Diplomats are known for their ability to phrase things delicately, but testimony today from William Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, is notable for its bluntness.
Although the Trump administration has denied that it was trying to extract a quid pro quo from Ukraine—investigations of both 2016 hacking and of the Biden family’s business there in exchange for military aid—Taylor’s opening statement shows that’s exactly what was happening.
In an astonishing 15-page prepared statement, Taylor laid out a detailed chronology, which fits closely with what is already known about the Ukraine scandal, but fills in valuable new details. Far from some disgruntled Obama-administration holdover, Taylor was dispatched to Kiev in June by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was fired, reportedly at Rudy Giuliani’s behest. Taylor learned that Giuliani was in effect running a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine. In mid-July, Taylor realized that security assistance to Ukraine was being held up, though not the reasons for the delay. Taylor also came to understand that aides to newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky felt that their country was at risk of being used as a pawn in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
In mid-August, Taylor was told that not only was the money delayed, but that Donald Trump didn’t want to deliver it at all. Taylor prepared to resign in protest, though he still didn’t understand the reasons for the hold. Then Tim Morrison, the top Russia expert at the National Security Council, told him that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, had told a Zelensky adviser that the security assistance was dependent on Ukraine launching an investigation into Burisma, the natural-gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meetings are conditioned on investigations?” a horrified Taylor asked Sondland via text. Sondland told Taylor to call him. (Sondland had already shown signs of cloak-and-dagger methods, Taylor testified, including being adamant that a June call not be transcribed.) On the phone, Sondland told Taylor that Trump wanted Zelensky to publicly promise to investigate Burisma and a Ukrainian role in the 2016 U.S. election. “Everything” was dependent on this, Sondland told Taylor.
Taylor talked with Sondland on September 8. Sondland said that Trump had insisted it was not a “quid pro quo,” but that if Zelensky did not “clear things up,” the two sides would reach a “stalemate” on security assistance. Sondland also told Taylor that Trump was a businessman, and that before he signed any deal, he wanted to make sure he got what he was paying for.
Taylor didn’t buy that for a moment, pointing out that Ukraine didn’t “owe” Trump anything, especially interference in an election. The next day Taylor texted Sondland, “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland replied, five hours later, “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
Of course it was a quid pro quo. Trump was smart enough to claim that what he was asking for was not a quid pro quo, but asking for something in exchange for something else is … the definition of a quid pro quo. When Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said Thursday that the U.S. had been involved in a quid pro quo, it was, then, a classic Kinsley gaffe: a politician accidentally telling the truth.
Mulvaney tried to take back his admission, but Taylor’s account shows he was right the first time—as though the testimony of other diplomats and a plain reading of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky weren’t already evidence enough. Taylor’s testimony reportedly elicited “sighs and gasps” in the closed-door hearing, and it’s clear why. There ought to be no need for a smoking gun by now, because Trump has all but admitted to the crime, but just in case it was necessary, Taylor’s testimony delivered a still-warm pistol with Trump’s fingerprints all over it to congressional investigators.