Diplomat Describes Trump Aides’ Escalating Pressure on Ukraine

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The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine laid out for the House impeachment inquiry a detailed look at escalating efforts by a core group of President Donald Trump’s advisers to pressure Ukraine to open a politically motivated investigation.

William Taylor, who took charge of U.S. embassy in Ukraine after the former ambassador was ousted in May, told the House impeachment inquiry that he initially thought a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy “sounded like a good idea” as Ukraine sought to strengthen its fight against Russian-backed separatists.

But as the date approached, the efforts by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to involve Ukraine gave him pause, according to a transcript of Taylor’s testimony released Wednesday.

“Yes, it would be fine to have the two presidents talk, but if President Zelenskiy, in order to get that meeting were going to have to intervene in U.S. domestic policy or politics by investigated — by announcing an investigation that would benefit someone in the United States, then it wasn’t clear to me that that would be worth it,” Taylor said in his Oct. 22 closed-door testimony.

Taylor is scheduled to be one of the first two witnesses when the House Intelligence Committee opens its first public hearing next week in the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry of Trump. He is scheduled to testify Nov. 13 along with State Department official George Kent. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who Taylor replaced, will testify Nov. 15.

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The testimony from career public servants raises the political risk for Trump, who is running for re-election in 2020. The president has sought to de-legitimize the impeachment process and dismiss the witnesses as “Never Trumpers” who want to see him removed from office.

But there is also risk for Democrats who are trying to build public support for impeaching Trump, whose core of support among Republicans has remained solid throughout the inquiry.

Taylor provided what Democrats have described as a “smoking gun” that shows that Trump tried to pressure Ukraine to conduct politically motivated investigations by withholding U.S. aid and a White House visit for the country’s new president.

The transcript shows Taylor told the House committees that over the course of several months since he took his post he grew increasingly concerned that much-needed security for Ukraine was being held hostage to White House demands for politically motivated investigations.

Ukrainian officials also were worried that they were being dragged into the 2020 election campaign, he said.

Trump’s Demands

Taylor described a Sept. 7 conversation with Tim Morrison of Trump’s National Security Council in which Morrison recounted a call between the president and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, one of three administration officials operating a back-channel effort with Ukraine.

“According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a quid pro quo. But President Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself,” Taylor said, according to the transcript.

The next day, Taylor said he talked directly with Sondland about a conversation with Zelenskiy and his top aide Andriy Yermak.

Sondland said that he “told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelensky did not clear things up in public, we would be at a stalemate,” Taylor told the committees.

The stalemate referred to the frozen aid, according to Taylor. “Ambassador Sondland said that this conversation concluded with President Zelensky agreeing to make a public statement in an interview with CNN.”

Biden’s Role

Trump and Giuliani contend that Biden, a potential Trump 2020 challenger when he was vice president, pushed for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor who wanted to investigate Burisma Holdings, where Hunter Biden had served on the board. Trump has also promoted an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine was involved in the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers in 2016, which sparked an investigation into Russian election interference.

QuickTake: On Bidens and Ukraine, Wild Claims With Little Basis

Subsequent to Taylor’s appearance at the closed-door hearing, Sondland revised his earlier testimony to the House committees in which he said he didn’t remember many of the events. In the revision, Sondland said his memory had been “refreshed” and that he did recall telling Yermak about the link between the aid and the investigation sought by the White House.

The statements provide the first direct testimony that a quid pro quo was communicated to Ukrainian officials, undermining Trump’s main defense against the impeachment inquiry. Although Taylor and Sondland said they understood the aid and a White House visit for Zelenskiy were conditioned on Ukraine conducting the investigation, neither said he heard it directly from Trump.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor asked in a Sept. 1 text message to two top U.S. officials that was provided to House committees leading the impeachment inquiry. About a week later he wrote, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

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