The Ukraine Connection

What William Taylor’s Testimony Adds to the Ukraine Story

By Scott R. Anderson
Wednesday, October 23, 2019, 8:06 AM

Editor’s Note: This article is available in audio format on the Lawfare Podcast Shorts:

On Tuesday, Oct. 22, congressional committees investigating L’Affaire Ukrainienne heard long-awaited testimony from Ambassador William Taylor, the career diplomat who has spent the past four months running the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv following President Trump’s removal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. While Taylor testified behind closed doors, his opening statement provides an unvarnished view of the motivations that appear to have driven Trump and others to push for investigations into Trump’s political rivals and threaten to withhold Ukrainian security assistance. The result is a far uglier picture than what has emerged from prior testimony—one that bears directly on the question of corrupt motive that lies at the heart of the House’s ongoing impeachment inquiry.

Many of the events that Taylor describes in his testimony are likely to be familiar. But the window that his statement provides into the discussions and deliberations surrounding U.S. policy toward the Ukraine over the past several months is an invaluable addition to prior accounts and is worth examining in some detail. Here, I review Taylor’s account and situate it within what was already known about the scandal. From there, I consider what ramifications it is likely to have for other current and former U.S. officials who have been implicated in L’Affaire Ukrainienne—and how it adds to our understanding of whether or not President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.

Taylor’s Testimony

Taylor describes how he arrived in Kyiv in mid-June 2019 to find “two channels of U.S. policy-making and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular.” The latter, he writes, “was well-connected in Washington, [but] operated mostly outside of official State Department channels” and included “then-Special Envoy Kurt Volker, Ambassador [Gordon] Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and ... [Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph] Giuliani.” Both channels were eager to arrange a telephone call between Trump and Zelensky as well as a promised White House visit for the latter in hopes of strengthening the U.S.-Ukraine bilateral relationship. But as Taylor describes, it soon became clear that the two had in fact “diverged in their objectives.”

The irregular channel soon began to take steps to limit outside knowledge of the participants’ activities. Taylor describes how Sondland sought to exclude other interagency participants from a June 28 call with Zelensky, for the express purpose of “mak[ing] sure no one was transcribing or monitoring ... the call.” During that call, Sondland and Volker informed the other participants that they “planned to be explicit with [Zelensky] ... about what [he] should do to get the White House meeting” in an in-person meeting scheduled a few days later. According to Taylor, Volker described Trump as wanting to “see rule of law, transparency, but also, specifically, cooperation on investigations to ‘get to the bottom of things.’” By mid-July, however, Taylor notes that he had come to realize that “the meeting [Zelensky] wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections[,]” a condition being “driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.”

Around this time, Taylor also became aware that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had placed a hold on security assistance to Ukraine, pursuant to a “directive [that] had come from the President to the Chief of Staff [Mick Mulvaney] to OMB.” Despite strong, unanimous agreement among relevant agencies at National Security Council (NSC) meetings that the security assistance was effective and should continue, the hold remained inexplicably in place. According to Taylor, this led him to conclude that “[t]he irregular policy channel [had begun] running contrary to the goals of longstanding U.S. policy.”

In the days prior to the July 25 call, Taylor had exchanges with Sondland and Volker in which they described having coached Zelensky on how to engage Trump by recommending that Zelensky “say that he will help [the] investigation” and tell Trump he “will leave no stone unturned” in relation to them. According to Taylor, this led one of Zelensky’s advisers to tell him that Zelensky “did not want to be used as a pawn in a U.S. re-election campaign”—a concern that Taylor relayed to Sondland and Volker by text. After the notorious July 25 call occurred, Taylor notes that, “[s]trangely, even though I was Chief of Mission and was scheduled to meet with [Zelensky] along with Ambassador Volker the following day, I received no readout of the call from the White House.” He only received an informal readout from an NSC official several days later, who said the call “could have been better” and acknowledged that Trump had suggested that Zelensky “or his staff meet with Mr. Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr.” Taylor claims that he did not see the full memorandum of the call until the White House publicly released it several weeks later.

