WASHINGTON — When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked William B. Taylor Jr., a highly respected former diplomat, to become America’s top diplomat in Ukraine in June, Taylor initially hesitated.
He had left government after decades of service and was serving as the executive vice president of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. But he had remained involved in the affairs of Ukraine, a country that had particular meaning for him since spending three years there as the U.S. ambassador more than a decade ago in the administration of President George W. Bush.
But he was concerned about the way President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Ukraine had been pushed out of her job under suspicious circumstances. So was his wife, who urged him not to take the job, he said in his congressional testimony on Tuesday.
A conversation with a person he described as a trusted Republican mentor who had served in government changed his mind. “If your country asks you to do something, you do it — if you can be effective,” he recalled his mentor saying.
Taylor, 72, accepted the post, becoming America’s de facto ambassador in Kyiv for a brief but eventful tenure that gave him a clear view of how the Trump administration approached relations with Ukraine.
Now he is a key witness in the scandal engulfing the Trump administration over charges that the president tied American support for a country fighting Russian aggression to the investigation of his political opponents. His closed-door testimony on Tuesday to the House committees pursuing an impeachment inquiry against Trump included damning charges of linkage and misleading accounts by Trump administration officials.
A West Point graduate who served for six years as an Army infantry officer, including with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, Taylor is among the country’s most experienced diplomats, and has served in every administration of both parties since 1985.
Former officials of both parties described Taylor in glowing terms and suggested that his credibility would be difficult for Trump’s allies to question.
“Ambassador Bill Taylor is a person of integrity with a strong, ethical base,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state in the Bush administration. “I would also describe him as a true patriot. His entire professional life has been in service to the U.S.”
Stephen Sestanovich, who served as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union under President Bill Clinton and who has traveled in Ukraine with Taylor, echoed that praise.
“You couldn’t ask for a more credible, universally respected, upright public servant to testify on the facts of this case,” he said, adding, “You want to go against Bill Taylor, you’ve got the whole city against you.”
The administration disputed that view on Tuesday. The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, insisted in a statement that Trump “has done nothing wrong,” and lashed out at “a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.”
But few, if any, people who have worked with him see a radical in Taylor, who is soft-spoken and conservative in demeanor. Instead they describe someone motivated by American ideals since he served in the military and then entered government, first as an Energy Department employee and then a staff member for Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J.
A post at the U.S. Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels introduced him to a 30-year diplomatic career in Europe and the Middle East.
From 2006 to 2009, Taylor served as ambassador to Ukraine and has remained deeply engaged with the country since then. “Ukraine is special for me,” he said on Tuesday, adding that he believed in the “profound importance” of the country to America’s security.
He is also intimately familiar with U.S. aid programs. From 1992 to 2002, he was coordinator of American assistance to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and has also overseen aid to Afghanistan.
After serving in Ukraine, Taylor’s focus at the State Department during the Obama administration was the Middle East, supervising assistance to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. He also served in Jerusalem working on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Former officials say his previous roles would have given him a strong understanding of the $391 million military aid package that the Trump administration delayed this summer as Trump demanded that Ukraine’s government pursue an unfounded theory into whether Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, and that it examine the role of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter in a natural gas company there.
On Tuesday, Taylor recounted warning a Ukrainian official on Sept. 1 that if the military aid was not released by the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30, “the funds would expire and Ukraine would receive nothing.”
The hold on the aid was lifted 10 days later in what Trump administration officials have described as evidence that they did nothing wrong, but only after public pressure from congressional Republicans.
Taylor was recommended to Pompeo by Kurt D. Volker, the State Department’s recently departed special envoy for Ukraine.
After the ouster of the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, Marie L. Yovanovitch — the target of personal attacks from Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his allies — Volker was eager to help quickly install a successor. He identified Taylor as someone with the knowledge and experience needed to hit the ground running.
Because ambassadors must be confirmed by the Senate in a process that can be grindingly slow, Pompeo named Taylor as chief of mission in Ukraine, effectively making him the U.S. ambassador there.
“He’s just straight-up,” said Strobe Talbott, who served as deputy secretary of state under Clinton from 1994 to 2001, focusing on the former Soviet Union, and who encountered Taylor in Ukraine in the 2000s. “He’s courageous. He was just the model of a diplomat, and he had no problem speaking his own mind to his superiors.”
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000 who is now a research fellow at Stanford University, said that he had known Taylor for 25 years and often worked closely with him in Ukraine.
“If Bill Taylor says it happened, it happened,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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