David A. Graham: It was a corrupt quid pro quo
During questioning, the Republican counsel Steve Castor suggested to Taylor that the involvement of Sondland and Volker was not “outlandish,” and Taylor agreed, weakly. But the question is not whether they could be involved in the abstract, but rather what they were trying to do in this case. As Kent noted, the United States does press foreign countries to investigate lawbreaking, but it does so through established methods.
“If we think there’s been a criminal act overseas that violates U.S. law, we have the institutional mechanisms to address that,” he said. “It could be through the Justice Department and FBI agents assigned overseas, or through treaty mechanisms. As a general principle, I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country.”
Taylor testified that he recommended Volker contact a U.S. deputy assistant attorney general. Taylor also recommended that any statement be made in coordination with a probe into the origins of the 2016 election-interference investigation, which is being led by U.S. Attorney John Durham and overseen by Attorney General William Barr.
But this is not, by all available evidence, what happened. Instead, Trump ran his requests for Zelensky to announce investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election through an irregular channel, including Sondland, Volker, and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. One possible reason for this is that, despite the unsavory nature of Biden’s appointment to the Burisma board, and despite Trump’s frequent innuendo, no one has yet produced public evidence of wrongdoing.
The president’s position, according to testimony under oath, was that Zelensky would have to make a public announcement before he’d get the promised meeting and congressionally appropriated funds. Sondland initially told the Ukrainians that they needed to make the announcement in order to get a meeting, but he then told Taylor that he had misspoken.
“In fact, Ambassador Sondland said, everything was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,” Taylor recalled. “He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky in a public box, by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.”
That’s important for two reasons. First, it shows Trump withholding not only what he had the power to give or take—a meeting—but also what he didn’t: the funds Congress had appropriated. Second, it indicates that Trump’s concern was not about broad-based corruption, nor was it a gripe with the government of Ukraine, nor was it any personal animosity with Zelensky. It was just about Trump’s personal political gain. If these investigations served the U.S. national interest, then the Trump administration could and would have offered an explanation as to how they did so. It has not.