WASHINGTON — A former U.S. ambassador reportedly provided lawmakers Tuesday with what some of them called a “disturbing” account of President Donald Trump wanting to put the new Ukraine president “in a public box” by demanding a quid pro quo now at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment probe.
Also Tuesday, Trump tweeted that House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is “a lynching.”
“All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
His use of that word brought bipartisan condemnation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters later, “that was an unfortunate choice of words.”
“Given the history in our country,” McConnell said, “I would not compare this to a lynching.”
In his opening statement to House investigators in a closed-door hearing, former Ukraine ambassador William Taylor reportedly said Trump warned that “everything” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wanted, including military aid to counter Russia, hinged on making a public vow that he would investigate Democrats going back to the 2016 U.S. election, as well as a company linked to the son of Trump’s potential 2020 Democratic rival, former vice president Joe Biden.
Taylor reportedly testified that what he discovered in Kyiv was a Trump administration back channel to foreign policy, led by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and a “weird combination” of “ultimately alarming circumstances” that threaten to erode the United States’ relationship with a budding Eastern European ally.
Lawmakers emerging after hours of the closed-door deposition Tuesday said Taylor relayed a “disturbing” account, including establishing a “direct line” to the alleged quid pro quo.
House Democrats said Taylor recalled events that filled in gaps from the testimony of other witnesses, particularly Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who testified last week and whose statements now are being called into question by Taylor’s account. They said Taylor kept records of conversations and documents.
“The testimony is very disturbing,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., used the same word. Asked why, he said, “Because it’s becoming more distinct.”
Taylor’s appearance was among the most anticipated because of a text message, released by House investigators earlier in the probe, in which he called Trump’s attempt to hold back military aid to Ukraine “crazy.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said Taylor “drew a straight line” with documents, timelines and individual conversations in his records.
“I do not know how you would listen to today’s testimony [conclusion] except that the president abused his power and withheld foreign aid,” she said.
Lawmakers did not discuss other details of the closed-door session, which was expected to continue into the evening. Taylor declined to comment as he entered the deposition. He, like other diplomats, was subpoenaed to appear.
But the career civil servant’s delivery was credible and consistent, people said, as he answered hours of questions from Democrats and Republicans, drawing silence in the room as lawmakers exchanged glances.
Taylor laid out the alleged quid pro quo of the White House’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless the new president, Zelenskiy, agreed to Trump’s requests to investigate Democrats, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In a July phone call, Trump told Zelenskiy he wanted “a favor,” which the White House later acknowledged in a rough transcript of the conversation was Trump’s desire for Ukraine to investigate the Democratic National Committee’s email hack in 2016, as well as a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, with ties to Biden’s son, Hunter.
Taylor reportedly told lawmakers that another diplomat on the string of text messages, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Sondland, was aware of Trump’s request and later said he’d made a mistake that the aid hinged on agreeing to Trump’s request, the person said.
The account calls into question the testimony from Sondland, a wealthy businessman who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, who reportedly told Congress last week he did not fully remember some details of the events. Sondland could be asked to return to Congress after he testified that he initially was unaware that Hunter Biden was on the gas company’s board.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., said Taylor had a better recall of details than Sondland.
Taylor had been chosen to run the Ukraine embassy after the Trump administration ousted Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
In a series of text messages released earlier this month by impeachment investigators, Taylor appeared to be alarmed by an alleged Trump effort to withhold U.S. military assistance to Ukraine that had already been approved by Congress.
“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor reportedly wrote in excerpts of the text messages that were released by Democrat impeachment investigators.
He has stood by that observation in his private remarks to investigators, according to a person familiar with his testimony who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Taylor’s description of Trump’s position is in sharp contrast to how the president has characterized it. Trump has said there was no quid pro quo, although his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, contradicted that last week. Mulvaney later walked back his remarks.
Taylor, a former U.S. Army officer, had been serving as executive vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan think tank founded by Congress, when he was appointed to run the embassy in Kyiv. He previously had served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009.
“He’s the epitome of a seasoned statesman,” said John Shmorhun, an American who heads the agricultural company AgroGeneration.
Before retiring from government service, Taylor was involved in diplomatic efforts surrounding several major international conflicts. He served in Jerusalem as U.S. envoy to the Quartet of Mideast Peacemakers. He oversaw reconstruction in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and, from Kabul, coordinated U.S. and international assistance to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003.
He arrived in Kyiv a month after the inauguration of Ukraine’s new president, prepared to steer the embassy through the transition.
After Trump’s phone conversation with Zelenskiy, Taylor reportedly exchanged text messages with two of Trump’s point men on Ukraine as they were trying to get Zelenskiy to commit to the investigations before setting a date for a coveted White House visit.
In a text message to Sondland on Sept. 1, Taylor reportedly questioned Trump’s motives: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland instructed Taylor to call him. A week later, in texts to Sondland and U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, Taylor reportedly expressed increased concern and referred to the arrangement as “crazy.”
Taylor allegedly also texted that not giving the military aid to Ukraine would be his “nightmare” scenario, because it would send the wrong message to both Kyiv and Moscow: “The Russians love it. (And I quit).”
U.S. diplomats based at the Kyiv Embassy have refused to speak with journalists. The embassy press office did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.