WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine testified on Tuesday he was told that President Donald Trump made the release of security aid to Ukraine contingent on Kiev publicly declaring it would carry out politically motivated investigations that he sought, according to a copy of his statement to lawmakers.
William Taylor, who as the charge d’affaires is the senior American envoy in Ukraine, gave closed-door testimony to the three Democratic-led House of Representatives committees leading an impeachment inquiry against Trump. The Washington Post posted a copy of Taylor’s opening statement online.
Taylor testified he was told by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. envoy to the European Union, that Trump had made the release of the withheld aid contingent on Kiev making public declarations that it would investigate domestic political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden as well as an issue related to the 2016 election over an allegation that a Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer server is in Ukraine.
The House inquiry is focusing on Trump’s request during a July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that he investigate the Bidens. Joe Biden, the former vice president, is a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to face Republican Trump. Hunter Biden had served on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
The contents of the phone call was revealed by a whistleblower, who submitted a report stating Trump pressured Zelenskiy to advance his personal political interests. Trump also publicly asked China to investigate the Bidens. Federal election law prohibits candidates from accepting foreign help in an election.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and accused Democrats of trying to oust him to prevent him from being re-elected.
Trump made his request, which Democrats say was an improper invitation for foreign interference in an American election, after withholding $391 million in security aid approved by the U.S. Congress to help combat Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to the request. The aid was later released.
Trump has denied that there was a quid pro quo - a Latin term meaning a favor for a favor - though his acting chief of staff last week acknowledged that the aid was contingent on Ukraine investigating the DNC server issue.
‘MOST DAMNING TESTIMONY’
Referring to Taylor, Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said, “It was the most damning testimony.”
Wasserman Schultz added, “I really felt like he drew the most direct line that I’ve heard from President Trump to the withholding of foreign aid to a vital diplomatic partner that needs those resources to keep Russia at bay - and tying the withholding of that funding and the meeting that President Zelenskiy wanted to President Zelenskiy declaring that he would open investigations into the Burisma Biden issue and the 2016 election.”
Taylor’s appearance marked another pivotal development in the political drama unfolding in Washington that threatens Trump’s presidency even as he pursues re-election.
“During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskiy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election,” Taylor told lawmakers, according to the copy of his opening statement.
The “alleged Ukrainian interference” is a reference to a debunked conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, and not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and the DNC has a server in Ukraine. U.S. intelligence agencies and a special counsel investigation concluded that Russia used a campaign of hacking and propaganda to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s candidacy in 2016.
‘I THINK IT’S CRAZY’
Taylor had mentioned his concerns over the withholding of U.S. aid on Sept. 9 to Sondland and Kurt Volker, the State Department’s former special envoy to Ukraine, in a text message provided to House investigators and later made public.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote in the text message.
In his testimony on Tuesday, he reiterated that such a move was “crazy.”
“Our national security demands that this relationship remain strong,” Taylor said of U.S. ties with Ukraine. “However, in August and September of this year, I became increasingly concerned that our relationship with Ukraine was being 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 described this channel as including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, then-Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Sondland.
Taylor also said Sondland told him that he recognized he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials that Zelenskiy’s desire for a White House meeting with Trump was dependent on a public announcement of investigations Trump sought. In fact, Taylor testified, Sondland said “‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance.’”
Taylor was tapped to serve as charge d’affaires in Kiev, where he had served as U.S. ambassador from 2006 to 2009, after Trump in May abruptly removed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Giuliani had portrayed her as resisting his efforts to push Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Yovanovitch testified in the impeachment inquiry on Oct. 11.
Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly told reporters Taylor’s testimony was based on meticulous contemporaneous notes of conversations and meetings, adding to his credibility as a witness.
Trump, a day after calling on his fellow Republicans to get tougher in defending him in the inquiry, inflamed the controversy by writing on Twitter, “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here - a lynching. But we will WIN!”
African American lawmakers and others denounced Trump here for the remark because of the past U.S. history of lynching of black people, particularly in formerly pro-slavery Southern states.
“Lynching is a reprehensible stain on this nation’s history, as is this President. We’ll never erase the pain and trauma of lynching, and to invoke that torture to whitewash your own corruption is disgraceful,” Senator Kamala Harris, a Democratic presidential contender, wrote on Twitter.