It is clear that, by this point, Taylor had become immensely concerned. On Aug. 16, after hearing from Volker that Ukrainian officials had asked that the United States submit an official request to reopen a Ukrainian investigation into Burisma, Taylor strongly advised that the United States “stay clear” and referred Volker to a relevant Justice Department official. After being told by NSC staffer Tim Morrison that “the ‘President doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all’” to the Ukrainians, Taylor says he began preparing to resign. At the suggestion of then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, Taylor first sent a cable on Aug. 29 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “describing the ‘folly’ I saw in withholding military aid to Ukraine” and stating that he “could not and would not defend such a policy.” That same day, the story of the hold on security assistance broke, leading Ukrainian officials to contact Taylor for an explanation—something he was “embarrassed” he could not give them. As for his cable, Taylor “received no specific response[,]” other than a report that Pompeo had carried the cable into a related meeting at the White House.

A few days later, Taylor learned from Morrison of a conversation Sondland had had with a senior adviser to Zelensky a few days earlier, in which Sondland asserted that “the security assistance money would not come until [Zelensky] committed to pursue the Burisma investigation.” An alarmed Taylor texted Sondland and Volker seeking confirmation, to which Sondland replied “call me.”

On the subsequent call, Sondland confirmed “that President Trump had told him that he wants [Zelensky] to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.” As Sondland told Taylor, “everything” was dependent on a public announcement of investigations, not just a White House meeting. According to Sondland, “President Trump wanted [Zelensky] ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.” Taylor urged Sondland to push back on Trump’s demand, and Sondland reportedly agreed to try. The two also discussed having the Ukrainian prosecutor general make a statement in lieu of Zelensky, “potentially in coordination with Attorney General Barr’s probe into the investigation of interference in the 2016 elections.”

Over the next several days, Taylor and other U.S. policymakers met with Ukrainian leaders expressing concern that U.S. security assistance might not be forthcoming. Both Taylor and other officials sought to assuage their concerns by noting the strong bipartisan support for such assistance. But Taylor worried that this “official foreign policy of the United States [had been] undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani.”

On Sept. 7, Taylor received a readout from Morrison of a conversation between Sondland and Trump that Morrison described as giving him a “sinking feeling.” In that conversation, Trump had insisted “he was not asking for a ‘quid pro quo’” but nonetheless insisted that Zelensky himself announce the opening of investigations into Biden and 2016 election interference. The next day, Sondland told Taylor that he had delivered this message to Zelensky, noting that “Trump was adamant that [Zelensky], himself, ... ‘clear things up and do it in public’” in order to avoid a “stalemate”—which Taylor understood to mean that “Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance.” This exchange resulted in a commitment by Zelensky to publicly announce the investigations in an interview with CNN.

Taylor texted Sondland about his reservations later that day, reiterating what Taylor describes in his testimony as a serious threat that he would resign if Zelensky gave the interview and did not receive the security assistance. He followed up further on Sept. 8, asserting: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Several hours later, Sondland responded by noting that they should not continue the conversation by text, echoing Trump’s line that there were “no quid pro quo’s [sic] of any kind[,]” and encouraging Taylor to raise any remaining reservations with Pompeo.

While Taylor does not discuss this in his testimony, it’s notable that the inspector general for the intelligence community informed the House Intelligence Committee of the whistleblower’s complaint that same day. This led Chairman Adam Schiff to request the complaint the next day. When this request was refused, Schiff followed up with a public subpoena a few days later, on Sept. 13.

Taylor writes that, on Sept. 11, the hold on security assistance for Ukraine was lifted without explanation. Taylor conveyed the news to Zelensky and his advisers and sought to confirm that neither Zelensky nor anyone in his government planned to follow through on his reported commitment to Sondland to announce investigations on CNN. Zelensky’s advisers indicated that they did not, though Taylor notes that one official who had been Giuliani’s main interlocutor “looked uncomfortable[.]”

