William Taylor's testimony should be game over for Trump
Tuesday, William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, delivered closed-doors testimony to Congress that would have promptly ended any presidency in American history prior to this one. Taylor, a pro's pro who Trump's amateur goons really should not have messed with, made it clear that there was indeed an organized, not-very-secret conspiracy to extort the government of Ukraine in exchange for announcing phony investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and Ukraine's alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.
It was all there — the quid, the pro, the quo, the whole sordid scheme laid out end-to-end and narrated capably by a career foreign service officer who is obviously about 300 times brighter and better than any of the dim bulbs who carried out the extortion scheme. Lawmakers told reporters that there were "audible gasps" of shock during Taylor's opening statement. It's good to know, at least, that on day 1,005 of Donald Trump's corrupt misrule, it is still possible to be made freshly aghast at his contemptible behavior.
In his statement, Taylor says he accepted his May appointment reluctantly, both out of respect for deposed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and because he had already heard rumors of an out-of-control Rudy Giuliani freelancing American foreign policy totally outside normal channels. He arrived in Kiev to find that new President Volodymyr Zelensky was vigorously pursuing his reform agenda and that "a new Ukraine might finally be breaking from its corrupt post-Soviet past."
Unfortunately, Taylor discovered that, like with anything that Donald Trump has so much as brushed a shoulder against, U.S. policy in Ukraine had been turned into a hash intended to benefit the president directly rather than either the American or Ukrainian people. You should read the gory details yourself, but to sum up: Taylor quickly realized that a cabal including Giuliani, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and former Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker were carrying out a demented plan to force Zelensky to announce investigations into Burisma (the company Hunter Biden worked for) as well as the Pizzagate-level fever dream that the Ukrainians were somehow hiding the DNC server that was hacked by Russia in 2016, and that on that server is evidence that it was all a Democratic hoax.
No one, Taylor realized, was even being especially coy about what they were doing. Freshly emboldened by Attorney General William Barr's successful blunting of the Mueller Report, Trump and his minions seemed to believe that they could get away with anything.
Taylor noted that in August of 2019, "I became increasingly concerned that our relationship with Ukraine was being fundamentally undermined by an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policymaking and by the withholding of vital security assistance for domestic political reasons." This, of course, we already knew from Taylor's already-released text messages with Volker and Sondland. But Taylor brought the receipts Trump's idiotic wise guys printed out for him.
On one call between these keystone kleptocrats and Zelensky, Taylor says that Sondland insisted that no one transcribe the proceedings. Taylor, with James Comey-level fastidiousness, memorialized these kinds of events with contemporaneous memos to his superiors. By mid-July, he says "it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections." He learned of the hold that acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney put on nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine on July 18. On July 20, he discovered that Sondland had instructed Zelensky to use the language "I will leave no stone unturned" when announcing the faux-investigations that Trump's cabal was demanding. He was, suspiciously, not provided a readout of President Trump's much-scrutinized July 25 call with Zelensky.
Word of the security-assistance holdup leaked to the press on August 29. Taylor revealed that he cabled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that day with concerns about the still-unfolding fiasco. A few days later, Tim Morrison, Trump's new top Russia adviser who replaced Fiona Hill, told Taylor that Sondland had told top Zelensky adviser Adriy Yermak that the security assistance would not be released until the investigations were launched.
But the most damning part was yet to come. When Taylor texted Sondland his concerns about this situation, Sondland had replied "Call me." According to Taylor, Sondland lied in his testimony about what was said on that call. Taylor says Sondland told him that "everything" was dependent on the announcement of investigations — the security assistance and the White House visit that Zelenksy desperately wanted. He said that President Trump wanted to put Zelensky "in a public box" until he caved and agreed to interfere in the 2020 election. He described a September 7 conversation between Sondland and the president in which Trump insisted that there was no quid pro quo but that Zelensky had to "go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference."
Sometime between September 7 and September 11, perhaps finally realizing the paper trail they were creating and that multiple officials were about to blow the lid on it, the plot was abandoned. The aid was released on September 11, and Taylor continued to try to convince Zelensky not to launch these investigations, which he did not. End of caper — or it would have been had the whistleblower not come forward, setting into motion the gravest crisis of Trump's presidency.
For those who might be inclined to believe that "we do that all the time," in the now-infamous words of soon-to-be-under-the-bus Mulvaney, and for the 46 percent of Americans who told New York Times pollsters that this is more or less what they expect of government officials anyway, it is worth a reminder that even by the incredibly lax standards of a city overrun by lobbyists, grifters and rent-seekers, Trump and Giuliani's Ukraine plot was both illegal in a legal sense and totally insane as a foreign policy. It was illegal because it violated the Federal Election Campaign Act's prohibition on soliciting a thing of value (dirt on Biden and the Democrats) from a foreign national, and it would be so even if Hunter Biden spent 2015 stuffing his pants with laundered Ukrainian cash, which he did not.
In less dry terms, the nonsense investigations that Trump's henchmen sought from Zelensky would have immediately destroyed Joe Biden's campaign and led to endless, negative speculation about the DNC, all based on a pile of b.s. so high it would eclipse Trump Tower. It is an incredible abuse of power, the act of a madman drunk on his power and operating with the not-unreasonable belief that his impunity is total and timeless, a crook who surrounds himself with other crooks who are too dumb to get away with their crimes.
And whether you think the U.S. should put two divisions on the Ukraine-Russia border or leave the place to Russia's untender mercy, we should be able to agree at least that our foreign policy decisions should be based on some informed calculation of our security needs, rather than the election designs of a would-be-dictator. The president simply does not care about America's interests, or Ukraine's, or ours. He's willing to commit broad-daylight crimes to save his skin next year, and he'll throw anyone to the wolves if they don't serve that naked desire.
Taylor's testimony sets the stage for more fireworks — Sondland will have to come back to testify again, and it is now pretty clear that everyone from Pompeo to Vice President Mike Pence was aware of this illegal scheme. There will be months of "what did they know and when did they know it" questions. Further revelations are inevitable, and pity the GOP stooges who have to fan out across DC to defend the president against Taylor's allegations.
The bigger picture is this: The president of the United States is a corrupt, oafish criminal willing to twist American foreign policy to benefit his re-election prospects, and willing to brazenly violate the law and abuse the powers of his office to do so. In a sane country with properly functioning political institutions and parties, this maniac would be forced to slink out of the White House tomorrow and hold his arms out for the handcuffs. That he still has, as of today, the support of both his congressional sycophants as well as the enthusiastic admiration of his rank-and-file voters suggests that this country is much more vulnerable to a slow-motion authoritarian takeover than even the most alarmist critics suspected at the outset of this nightmare presidency.
We're all in a very "public box" right now, and there is still only one way out: to impeach this terrible man and remove him from office.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.