Impeachment testimony from former US ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor reveals the fatal ’quid pro quo’ at the center of the probe rests on mere hearsay, even as Taylor’s words are held up as a smoking gun by Trump’s enemies.
In the course of his October 22 deposition, made public on Wednesday, Taylor explains it was his “clear understanding” that “security assistance money would not come” until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “committed to pursue the investigation” of natural gas firm Burisma Holdings, where Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden’s son was a director.
That understanding, however, came from being told by Trump adviser Tim Morrison that another ambassador – US envoy to the EU Gordon Sondland – had informed a Zelensky aide of the condition.
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That fateful conversation appears to be the closest Taylor got to the alleged quid pro quo. It’s not clear exactly what was said between them, as Sondland hurriedly revised his own testimony on Tuesday to better match Taylor’s.
“What I know for sure,” Taylor testified, “is what Mr. Morrison told me that he must have heard Ambassador Sondland tell [Zelensky aide] Mr. Yermak. And as I said, this was the first time I’d heard [security assistance and corruption investigations] put together.” (p.189)
Taylor also admitted he was not listening in on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, and that he did not see the transcript until it was released in late September. He acknowledged he had never spoken to Trump, and when pressed by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey), pinned the entire “drug deal” (the words of former national security adviser John Bolton, apparently) on Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani (p.260) – even though Taylor had never spoken to him either.
Giuliani, Taylor said, dominated an “irregular” policy channel alongside the wholesome, bipartisan way of doing things, a channel that ran “contrary to the goals of longstanding US policy” – or at least that was what Taylor “began to sense” (p.28) when the aid was held up.
At one point, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York) attempted to pin down exactly what Taylor’s relationship was to the events in question.
“This isn’t firsthand. It’s not secondhand. It’s not thirdhand. But if I understand this correctly, you’re telling us that Tim Morrison told you that Ambassador Sondland told him that the president told Ambassador Sondland that Zelensky would have to open an investigation into Biden?” Zeldin asks incredulously. (p. 298)
The New York congressman also got Taylor to admit that his sole source for his belief that Trump wanted Biden investigated in order to influence the 2020 election was an article in the New York Times – not exactly known for its accurate or sympathetic portrayals of the president.
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Critically, Taylor admitted that no one in the Ukrainian government knew military aid had been suspended until over a month after the Trump-Zelensky phone call, which was the source of the anonymous whistleblower’s complaint.
The ambassador’s opening statement was “leaked” before the House voted to make transcripts public, and has been held up by intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff (D-California) and other pro-impeachment Democrats as ‘proof’ that military aid was withheld “through a shadow foreign policy channel” until Ukraine agreed to follow through with the Biden investigation.
An examination of the transcript, however, reveals nothing of the sort. Taylor’s political convictions – that Russia must be kicked out of Ukraine, lest it blossom into a malevolent empire – appear to motivate his testimony more than any firsthand knowledge of what transpired between the American and Ukrainian heads of state.
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