A top U.S. diplomat gave explosive testimony Tuesday tying Ukraine aid to politically motivated investigations, a development Democrats called a game changer that could extend the impeachment inquiry into 2020.
William Taylor, the head of the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, informed House lawmakers he was told nearly $400 million in military aid was contingent on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announcing investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, the Burisma energy company and 2016 election interference.
Taylor’s testimony, that he understood the Trump administration was pushing for a quid pro quo, added more fuel to the Democrats’ hard-charging investigation.
Taylor tied President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Trump officials including Energy Secretary Rick Perry to a shadow foreign policy campaign that sought to obtain a public statement about political investigations.
“[T]he push to make President Zelensky publicly commit to investigations of Burisma and alleged interference in the 2016 election showed how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the regular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani,” he told House investigators.
Some Democrats on Tuesday said Taylor’s “credible” testimony means some witnesses, including U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, may need to be called back to testify a second time to resolve what Democrats now see as inconsistencies in their statements.
Taylor testified that Sondland told him Trump said he wanted the Ukrainian government to state publicly it would launch investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 elections and that “everything,” including the military aid, depended on it.
“During our call on September 8, Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman. 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,” Taylor told investigators.
“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,” Taylor said.
Taylor also said he learned from two other officials that the order to hold security assistance for Ukraine came from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Taylor first drew the attention of lawmakers when former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker provided text messages to House investigators that quoted Taylor as saying, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
He stood by that assessment in his opening statement Tuesday.
“I believed that then, and I still believe that,” Taylor said.
Trump has repeatedly denied any quid pro quo.
Still, Taylor’s testimony comes just days after Mulvaney said aid for Ukraine was linked to Trump’s desire for the country to pursue a political probe related to the 2016 election. He later walked back the remarks.
In the four weeks since Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) formally announced the impeachment inquiry, Democrats have secured closed-door testimony from a number of witnesses who have detailed Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate his political rivals.
Democrats say there are still more witnesses they want to interview before turning to the next phase of impeachment: public hearings, releasing transcripts and making recommendations for how to proceed before reaching a floor vote on articles of impeachment.
At least two more witnesses are scheduled to appear this week: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper and acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker.
The Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight and Reform committees are leading the impeachment probe. Any public hearings are likely weeks away.
“That’s obviously a step after this. But right now we’re concentrating on getting as many people as we can,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), adding that he didn’t know yet how many more witnesses would be called.
While virtually every Democrat says it’s necessary to take the time to gather all the facts, they also face a balancing act of trying to prevent a months-long impeachment process from completely eclipsing their policy priorities.
That puts centrists who resisted endorsing impeachment for months — for fear it would overshadow the issues they campaigned on last year — in a tough spot.
“Whatever it takes, it takes. But I hope that it doesn’t take excessively long, because it’s going to run right into the election,” said freshman Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-N.J.), who said it would be ideal for the inquiry to wrap up before the Iowa caucuses in early February.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who represents a deep-blue district outside of Washington, also has concerns that the impeachment probe could drag on too long.
“I think it’s going as fast as it can, responsibly, ethically,” Beyer told The Hill. “But I think getting it done sooner rather than later is really important for us, because we have so many other things that we’re doing.”
“We don’t want it to interfere too much with the 2020 election. It’s not up to me, but I would just assume [an impeachment vote] would happen before we leave for the Christmas break this year,” he said.
Other freshmen in competitive districts are resigned to an investigation that could drag on for months.
“I have four hearings today. And yet every question I’ve gotten is about impeachment and the inquiry. So it’s already overshadowing all of the other great work that we’re doing, unfortunately,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said. “If that takes a short period of time or a long period of time, it is what it is. And it’s our responsibility to be driven by facts and not anything else.”
When Pelosi first endorsed the impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24, many House Democrats believed it might wrap up by Thanksgiving. Lawmakers now say the widening probe could last beyond the holiday season.
“I’d be surprised if it doesn’t go into January,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a Pelosi ally who has been talking to colleagues on the trio of investigating committees.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), however, suggested the Taylor testimony — “the most powerful we’ve heard” — could actually speed up the impeachment probe as it confirms key elements of the quid pro quo narrative.
“This testimony is a sea change. I think it could accelerate matters,” said Lynch, a member of the Oversight and Reform Committee. “This will, I think, answer more questions than it raises.”