Taylor closes his narrative by noting that Trump and Zelensky finally met in person on Sept. 25, after the story of the whistleblower had gone public. That same day, the White House released the transcript of the July 25 call, which Taylor recalls seeing for the first time. He notes that the White House “gave the Ukrainians virtually no notice of the release,” leaving them “livid.” Taylor notes unequivocally that he understood the references to “investigations” in the July 25 call as describing “matters related to the 2016 elections, and to investigations of Burisma and the Bidens.”

Implications and Consequences

No one comes away from Taylor’s narrative looking good. The officials who behaved the least objectionably are arguably Bolton and his NSC staffers, namely Morrison, Morrison’s predecessor Fiona Hill (who resigned in August), and their colleague Alexander Vindman. Taylor describes this group as repeatedly voicing concerns with the actions and objectives of the “irregular” policy channel, reporting that Bolton at one point became “so irritated” with Sondland’s efforts to tie a White House meeting to investigations that he cut a meeting with Ukrainian officials abruptly short, directed his subordinates to “brief the lawyers” about Sondland’s proposed “drug deal” and even “opposed a call between [Zelensky] and [Trump] out of concern that it ‘would be a disaster.’” Yet none of these officials took serious steps to oppose or disrupt these efforts. Nor did Taylor himself, for that matter, despite the candor with which he repeatedly raised his concerns.

Sondland and Volker come out badly damaged by Taylor’s account. In their own testimony before congressional investigators earlier this month, each disclaimed any knowledge that Trump’s sustained emphasis on “investigations” and “corruption” was linked to the Bidens, asserting that they thought it related only to investigations into 2016 election interference and that they did not know that Burisma, which was repeatedly named as a desired target of those investigations, was the Ukrainian gas company with which Hunter Biden was associated. These claims were never very credible. But Taylor blows them up entirely, making clear that both Volker and Sondland were not only fully aware of the “irregular” channel’s demands but were often directly involved in advancing them both internally and with Ukrainian counterparts.

Sondland, in particular, appears to have been a central facilitator in the “irregular” channel machinations, in sharp contrast with his own efforts to portray himself as a well-intentioned, if woefully underinformed, bystander. This discrepancy seems certain to carry consequences for his credibility, if not more. Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the third “amigo” supposedly charged with managing the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy, plays only a bit part in Taylor’s narrative, leaving questions about his full level of involvement unanswered. Taylor also makes only scant mention of Giuliani, in part because their direct interactions appear to have been limited; instead, Giuliani appears to have worked primarily through Sondland and Volker.

Also left bloodied are Mulvaney and Pompeo. Taylor leaves no doubt that Mulvaney was directly responsible for placing the hold on security assistance to Ukraine, noting a comment by NSC staffers that Mulvaney himself “maintained a skeptical view of Ukraine.” Moreover, while Mulvaney has insisted publicly that the administration always intended to provide the assistance by the end of the fiscal year, Taylor says he relayed to Ukrainian officials his understanding that it was an “all or nothing” proposition—meaning the security assistance would disappear permanently if the hold were not lifted by Sept. 30.

Pompeo does not feature prominently, but Taylor’s testimony clearly implies that he is complicit. After all, Taylor informed Pompeo’s counselor, Ulrich Brechbuhl, of his concerns and ultimately wrote a personal cable to Pompeo expressing those worries, with no apparent response or reaction by the secretary. And Sondland’s willingness to invoke Pompeo in admonishing Taylor for suggesting that Trump had tied security assistance to the investigations leaves little doubt that Pompeo was in on the “irregular” scheme. Pompeo personally asked Taylor to come out of pseudo-retirement to take the reins in Kyiv following Yovonovitch’s removal, and Taylor seems markedly disappointed in Pompeo’s failures to take action or meaningfully intervene to defend long-standing U.S. foreign policy interests. Perhaps this is one of the factors that led Taylor to testify in spite of the White House’s objections to the impeachment inquiry, and why so many other State Department employees appear to be following suit.

