The Ukraine Connection

Summary of Amb. William Taylor’s Deposition Testimony

By Vishnu Kannan
Monday, November 11, 2019, 8:42 PM

Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.

Ambassador William Taylor testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Oct. 22. Below is a summary of his testimony, as compiled from the transcript of his deposition.

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The testimony of Ambassador William Taylor, the current U.S. charge d’affaires to Ukraine, includes an extensive opening statement in which Taylor provided a detailed timeline of events relating to U.S.-Ukraine policy between May and September 2019. In particular, Taylor’s statement described a “highly irregular” channel of U.S. policymaking through which individuals close to the president—specifically, Ambassadors Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, personal lawyer Rudy Guliani, and Secretary of Energy Rick Perryexercised influence over the U.S.-Ukraine relationship independent of the “regular” channel, which included institutions such as the embassy in Ukraine.

Taylor’s return to government service was itself conditional. Concerned by the treatment of former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and the role of Rudoph Guliani in her removal, Taylor demanded Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assure him that the U.S. policy of strong support for Ukraine would continue. He was given the assurance and accepted the role despite reservations.  

Taylor noted that upon his arrival in Ukraine, the two channels of U.S. policymaking were aligned. In late June, he said, one shared goal was to arrange a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the White House. However, Volker and Sondland told Taylor that President Trump wanted to speak personally with Zelensky before arranging the White House meeting. 

Taylor went on to discuss events surrounding a call with President Zelensky on June 28. In a planning call the day before, Sondland told Taylor that Trump wanted an assurance from Zelensky that the Ukrainian president “was not standing in the way of investigations.” The day of the call, Volker said that he would raise the issue of investigations with Zelensky at a meeting in Toronto several days later. Later, in discussion with the committee, Taylor added that these were the earliest such mentions of “investigations” and, at the time, he did not know what they meant.

By mid-July, Taylor said, it had become clear that a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump was conditioned on investigations by the Ukrainian government of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian influence in the 2016 election. Taylor referenced a July 10 meeting between National Security Adviser John Bolton, Perry, Sondland, Ukrainian National Security Adviser Oleksandr Danylyuk, and Andrey Yermak, an assistant to Zelensky. During the meeting, Taylor learned through a July 19 call with NSC staffers Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Sondland had connected the matter of “investigations” to the proposed White House visit, which angered Bolton and ended the meeting. 

Taylor saw that the irregular channel’s objectives had begun to clash with those of the regular channel on July 18, when a staffer from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced that the White House had placed a hold on security assistance funds to Ukraine. However, Taylor stressed that he did not yet see a connection between the irregular channel’s push for investigations into Burisma and the decision to withhold aid. They appeared to be entirely independent of each other. The hold on military assistance was also a subject of the July 19 call with Hill and Vindman. In discussion with the committee, Taylor repeated that a hold on security aid for no clear reason undercut long-standing U.S. policy to support Ukraine in its attempt to defend itself against Russia. 

On July 20, Taylor said he exchanged text messages with Sondland and Volker, both of whom said that it was crucial for Zelensky to tell Trump that he would help with the “investigations.” The same day, Taylor spoke with Danylyuk, who said that Zelensky did not want to be “used as a pawn in a U.S. reelection campaign.” Taylor said he informed both ambassadors of Zelensky’s message. 

In a later exchange, minority counsel pushed Taylor to clarify, saying that sometimes an irregular channel can be beneficial. Taylor agreed and went on to confirm that following the July 20 phone call, it became clear the irregular channel was going to be “more of a problem than [he] anticipated.”

In his opening statement, Taylor said that he did not receive a readout of the now-infamous July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. But on June 28, he spoke with Tim Morrison, Fiona Hill’s replacement at the NSC. Taylor learned that Trump asked Zelensky to contact Guliani and Attorney General William Barr. In discussion with the committee, Taylor elaborated. He said that Sondland spoke with Trump before and after the call, and that readouts of the call from Morrison and Assistant Secretary of State George Kent differed on whether Trump had asked Zelensky to fire Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko. 

