Donald Trump was holding back military aid for Ukraine unless the country agreed to investigate Democrats and a company linked to Joe Biden’s family, a senior US diplomat has testified.
The testimony, coming in a lengthy opening statement to House Investigators from former ambassador to Kiev William Taylor, has provided politicians with a detailed new account of the quid pro quo central to the impeachment probe.
In the statement, obtained by The Associated Press, Mr Taylor described Mr Trump’s demand that “everything” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wanted, including vital aid to counter Russia, hinged on him making a public vow that Ukraine would investigate Democrats going back to the 2016 US election, and a company linked to the family of Mr Trump’s potential 2020 Democratic rival.
Mr Taylor testified that what he discovered in Kyiv was the Trump administration’s “irregular” back channel to foreign policy led by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and “ultimately alarming circumstances” that threatened to erode the United States’ relationship with a budding Eastern European ally facing Russian aggression.
In a date-by-date account the seasoned diplomat, who came out of retirement in June to take over as charge d’affaires at the embassy in Ukraine, detailed his mounting concern as he realised Mr Trump was trying to put the newly elected president of the young democracy “in a public box.”
“I sensed something odd,” he testified, describing a trio of Trump officials planning a call with Mr Zelenskiy, including one, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who wanted to make sure “no one was transcribing or monitoring” it.
Politicians who emerged after nearly 10 hours of the private deposition were stunned at Mr Taylor’s account, which some Democrats said established a “direct line” to the quid pro quo at the centre of the impeachment probe.
“It was shocking,” said Representative Karen Bass, a California Democrat. “It was very clear that it was required — if you want the assistance, you have to make a public statement.”
The account reaches to the highest levels of the administration, drawing in Vice President Mike Pence and Mr Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, while also slicing into the core of the Republican defence of the administration and the president’s insistence of no wrongdoing.
It also lays bare the struggle between Mr Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton and those who a previous State Department witness described as the “three amigos” — Mr Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and special envoy Kurt Volker — who were involved in the alternative Ukraine policy in relation to Russia.
It is illegal to seek or receive contributions of value from a foreign entity for a US election.
“President Trump has done nothing wrong,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. “This is a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution. There was no quid pro quo.”
Mr Taylor’s appearance was among the most anticipated before House investigators because of a series of text messages with the other diplomats in which he called Mr Trump’s attempt to hold back military aid to Ukraine “crazy.”
His testimony opens a new front in the impeachment inquiry, and it calls into question the account from Mr Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, who told Congress last week that he did not fully remember some details of the events and was initially unaware the gas company Burisma was tied to the Bidens.
Mr Taylor told politicians that Mr Sondland, a wealthy businessman who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, was aware of the demands and later admitted he made a mistake by telling the Ukrainians that military assistance was not contingent on agreeing to Mr Trump’s requests.
“In fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including the security assistance,” Mr Taylor recalled.
“Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election,” Taylor said about a September 1 phone call between them.
The retired diplomat, who was ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, was recalled to run the US embassy in Kiev after Mr Trump suddenly recalled Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch in May.
Mr Taylor testified that he “sat in astonishment” on a July 18 call in which a White House budget official said Mr Trump had relayed a message through Mr Mulvaney that the aid should be withheld.
A month later, his concerns had so deepened that he was preparing to resign. Sensing the US policy toward Ukraine had shifted, he described an August 22 phone call with Tim Morrison, a Russia adviser at the White House, who told him, the “president doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all”.
Mr Taylor’s description of Mr Trump’s position contrasts sharply with how the president has characterised it. Mr Trump has said many times that there was no quid pro quo, though Mr Mulvaney contradicted that last week.