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Bill Taylor testifies on Ukraine: 5 major takeaways

On Tuesday, the U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor testified to House impeachment investigators, offering explosive revelations that have fueled the past 24 hours of political drama. The affair culminated in a horde of congressional Republicans storming into a secure witness interview Wednesday to try and disrupt the ongoing impeachment inquiry. The aim of their latest stunt was to change the conversation away from the damning substance of Taylor’s revelations and toward a loud and confusing argument over the impeachment process. It’s a playbook they have run many times before.

But these gimmicks should not distract from the startling new information contained in Taylor’s 15-page opening statement, which was obtained by the media. Taylor is the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and his words confirmed many of the implications that had arisen from the whistleblower complaint and the transcript of President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. To get you up to speed, we’ve read the document and highlighted some of its most salient, big-picture twists and turns. (You can also read it in full for yourself here.)

1. He is a nonpartisan career diplomat

Taylor began his statement with a recap of his distinguished 50-year career in government, beginning with his service in Vietnam and continuing with his time at NATO and the State Department. He emphasized his nonpartisan background — he’s served under every president since 1985 — to highlight the unbiased nature of his testimony. As the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush, Taylor has extensive knowledge of American goals in the country, and he described the strategic importance of the U.S. relationship with Ukraine as it relates to stemming Russian aggression in the region. All of this table-setting introduced the main point: As a nonpartisan observer, he said was shocked by the apparent unofficial efforts by some in President Trump’s orbit to influence Ukraine policy in a way that did not appear to align with longstanding American interests.

2. He was disturbed by the existence of non-diplomatic channels used to establish a quid pro quo

Taylor detailed the state of affairs he encountered upon arriving in Ukraine. The gist is that despite some positive signs of anti-corruption measures being taken by the newly elected Zelensky, Taylor was deeply concerned by what appeared to be a “confusing and unusual” system in which there were two channels for communication between Washington and Kiev, “one regular and one highly irregular.” The former was the one that he participated in, which routed communications through the State Department. The second is at the center of the impeachment inquiry, the one that involved Trump-donor-turned-U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, special envoy Kurt Volker, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Though he wasn’t privy to the inner workings of this latter group, Taylor said that he was included in some of its conversations by Volker and Sondland.

By his telling, Taylor grew increasingly uncomfortable with the “irregular” group’s activities. “By mid-July it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky wanted [with Trump at the White House] was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections,” he stated. “It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Giuliani.”

Elsewhere, Taylor addressed the report that Trump had frozen routine security aid, given annually to Ukraine since the 2014 invasion of Crimea, until such investigations were officially underway. Bluntly, Taylor stated: “I said on Sept. 9 in a text message to [Sondland] that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be ‘crazy.’ I believed that then, and I still believe that.”

3. He talks about learning of a “drug deal” arrangement

In a call on July 18, Taylor found out from someone at the Office of Management and Budget that U.S. military aid to Ukraine had been held up. The decision, Taylor heard, came directly from the president, though no explanation as to why was given. As a diplomat who wanted to keep the two countries’ relationship strong, Taylor was devastated to find out that the U.S. was holding up aid that Ukraine needed to defend itself against Russia. Then, Taylor found out via officials from the National Security Council that a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky was being held up in exchange for promises of “investigations” by the Ukrainian government. John Bolton, then Trump’s national security adviser, referred to this apparent arrangement as a “drug deal.”

Further, the Trump-Zelensky meeting was being arranged through the unofficial channel — the one involving Giuliani, Volker, and Sondland — which confused the Ukranians in their formal dealings with the State Department. “Bolton, in the regular Ukraine policy decision-making channel, wanted to talk about security, energy, and reform,” Taylor recalled. “Sondland, a participant in the irregular channel, wanted to talk about the connection between a White House meeting and Ukrainian investigations.”

4. The plot is revealed in detail as the military aid remains in jeopardy

Taylor describes slowly learning more and more details about the ways that Sondland, Volker, and the rest of the “irregular” group were pressuring the Ukrainians. In particular, they wanted Zelensky to make clear to Trump that he would investigate corruption at Burisma, the gas company of which Hunter Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden, served on the board. Sondland had even told the Ukranian president which words to use in announcing the probes. “Sondland told me that he had recommended to President Zelensky that he use the phrase, ‘I will leave no stone unturned’ with regard to ‘investigations’ when President Zelenskyy spoke with President Trump,” Taylor said.

After the infamous July 25 phone call took place, in which Trump brings up conspiracy theories about the 2016 election and talks about Biden, Taylor was surprised to find that he wasn’t given a transcript of the call, as is standard for a diplomat of his standing. Taylor further described a vivid moment in which he met with the commander of Ukranian security forces on the front lines, but felt uncomfortable talking to him as he thought about the U.S. aid the commander desperately needed being held up for political purposes. “Over 13,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war, one or two a week,” he wrote. “More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance.”

5. Taylor becomes fed up with the cover-up of the sketchy quid pro quo

The most important moments in the statement occur after Taylor finds out that Sondland told the Ukranians that the military aid wouldn’t be released until they committed to an investigation into Burisma. This troubled him deeply, as it “was the first time I had heard that the security assistance — not just the White House meeting — was conditioned on the investigations,” he explained. He texted his concerns to Sondland, who called him and explained that Trump wanted Zelensky to publicly announce an investigation into Burisma.

The focus on an announcement is key, as such a probe would have led to headlines about Ukraine investigating the Biden family — giving Trump substantial ammunition for 2020. Then, in a meeting with Zelensky, Taylor urged the Ukranian president to avoid risking his bipartisan support in the Senate by engaging in U.S. domestic politics. Taylor then detailed how he learned about a disturbing statement Trump had made to Sondland, in which he denied asking for a “quid pro quo” but made clear to Sondland that he wanted to see action from Zelensky. At one point, Taylor said he was told that the "president doesn't want to provide any assistance at all."

Sondland repeated Trump’s desire for Zelensky’s cooperation when Taylor questioned him about it the next day, Taylor said, with Sondland emphasizing that Zelensky had to “clear things up and do it in public.” If the Ukrainian president didn’t “clear things up,” it would lead to a “stalemate,” Sondland explained, which Taylor interpreted as a continued hold on the military aid. He said Trump wanted Zelenskyy “in a box” by promising the aid. Sondland said Zelensky had agreed to announce the investigations in an interview with CNN.

“The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance,” Taylor wrote to Sondland in a text the next day. “The Russians love it. (And I quit.)” As soon as the Ukrainians learn the money is being held up, the situation changes dramatically; in recent days, some have tried to defend Trump by saying the aid situation couldn’t have been a bribe because the Ukrainians didn’t know the money was being held up. But The New York Times revealed Wednesday that the country knew its aid was being suspended as early as the beginning of August.

Near the end of his statement, Taylor quoted perhaps the most damning argument that Sondland made to him. “During our call on Sept. 8, Ambasador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman,” he wrote. “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.”

In other words, as Sondland explained it, Trump wanted services rendered from Zelensky in exchange for the aid. While Sondland himself was less clear-cut in his own testimony to House investigators, and Trump has fiercely denied any sort of “quid pro quo” arrangement with Ukraine, Taylor’s opening statement — not to mention what else he said behind closed doors, the full extent of which we don’t know yet — has upended the impeachment inquiry as it barrels along through the fall.