WASHINGTON — The top U.S. emissary to Ukraine painted a devastating portrait in testimony Tuesday on Capitol Hill of what appeared to be White House-directed efforts to pressure the government in Kiev to investigate a Democratic political rival.
American diplomacy was conducted along two “channels,” according to William B. Taylor Jr., the senior U.S. diplomat to Ukraine. As Taylor explained to congressional investigators on Tuesday, one was the “regular, formal” channel, which included “the bulk of the U.S. effort to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion” that has been a persistent threat for a half-decade.
It is the other, “irregular, informal” channel that is of interest to members of Congress.
Guided by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is now a personal lawyer for President Trump, the irregular efforts described by Taylor were intended to force the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden.
Hunter Biden sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that has been accused of corrupt practices. He no longer has any ties to Burisma, but his father is running for president, and some of President Trump’s allies see Hunter Biden’s business dealings as potentially damaging to the former vice president — and therefore helpful to Trump’s chances of winning reelection next year.
Democrats, for their part, have opened an impeachment inquiry into efforts by Trump and Giuliani to exert pressure on Ukraine to launch an investigation into Biden.
Right around the time that Taylor prepared to testify in a closed-door hearing room on Capitol Hill, Trump attempted to cast himself as the victim of a “lynching.” But using the language of racist violence appeared to quickly backfire, with even some Republicans denouncing him. In one poignant rebuke, Michael Steele, the first and only African-American head of the Republican National Committee, tweeted the photo of a lynched black man hanging from a tree.
“It’s pathetic that you act like you’re such a victim,” Steele wrote. “You should know better.”
As details of Taylor’s testimony became public, it was clear that Trump’s day was only going to get worse. In his opening statement, which was provided to the Washington Post, Taylor described ongoing efforts throughout the spring and summer of 2019 to withhold some $400 million in assistance from Ukraine — including $250 million in military aid — unless Ukraine launched an investigation into Burisma and the Bidens. Giuliani and others were also adherents of a conspiracy theory that elements within Ukraine interfered on Hillary Clinton’s behalf in the 2016 presidential election.
In his opening statement, Taylor described the “confusing and unusual arrangement” he encountered when arriving in Kiev in the late spring of 2019, in which Giuliani and others “operated mostly outside of official State Department channels.” Taylor appeared to implicate the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, in the Giuliani-led push for a political investigation by the new Ukrainian government.
For example, on June 27, Sondland allegedly told Taylor that if Zelensky expected an Oval Office meeting, he “needed to make clear” that he “was not standing in the way of ‘investigations,’” according to Taylor’s opening statement.
“By mid-July,” Taylor told congressional investigators, “it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.” (The national security establishment believes that interference in the 2016 election was conducted by Russia, not Ukraine, and that it was on behalf of Trump, not Clinton.)
Taylor added that it was “clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.”
Additional pressure came from the Office of Management and Budget, which halted the military aid that had been appropriated by Congress the year before. Like many Pentagon officials, Taylor was confused by the hold. “I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened,” he said in his congressional testimony.
Ukrainian territory has been occupied by Russian-backed forces since 2014. The aggressive administration of Vladimir Putin wants to reassert its control over much of eastern Ukraine, which it sees as a kind of Russian birthright. American assistance has been critical in holding back those efforts.
But according to Taylor, the Giuliani team saw things differently, subordinating national interests to Trump’s political prospects. “Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman,” Taylor said in his testimony. “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 plainly disagreed. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he said at the time.
The president’s critics are bound to see, in Taylor’s detailed testimony, the very kind of quid pro quo arrangement that they believe to be firm grounds for impeachment. Indeed, Democrats who were privy to Taylor’s hours-long testimony described it in dramatic terms.
“This testimony is a sea change. I think it could accelerate matters,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass. Meanwhile, Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., called it his “most disturbing day” since he entered the House of Representatives 10 months ago.
Several more national security and diplomatic officials will testify later this week. They are expected to confirm much of what Taylor said on Tuesday.
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