Trump’s Ukraine Envoy Emerges as Biggest Impeachment Threat

Justin Sink

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s top envoy to Ukraine just became one of the biggest threats to his presidency.

William Taylor, a career bureaucrat who took charge of the U.S. embassy in Ukraine in June, provided House investigators on Tuesday a meticulously detailed 15-page statement, chronicling an “irregular policy channel” with Kyiv, in which Trump associates circumvented traditional diplomatic paths to pressure the country’s new president to investigate White House political rivals.

His chronology, based on firsthand conversations and contemporaneous notes, offered a clear account of a president who saw congressionally allocated foreign aid and an Oval Office visit as leverage to extract political favors.

Taylor’s danger to Trump goes well beyond that of the anonymous whistle-blower, whose account of the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy kicked off the impeachment inquiry.

Trump has attacked the whistle-blower -- whose identity remains unknown -- as partisan. Taylor, however, puts a face on the allegations. He is a seasoned diplomat who has worked for multiple administrations. The whistle-blower’s information is second-hand. But Taylor is a direct witness whose scrupulous record-keeping provides House impeachment investigators ripe new avenues to explore as they steadily build a case that the president used his office to push for a probe into his political enemies.

The 15-page account, which was obtained by Bloomberg News, also offered an immediate contrast to White House staffers, who often appear to be improvising explanations for the president’s behavior -- a practice that led acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to contradict Trump’s defense before reversing himself.

Taylor’s testimony threatens to shatter the president’s repeated assertion that there was no “quid pro quo” offered to Ukraine. He said he was told Trump directly called for $400 million of military aid to be held back until Zelenskiy publicly said he’d investigate former Vice President Joe Biden -- a top Democratic rival in the 2020 race -- and his son Hunter.

Taylor’s statement provided not only a road map for congressional Democrats but also marked a turning point that significantly bolsters the likelihood of a vote to make Trump the third U.S. president in history to be impeached.

“His opening statement is very damaging to the president,” Representative Val Demings, a Florida Democrat, told reporters on Tuesday after Taylor’s closed-door testimony. “Any reasonable person can read that and it answers the questions they may have about the actions of the president.”

Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, said the testimony brought Trump’s “attack on the fabric of our democracy and our most sacred principle” into “even fuller view.”

“Today’s testimony is an unforgettable reminder that our nation urgently requires leadership that reflects American values and restores dignity and integrity to the office,” Bedingfield added.

The severity of the threat to Trump was underscored by the language employed by the White House as it sought to undermine the testimony, depicting it as “a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.”

“Today was just more triple hearsay and selective leaks from the Democrats’ politically-motivated, closed door, secretive hearings,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.

Lawmakers are likely to focus their attention on specific conversations Taylor identified as evidence of the president using his foreign policy to attain partisan political goals. They include a series of talks involving U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.

In one alleged conversation between Sondland and Trump -- relayed to Taylor by National Security Council official Tim Morrison -- the president insisted Zelenskiy publicly say he was opening a probe into Biden and also investigating a conspiracy theory involving a Democratic National Committee computer server. They are also training their focus on Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was a key figure in Trump’s informal policy regarding Ukraine.

Sondland also apparently told Taylor that “everything” was dependent on the investigations -- meaning both military aid frozen by the White House and the offer of a presidential meeting between the two leaders. According to the statement, Sondland described the president to Taylor as a businessman who wanted something in return for the foreign aid. Sondland warned that U.S.-Ukraine relations would reach a “stalemate” if Zelenskiy failed to publicly begin the investigations, Taylor said.

“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 said, recounting his conversation with Sondland.

Sondland, an Oregon businessman and Trump donor, met with House impeachment investigators last Thursday and said he, too, was uncomfortable with Giuliani’s role in Ukraine policy. He insisted that he only learned later about efforts by Giuliani to get Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden.

Sondland told lawmakers that “inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong” and said he did not participate in such a scheme.

Taylor also said he had been told by Fiona Hill, the former Russia expert on the National Security Council, that a meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy was being conditioned on Ukraine undertaking the investigations sought by the U.S. president. He also recalled a July 18 call in which a staffer from the Office of Management and Budget said the directive to freeze military aid to Ukraine had come from the president through Mulvaney.

Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, said Sondland would need to come back to testify again – and also called for testimony from Giuliani.

“I want to make sure that we’re continuing to get to the truth, and there is a lot more people that we need to hear from and more questions we should be asking,” said Hurd, who announced in August that he would not seek re-election.

The toll the deepening impeachment crisis is taking on the administration was evident Tuesday morning, before Taylor’s testimony was revealed, when Trump equated the impeachment probe to “a lynching.” The remarks, made on Twitter, brought condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans who argued that evoking the history of racially motivated killings was insensitive.

Separately, Trump authorized regular conference calls between his administration and lawmakers to coordinate messaging and legal strategies related to the impeachment probe.

The White House has invited Republican leadership, members of key congressional committees, and lawmakers viewed as allies to participate, according to the Wall Street Journal, which reported the effort earlier.

--With assistance from Erik Wasson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Sink in Washington at jsink1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Joshua Gallu, John Harney

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