America’s top Ukraine diplomat has testified that Donald Trump made the release of military aid to the country conditional on investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election being announced, contradicting White House denials.
William Taylor told the impeachment inquiry that he was informed Mr Trump wanted the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy to personally announce the investigations, because such a statement would put him in a “public box”.
The explosive testimony, which was delivered in a 15-page opening statement, directly challenges Mr Trump’s claim that he made no “quid pro quo” in holding back the aid to secure probes that were politically helpful.
Elsewhere Mr Taylor laid out the deep disquiet he and other US officials felt at Mr Trump’s decision to hold back almost $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine for more than a month as he pushed for the investigations.
Mr Taylor said he “sat in astonishment” upon hearing that no more spending on military assistance was going to be approved, noting later that “more Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the US assistance.”
He also claimed that four US cabinet members – the defence secretary, secretary of state, CIA director and national security adviser – all tried to see Mr Trump to convince him to stop holding back the aid, but found the meeting was “hard to schedule”.
The testimony, delivered behind closed doors to congressional committees leading the impeachment inquiry, was jumped on by Democrats, who called it a “sea change” in their investigation, which could lead to a vote on Mr Trump’s removal from office. His opening statement was obtained by various US media outlets.
At the heart of the impeachment inquiry is a claim that Mr Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to launch an investigation into Joe Biden, the Democrat who he could face at the 2020 election, and his son Hunter Biden, who once worked for a Ukrainian gas company.
Mr Trump is accused of holding back US military aide to Ukraine, a country gripped in civil war against Russian-backed forces, to secure an investigation into Burisma – the company that hired Hunter Biden – as well as Ukraine’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election.
The president has always denied there was a “quid pro quo”, in other words that there was no agreement that aid would flow only once the investigations were announced.
However the testimony of Mr Taylor, who served as US ambassador to Ukraine between 2006 and 2009 and came back to serve in an interim basis as ‘charge d'affaires’ in the Ukraine embassy in July, provided a detailed rebuttal to that claim.
The most eye-catching part of his opening statement came when he described conversations with Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU who was familiar with Mr Trump’s thinking.
Mr Sondland, a one-time Trump donor turned diplomat, was part of an “irregular” channel for Ukraine policy that involved also Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump’s lawyer, and other officials, according to Mr Taylor.
Mr Taylor described learning that Mr Trump could be linking the release of military aid to the announcement of investigations into Burisma - the Hunter Biden company - and Ukraine's 2016 election involvement. He then reached out to Mr Sondland for guidance.
“Ambassador Sondland said that ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,” Mr Taylor said, recounting a phone call in early September.
“He said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskiy ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.”
Mr Taylor also recounted another phone call later in the month with Mr Sondland. In the call he said that Mr Sondland noted that Mr Trump said there was not a “quid pro quo”.
However Mr Sondland also said that Mr Trump wanted the Ukrainian president to “clear things up” or there would be a “stalemate”, according to Mr Taylor. Mr Taylor added that he took the word stalemate to mean that the military assistance would not be handed over.
At one point Mr Taylor said that Mr Sondland defended the US president's behaviour by citing his business past.
“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,” Mr Taylor said of Mr Sondland.
Mr Taylor is also critical of the role Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump’s personal attorney, played. He said there was an “irregular” Ukraine policy-making channel that involved Mr Giuliani and said it “undercut” official US foreign policy.
Last week Mr Sondland pushed back on claims he had been a critical figure in securing investigations into the BIdens when he gave testimony to the inquiry
He said then: “I recall no discussions with any State Department or White House official about Former Vice President Biden or his son, nor do I recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens.”
Mr Sondland is not known to have commented on Mr Taylor's testimony. Democrats said he may be asked to return for further questioning.
The White House and Mr Trump are yet to respond to Mr Taylor's testimony.