Trump Tied Ukraine Aid Directly to Probing Biden, Envoy Says

Billy House

(Bloomberg) -- The top U.S. envoy to Ukraine testified that a senior diplomat told him in early September that President Donald Trump made U.S. security aid to Ukraine entirely dependent on a public promise to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 election.

Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor also quoted senior diplomat Gordon Sondland as saying Trump wanted Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy “in a public box,” according to a prepared statement to congressional committees Tuesday that was obtained by Bloomberg.

The account offers what may be the most damaging revelations so far on the events that have spawned a House impeachment investigation. It directly contradicts Trump’s assertions that there was no “quid pro quo” behind his July 25 phone conversation with Zelenskiy.

Taylor is a key witness because of his previously released text messages to colleagues expressing concern about back-channel Ukraine negotiations led by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. Taylor’s exchanges with Sondland -- the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who gave about $1 million to Trump’s inauguration -- form a crucial part of the House inquiry.

“By mid-July it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelenskiy wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections,” Taylor said, referring to a company on whose board Biden’s son served. “It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.”

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that “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.”

Taylor’s account, which was first reported by the Washington Post, “further corroborates” the allegation that Trump made the release of security aid dependent on the president’s demands to go after his political rivals, said Representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia, a Democrat who serves on the House Oversight Committee.

“In August and September of this year, I became increasingly concerned that our relationship with Ukraine was being fundamentally undermined by an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy-making and by the withholding of vital security assistance for domestic political reasons,” Taylor said in his opening statement to three House panels holding impeachment hearings.

Trump as ‘Businessman’

Taylor said Sondland at one point tried to explain that Trump was 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,” Taylor quoted Sondland as saying.

Taylor, a career diplomat, took over as acting ambassador after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cut short the term of the previous envoy, Marie Yovanovitch, who was viewed by Trump and Giuliani as failing to support their agenda in Ukraine.

Taylor corroborated some of the testimony of earlier witnesses, including former National Security Council Russia expert Fiona Hill.

Taylor said he was told by Hill of a July 10 meeting in which Sondland tied a White House meeting sought by Zelenskiy to proceeding with “investigations.” Taylor said then-National Security Adviser John Bolton was so irritated that he abruptly ended the meeting and told Hill to brief White House lawyers.

He also said that during an NSC video conference on July 18, a staff person from the Office of Management and Budget, who wasn’t identified, said a hold was placed on Ukraine security assistance until further notice at the president’s direction to Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

‘Pawn’ in Campaign

In a July 20 conversation, Taylor said Oleksandr Danyliuk, then secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, conveyed that Zelenskiy “did not want to be used as a pawn in a U.S. election campaign.”

Taylor said he initially understood that Trump was holding out on a White House meeting with Zelenskiy as his leverage to force an investigation of the Bidens and an unsupported conspiracy theory that Ukraine helped Democrats work against Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In early September, Taylor said, Tim Morrison, who replaced Hill on the National Security Council, described a conversation in which Sondland told Zelenskiy adviser Andriy Yermak during a meeting in Warsaw that U.S. aid wouldn’t be released until Zelenskiy committed to pursuing the Burisma investigation. Taylor described himself as “alarmed” by the conversation.

“This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance -- not just the White House meeting --was conditioned on the investigations,” he said.

Taking Notes

The official familiar with the testimony said Taylor also kept detailed notes about his conversation with Sondland after Taylor asked in a text message whether “security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland responded, “Call me.”

Taylor did -- and then documented that conversation by writing it down, said the official. The official didn’t describe what Taylor’s notes said.

Notes that Taylor kept and turned over to the committees made his testimony “more credible,” Democrat Connolly said.

The official also said Taylor described Ukrainian officials’ sense of optimism that with the election of their new president, the country would be able to move ahead with anti-corruption efforts that had been stalled.

Republicans have taken that as substantiating Trump’s claims that he was concerned about endemic corruption in Ukraine that needed to be addressed.

That “totally underscored and buttressed the concerns the president had,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Oversight Committee.

(Revising attribution to say statement was obtained by Bloomberg, starting in second paragraph.)

--With assistance from Steven T. Dennis.

To contact the reporter on this story: Billy House in Washington at bhouse5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert

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