‘Sighs,’ ‘Gasps’ and ‘Sea Change’: Initial Reactions to Top U.S. Diplomat to Ukraine’s Testimony on Capitol Hill

UPDATE: You can now read Taylor’s opening statement for yourself.

Bill Taylor’s opening statement by Law&Crime on Scribd

It was predicted earlier Tuesday that top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine William “Bill” Taylor’s testimony on Capitol Hill was going to be a “gold mine” for investigators. The initial reactions to Taylor’s testimony behind closed doors, the details of which are not entirely known yet, have painted a grim picture of what was said about the White House holding up congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine.

Here is a sampling of some of the reactions from reporters and Democratic lawmakers. Many among the latter apparently “sighed” and “gasped” as Taylor delivered his 15-page opening statement, while others called the testimony “disturbing” and “damning.

What does it mean for Gordon Sondland’s testimony?

Reporters say that Taylor testified that he and U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland spoke on the phone and Sondland cited “the need for Ukraine to open an investigation among other reasons” as to why aid was being frozen.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said that he came away thinking Sondland is “going to have some explaining to do.”

Heading in, Taylor was expected to testify about a number of things, including his communications with Sondland. Per CNN:

Taylor, who is testifying before the three House committees leading the Democratic impeachment inquiry, will lay out the reasoning behind his different WhatsApp text messages in his opening statement Tuesday, the source said. Taylor plans to include a chronology of events, according to the source, dating back to June, when Taylor assumed the post as ambassador, through October.

Taylor’s testimony is among the most significant for Democratic impeachment investigators because of text messages he exchanged with US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and former US special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker about the freezing of US security aid to Ukraine. In the texts, Taylor told Sondland in September: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Taylor was thrust into the center of the Ukraine scandal when former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker released text messages between several diplomats regarding the Trump Administration’s decision to withhold the military aid. The July 2019 discussion revealed that Taylor was under the impression President Trump was intentionally withholding the funds intended for Ukraine in order to compel their assistance in furthering his political goals by digging up dirt on the political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

One of those text messages from Taylor is now widely known, as it appeared to be an attempt to “go to paper”:  “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Those concerns were initially downplayed by Sondland, a hotel owner who donated more than $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. He responded that Trump had been “crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” Sondland has since admitted, however, that his response was dictated by the president and may not have been truthful.

Sighs and gasps.

Sighs and gasps could reportedly be heard in the room as Taylor “described efforts to tie an investigation of the 2016 election interference to a White House meeting and aid being released to Ukraine.” The sounds a lot like what acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted last week and then attempted to walk back.

At the time of this writing, the Washington Post reports the following of Taylor’s testimony:

The senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine said Tuesday he was told release of military aid was contingent on public declarations from Ukraine that it would investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election, contradicting President Trump’s denial that he used the money as leverage for political gain.

The “disturbing” testimony represents a “sea change” that could “accelerate” the impeachment timeline.

Rep. Steven Lynch (D-Mass.), Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) called the testimony a “sea change,” “disturbing” and “very disturbing,” respectively.

“Damning.”

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) told reporters that what Taylor had to say was “incredibly damning” for the president.

Lieu on Tuesday also touted some of Taylor’s accomplishments, in an apparent attempt to preempt attacks on the witness’s integrity.

“Eyebrows frozen raised” at Taylor’s receipts.

One of the overarching reactions to Taylor’s testimony is that his account was the “most thorough” thus far and was backed up by “meticulous” notes.

When Sondland testified, his prepared remarks showed, he described the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani as the central figure when it came to influencing Trump on Ukraine policy.

As early as May 23 — “three days after the [Volodymyr] Zelensky inauguration” — Sondland said he and other delegates debriefed Trump and emphasized the “strategic importance of Ukraine and the strengthening relationship with President Zelensky, a reformer who received a strong mandate from the Ukrainian people to fight corruption and pursue greater economic prosperity.”

But Sondland said that President Trump was “skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns.” Sondland said that it quickly became “apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani.” After that, then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry and now-former U.S. Special Envoy Kurt Volker did what Trump asked, and contacted Giuliani.

Sondland said that he and the others were “disappointed” Trump directed them to get Giuliani involved:

Indeed, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and I were disappointed by our May 23, 2019 White House debriefing. We strongly believed that a call and White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky was important and that these should be scheduled promptly and without any pre-conditions. We were also disappointed by the President’s direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani. Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the President’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine

Sondland said that, in their view, there were only two roads to take: scrap attempts to strengthen U.S.-Ukrainian relations or get Giuliani involved. They got Giuliani involved:

However, based on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President’s concerns.

This was around two months before the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call that a whistleblower claimed was a solicitation of foreign interference in the 2020 election, given that the president asked the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Sondland claimed that he “did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign.” He also addressed the Trump Administration’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine, aid that Congress had appropriated.

Taylor spoke with Sondland by phone on Sept. 1. “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor, who is now scheduled to testify, asked. More than 30 minutes later, Sondland replied: “Call me.”

Then, on September 8, Taylor described a worst-case scenario where Ukrainian officials meet with U.S. officials and still don’t receive aid. Taylor told Sondland and Volker: “The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.)”

The next day, on September 9, Taylor and Sondland were seemingly still unclear about how to get their story straight.

Taylor told Sondland: “The message to the Ukrainians (and Russians) we send with the decision on security assistance is key. With the hold, we have already shaken their faith in us. Thus my nightmare scenario.” A follow-up message upped the ante: “Counting on you to be right about this interview, Gordon.”

Sondland appeared personally affronted and replied: “Bill, I never said I was ‘right’. I said we are where we are and believe we have identified the best pathway forward. Let’s hope it works.”

Taylor responded–apparently referencing his September 1 phone call with Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”  Sondland didn’t respond back until hours later — after he had first spoken with Trump. Sondland said that Trump told him there were no “quid pro quo’s of any kind”:

Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text If you still have concerns I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or S a call to discuss them directly. Thanks.

Sondland was prepared to say “clearly,” however, that “Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong” and “Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong.”

“I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings,” he said. “In my opinion, security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason.”

Jerry Lambe and Colin Kalmbacher contributed to this report.

[Image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.

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