the president to compare an impeachment investigation “to such a dangerous and dark chapter in American history. I hope he will apologize,” he added.
Democrats are facing important questions about the future of their impeachment inquiry nearly a month after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) announced it would get underway. Testimony from key witnesses has often led Democratic-controlled committees to seek out additional witnesses, a compounding effect that has likely pushed their original goal of holding a formal vote on impeachment by Thanksgiving out of reach.
They also have to decide whether to keep the inquiry narrowly focused on Ukraine or expand it into other areas of investigation, including whether Trump has personally profited from the presidency, which would violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Democrats hoped that Taylor’s testimony Tuesday would bolster their case. Taylor came out of retirement to take the job in Ukraine shortly after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was removed from the post. She testified earlier this month that she was removed for political reasons.
Trump administration officials have said they would not cooperate in the House’s impeachment investigation. Taylor faced a subpoena to appear.
House Democrats had originally planned up to seven depositions this week, but they are now expected to hold three because of the recent death of House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). He will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol National Statuary Hall on Thursday and his funeral will be Friday.
After Taylor’s testimony, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper is expected to appear for a deposition on Wednesday. Another U.S. diplomat, Philip T. Reeker, is slated to testify on Saturday, according to an official working on the impeachment investigation.
Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.