Taylor then turned to Aug. 16, when he learned that Yermak had asked for the U.S. to submit an official request for investigation into Burisma’s alleged violations of Urkrainian law. Both in his opening statement and in conversation with the committee, Taylor emphasized that he believes that such a request—for an investigation into a violation of Ukrainian law—would be inappropriate. In a later exchange, Chairman Adam Schiff added that the request was improper both because it dealt with violations of Ukrainian law and because the goal of the investigations was to influence the U.S. election, which Taylor confirmed.

By mid-August, security assistance had still not been released, so Taylor contacted State Department Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl to ask whether U.S. policy toward Ukraine was shifting. Brechbuhl said he did not know of a formal policy change and would look into it. The next day, Taylor spoke with Morrison to ask the same question. Morrison responded, according to Taylor, “[I]t remains to be seen.” On Aug. 27, Taylor took his concerns about the withholding of aid to Bolton, who recommended that Taylor write a first-person cable to Pompeo directly. Taylor wrote and transmitted the cable on Aug. 29. 

The same day, the news broke that security assistance was being withheld from Ukraine, and Taylor received a call from Yermak, inquiring as to the reason. Taylor had no answer. Again, both in the opening statement and in response to committee questions, Taylor stressed that he had not yet understood that the hold on security assistance was related to the irregular channel’s push for Zelensky to conduct investigations. 

On Sept. 1, Vice President Mike Pence met with Zelensky in Warsaw. Morrison, traveling with Pence, summarized their meeting to Taylor. Morrison also mentioned that Sondland (also on the trip) spoke with Yermak and that the ambassador had told Yermak that Ukraine would not receive security assistance money until President Zelensky committed to pursue the two investigations.

This, Taylor said, was the first time he heard that security assistance money, not just the White House meeting, was conditioned on the investigations. In a phone call later that day with Sondland, Taylor learned that Trump wanted Zelensky to make a public announcement about the investigation. During this call, Sondland also said that “everything” was dependent on such a public announcement. In questioning, the majority clarified and restated Sondland’s point. The minority responded, asking Taylor to confirm that the announcement had never been made and that the aid was ultimately released. In the following round of majority questions, the chairman pushed back:

Chairman: [D]id you mean that if they didn’t do this, the investigations, they weren’t going to get that, the meeting and the military assistance?

Taylor: That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the President committed to pursue the investigation.

Chairman: So if they don’t do this, they are not going to get that was your understanding?

Taylor: Yes, sir.

Chairman: Are you aware that quid pro quo literally means this for that?

Taylor: I am.

On Sept. 8, Taylor learned from Sondland that the latter had spoken with Zelensky and Yermak, telling them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, they would be at a “stalemate” if Zelensky did not make a public statement. Taylor said that he understood “stalemate” to mean that Ukraine would not receive the military assistance it needed. Sondland said the call ended with Zelensky agreeing to make a public statement to CNN. 

Following the call, Taylor texted Sondland with his concerns. He wrote, “My nightmare is that the Ukrainians give the interview and dont get the security assistance. The Russians love it. And I quit.” In later exchanges with the committee, Taylor emphasized how Zelensky would face political backlash and humiliation for being forced to order the investigations, which Russia would “love” and benefit from. Taylor also said that this scenario would constitute a change in the U.S. policy of strong support for Ukraine, upon which he conditioned his return to government, and would therefore resign.

On Sept. 9, Taylor texted Sondland and Volker, reemphasizing the importance of the message U.S. security assistance sends to Ukraine and Russia. He also added, that “it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responded five hours later, saying that Taylor had misunderstood Trump’s intentions and that Trump had been clear: “no quid pro quos of any kind.” 

On Sept. 11, the security assistance was released. Taylor delivered the news to Zelensky and the Ukrainian foreign minister. Taylor remained worried that Zelensky would still announce the investigations and be pulled into U.S. domestic politics. He then confirmed through Danylyuk that Zelensky would not make the announcement. 

On Sept. 25, the White House released the transcript of Trump and Zelensky’s July 25 call. Taylor said that although this was the first time he had seen the details of the call, he had by then understood the meaning of the term “investigations.