The Trump administration’s claim that President Donald Trump‘s pressure campaign on Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden and the 2016 election did not amount to a quid pro quo has been unraveling for a while now. First there were the explosive text messages that mentioned “withhold[ing] security for help with a political campaign,” then came Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney‘s press conference, in which he suggested aid to Ukraine was suspended over Trump’s desired investigations—and then shrugged it off and claimed the administration does similar things “all the time.” (Mulvaney later walked back his comments and blamed the press for “misconstruing” his remarks.) On Tuesday, the most damning evidence yet of a quid pro quo came courtesy of Bill Taylor, who serves as charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine. In his damaging testimony to the House committees investigating impeachment, Taylor confirmed that he believed there to be a clear quid pro quo arrangement, in which the Trump administration withheld military aid to Ukraine—which had already been passed by Congress—unless Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to investigate the president’s political rivals and say so publicly. Recounting one conversation, Taylor said that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had told Zelensky and assistant Adriy Yermak, “although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelenskyy 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,” Taylor testified.
Taylor, a military veteran and career diplomat who previously served as ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush, walked lawmakers through his experience with the Trump administration in his Ukraine role, during which time he quickly realized there “appeared to be two channels of U.S. policy-making and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular.” The “irregular” one, being directed by Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and Rudy Giuliani, was pushing the Ukrainian investigation into Trump’s rivals, and, Taylor testified, “running contrary to the goals of longstanding U.S. policy” and “fundamentally undermin[ing]” the U.S.’s relationship with Ukraine as a result. While Taylor was not initially told about the reasoning behind the decision to withhold funding to Ukraine—and never received a readout of Trump’s infamous July 25 call with Zelensky, a decision that the diplomat called “strange”—Taylor testified that he came to understand that the aid was being held up over the investigations. “Ambassador Sondland told Mr. Yermak that security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation,” Taylor testified, referring to the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden previously served.
The quid pro quo pressure on Ukraine appeared to come from Trump directly, according to Taylor’s testimony. The diplomat testified to Congress that he had been told by National Security Council Ukraine specialist Tim Morrison that while the president said he “was not asking for a ‘quid pro quo’,” 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.” “During our call on September 8, Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman,” Taylor testified. “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.” (The diplomat added that he believed that argument “made no sense,” as “the Ukrainians did not ‘owe’ President Trump anything.”)
Taylor, who was a participant in the incriminating text messages Volker turned over to Congress, also gave more context to the now-public conversations. After Taylor texted, “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” and Sondland replied, “Call me,” Taylor testified that he had a phone conversation with Sondland, in which the ambassador outright confirmed a quid pro quo. “During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election,” Taylor testified. “Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations—in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance. Sondland, Taylor added, “said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskyy ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.” Taylor continued to stand by his belief that the quid pro quo arrangement was “crazy,” as he had said in a text message to Sondland and Volker. “I said on September 9 in a message to Ambassador Gordon Sondland that withholding security assistance in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign in the United States would be ‘crazy,’” Taylor told lawmakers. “I believed that then, and I still believe that.”