The closed-door testimony by the United States’ senior diplomat in Ukraine significantly changes the discussion about whether President Donald Trump withheld military assistance to compel a foreign government to investigate one of his political rivals.
It is no longer a question of whether this happened. It is now a question of how the president explains it and how lawmakers — especially Republicans — choose to respond to it.
The lengthy prepared testimony by William Taylor Jr. to the House Intelligence Committee is painstakingly clear in its rendition of events. His account directly contradicts the president and asserts that military assistance was withheld for months as Trump was demanding an explicit statement from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky confirming that he would launch investigations the president wanted.
Taylor's prepared testimony documents with precision and clarity what he heard, saw, wrote and was asked to respond to over a period of weeks. In his telling, the squeeze on Ukraine, and Trump's role in it, goes well beyond a single phone call July 25 between the U.S. president and Zelensky.
Trump’s long-standing characterization that there was no quid pro quo runs smack into evidence to the contrary. Characterizations now count for less than explanations. How does he explain what Taylor outlines, which is that Trump was directly linking military assistance to demands that the Ukraine president announce publicly his intention to start investigations into the 2016 campaign and former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden?
Republican lawmakers face a new calculus as they digest the contents of the Taylor testimony. They will have great difficulty denying that the suspension of the aid was being linked to an investigation of a political rival of the president. Will they conclude that what the president did was legitimate? Will they attempt to point in other directions? Will they argue that what Trump did wasn’t right but isn’t impeachable? There’s less room for equivocation about what happened today than there was before.
Taylor, who was newly reassigned to the embassy in Kyiv, describes events that took place over several months during the summer as he struggled to make sense of a dual-track diplomatic effort — one run through regular channels and another led by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, whose efforts in Taylor’s view were detrimental to U.S. and Ukrainian interests.
Trump has called the July 25 phone call “perfect.” In that conversation, he asked for “a favor” from Zelensky and specifically mentioned 2016 and the Bidens. He has pointed to the rough transcript of the phone call to suggest there was nothing explicit enough in the exchange to warrant an impeachment inquiry, which he has regularly denounced and which he likened Tuesday to “a lynching.”
Taylor's prepared testimony, however, dramatically undercuts the argument that there was no linkage. Taylor acknowledges that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a central figure in the Ukraine matter, explicitly told Taylor that Trump said there was no quid pro quo. But Taylor's version of events makes it clear that denying there was no quid pro quo doesn't square with the facts.
At first, Taylor could not quite put the pieces together, but slowly they fell into place. Taylor, the senior diplomat in Ukraine and a former ambassador to that country, testified that until the president released the rough transcript of the July 25 telephone call with Zelensky, he had not been read into the contents of it.
What he eventually realized, but not until much later, was that the official policy of the United States — a policy of strong support for Ukraine in the face of Russian hostility and military threat — was “undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani.”
Taylor says he was told by another official that Trump had told Sondland he wasn't asking for a quid pro quo. "But President Trump did insist that President [Zelensky] go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference," according to the prepared testimony.
If that is how things played out, that is about as explicit as it can be. And it was shortly after that when Taylor told Sondland and Kurt Volker, who was special envoy for Ukraine, "I think it is crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." Days later, the hold on the military aid was lifted.
If there is a contrary version of events, the president is now under pressure to present it. Taylor outlines phone calls, diplomatic cables, face-to-face meetings and text messages among a group of U.S. officials during the period when military aid had been suspended, though for no clear reason other than by order of the president.
The first response from the White House to Taylor’s testimony came in a statement by press secretary Stephanie Grisham. She characterized Tuesday’s developments as part of “a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.”
Ever since Trump released the rough transcript of the telephone call with Zelensky, the president's position has been continuously weakened.
There was the whistleblower’s complaint that offered background that buttressed the transcript of the telephone call. Other witnesses, including Marie Yovanovitch, who was summarily removed as ambassador to Ukraine, and Fiona Hill, who had been the National Security Council’s top expert on Russia, have presented damning testimony about the two-track diplomatic efforts, Giuliani’s role and what became an internal war inside the administration over who should control Ukraine policy. Taylor’s testimony adds significantly to the chronology of events, and with the kind of documentation that will be difficult to refute.
Taylor will not be the last word in the investigation. Other witnesses will appear before the Intelligence Committee. The White House will have an opportunity to offer additional explanations or a counternarrative. The president’s allies will, too. But what was put into the record Tuesday, unless there is a powerful rebuttal that goes beyond simple denials, makes the debate of the words “quid pro quo” less relevant than the question of how lawmakers react to what happened.