The person who looks the worst in Taylor’s account, however, is undoubtedly President Trump himself. In their testimony, Sondland and Volker laid blame most squarely on Giuliani for orchestrating the push for investigations, leaving some lingering ambiguity around Trump’s level of engagement. But Taylor clearly sets out the president’s direct and knowing involvement. After all, it is Trump himself who reportedly said he “want[s] [Zelensky] ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering [the investigation].” And Taylor describes in detail how Trump ultimately made the withheld security assistance contingent on such a statement, first implicitly through the OMB hold and later expressly. As Taylor writes:

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 Zelenskyy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskyy should want to do this himself. ...

The following day, on September 8, Ambassador Sondland and I spoke on the phone. He said … President Trump was adamant that [Zelensky], himself, had to “clear things up and do it in public.” President Trump said it was not a “quid pro quo.” Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to [Zelensky] and [one of Zelensky’s advisers] and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if [Zelensky] did not “clear things up” in public, we would be at a “stalemate.” I understood a stalemate to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance.

The only weak point in Taylor’s testimony is the fact that his knowledge of Trump’s statements is almost entirely secondhand and received through Sondland. To the extent that Taylor’s recollections are inconsistent with Sondland’s own prior testimony, congressional investigators will no doubt need to follow up—something that Rep. Will Hurd of the House Intelligence Committee has already called for. At a minimum, Sondland’s role in L’Affaire Ukrainienne appears to have been more central than it once seemed and the scrutiny he is likely to receive as part of the subsequent investigation seems likely to grow larger.

The most curious part of Taylor’s narrative, however, is Trump’s single-minded recitation of his “no quid pro quo” mantra. While the phrase has become the crux of the defense Trump and his supporters have put forward, it’s not clear why they believe that the lack of an explicit quid pro quo would be exculpatory. The most relevant context where this concept might arise would be criminal law, where a quid pro quo is sometimes seen as an element of bribery and honest services fraud, among other offenses. Of course, under current Justice Department legal views, Trump is effectively immune from indictment for such offenses so long as he is president. And impeachment does not require a criminal violation, making the existence of a quid pro quo far from determinative of the ongoing House inquiry.

Regardless, Taylor leaves no doubts that there was, in fact, a quid pro quo proposal that Trump himself was involved in putting forward: Each time Taylor quotes Trump as asserting there is no “quid pro quo,” he sets it next to a description of Trump demanding exactly that.

Defenders of the president will no doubt respond to this testimony by trying to impugn Taylor’s credibility. But Trump may have more difficulty smearing Taylor than he has with others. Though the White House has tried to disparage Taylor as being part of a conspiracy of “radical unelected bureaucrats,” Taylor is not only a military veteran and a widely respected career diplomat but is also a prior Republican political appointee—he served as ambassador to Ukraine under the George W. Bush administration. He also openly disagreed with aspects of the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy and pointedly noted in his opening statement on Tuesday that he counts at least one “respected former senior Republican official” as a close mentor. Taylor credibly asserts that it was his sincere belief in the importance of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship that led him to accede to Pompeo’s request to return to Kyiv, contingent on the understanding that Taylor would resign if U.S. policy toward Ukraine were to change. It is hard to see how his decision to testify before Congress—just months after accepting that job and over Pompeo’s objections—could be motivated by anything other than his sincerely held belief that “our relationship with Ukraine [has been] fundamentally undermined by an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy-making and by the withholding of vital security assistance for domestic political reasons.”

Taylor’s testimony may not seem like a game-changer. It adds few new facts to what was already known about Trump’s actions surrounding the July 25 telephone call—conduct to which Trump himself has already admitted and that he and his supporters continue to defend. But Taylor’s insider account of the manner in which he saw the Trump administration implement U.S. policy toward the Ukraine, along with the motives he credibly attributes to Trump and his close advisers, is damning. They cut straight through any pretense that the Trump administration’s actions reflected valid U.S. policy interests or were motivated by any objective other than the president’s own political advantage. Moreover, Taylor is unsparing in describing what the consequences for broader U.S. foreign policy interests will be if such self-interested conduct goes unabated.

In this sense, Taylor’s testimony puts the questions raised by the House’s impeachment inquiry and their consequences into even sharper relief. Now it remains for Congress to decide how it will respond.