It was not a good day for President Trump.
The private testimony of U.S. diplomat William B. “Bill” Taylor, Jr. before the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 22 left no doubt that the Trump administration withheld military aid from Ukraine for the express purpose of coercing that country’s new government into announcing an investigation into Trump’s Democratic foes.
In a 15-page opening statement, which found its way to the press Tuesday afternoon, Taylor established his diplomatic bona fides (West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, former ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush, and currently chargé d’affaires in Kiev under President Trump). He grounded himself firmly in the U.S. government’s long-standing policy of supporting Ukraine’s independence from Russian hegemony. But Taylor’s testimony was most notable for its detailed—and damning—timeline of the past six months of U.S.-Ukrainian diplomacy. First, official U.S. policymaking channels were supplemented, and eventually supplanted, by an irregular network of Trump loyalists (including his private attorney Rudy Giuliani, U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and special envoy Kurt Volker). Next, that group bent the U.S.’s previously bipartisan Ukraine policy into a weapon for Trump’s domestic political use. Finally, they tried to cover their tracks, concealing Trump’s demands not only from the public, but from their own diplomats in Ukraine.
The basic outline of the scandal has been clear at least since late September, when the White House released a non-verbatim transcript of the July 25 call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Attentive readers of that document will not be particularly surprised by Taylor’s revelations. In that call, President Trump did appear to link military aid (“I would like you to do us a favor though”) to Ukraine’s willingness to launch investigations of his once and perhaps future political opponents.
Taylor Swiftly Changes the Game
So, what did Ambassador Taylor add to the story that we didn’t know already? And why did House Democrats who heard the testimony consider it to be a “sea change” and “incredibly damaging to the President”?
First, Taylor is likely to have come across as a compelling and persuasive witness. Unlike the still-anonymous whistleblower who kicked off the Ukraine investigation, Taylor had direct knowledge of many of the key events in the saga, as well as a sterling reputation for integrity. He was able to cite a considerable paper trail to support his account, which will provide investigators with further leads and lines of questioning. By meticulously tracking his digital and verbal conversations with other high-level players in the drama, Taylor makes it impossible for the White House to skate by with vague denials. The officials implicated in the scheme will need to engage at a similar level of detail to dispute Taylor’s account, or even to extricate themselves from responsibility. “I do not recall” simply will not cut it.
Just as importantly, Taylor’s testimony dismantles a potential line of defense that Trump supporters have been doing a lot of spadework on. Since releasing the summary, Trump has insisted, with the monotonous repetition of a hypnotist, that his call with Zelenskyy was “perfect” in every respect. But his more experienced and inventive defenders knew better. Consider the Oct. 20 comments of Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), in response to the question of whether there were any circumstances in which he could support impeachment:
Sure. I mean … show me something that … is a crime. If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.
Why would Graham, a former military prosecutor, frame the question in a way that excludes the most direct evidence linking President Trump to a potentially impeachable offense? After all, the phone call seems damning enough in itself. But not for Graham. “I’ve read the transcript of the Ukrainian phone call,” he told Axios. “That’s not a quid pro quo to me.”
Graham and other Trump defenders cannot deny that Zelenskyy’s desired military aid and Trump’s desired investigations were discussed in close proximity on the call, in a way that could hardly have failed to register with the Ukrainians. Nevertheless, they point out, Trump did not explicitly threaten to withhold aid on the call or promise to release it upon the announcement of an investigation of Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. Thus, according to the terms of the debate that Team Trump has been trying to establish, there was no quid pro quo of military aid for a politically motivated investigation.
In this scenario, Trump’s behavior on the call can be dismissed as a manifestation of his impulsive and uncontrollable personality. His restless and unfocused mind makes random transitions and connections, often in mid-sentence. You can’t take it too seriously, or so the argument goes.
In a similar way, Graham dismissed Trump’s public declaration, made from the White House lawn on Oct. 3, that China should investigate Biden and his son, Hunter. “As to asking China to look into Biden, that was stupid…. Bad idea. That didn’t last very long…” Graham explained. “I think that’s a frustrated Trump.” Apparently, Trump is such a creature of his emotions that he can’t be held strictly responsible for the words that he utters. What might be serious invitation to criminal conspiracy coming from the mouth of a more self-disciplined president is, in this case, simply the outspoken, authentic style of the gifted entertainer that 46.1% of American voters preferred to elect instead.
So, when Graham says he wants to see evidence “outside the phone call,” he does not necessarily mean evidence that more directly implicates Trump. For what could implicate Trump more directly than his own words to the Ukrainian president? Rather, Graham seems to be saying: Don’t tell me what Trump said. He says all kinds of crazy things. Show me what he did. Show me the evidence that he really blocked aid and made it conditional on this specific investigation. Then I’ll think about it.
Ambassador Taylor just provided that evidence. His testimony established that the holdup of military aid and the proposed investigations were not just vaguely associated items on a garbled checklist of bilateral issues. Rather, they were explicitly twinned in the private conversations of the U.S. officials who tried to implement the policy, and the Ukrainians who were trying to figure out what exactly was expected of them.
Trying to Hide the Quid, These Guys Weren’t Pros
Ambassador Sondland, in particular, made the linkage crystal clear, while ineptly trying to wipe his fingerprints from the vase. The Seattle hotelier was appointed to his post in Brussels after making a large donation to Trump’s inauguration festivities. Although Ukraine was well outside his brief as Ambassador to the European Union (Ukraine is not an EU member), Sondland appears to have been taking instructions on Ukraine policy directly from Trump, bypassing the normal policy apparatus. Taylor reports that Sondland told him that the entire U.S.-Ukraine relationship, including military aid and a White House visit, depended on making “a public announcement of investigations” and that Trump wanted to use such an announcement to put Zelenskyy “in a public box.” As Taylor explains:
Very concerned, on that same day I sent Ambassador Sondland a text message asking if “we [are] now saying that security assistance and [a] WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Ambassador Sondland responded asking me to call him, which I did. During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma [the Ukrainian company where Hunter Biden was on the board of directors] and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Taylor describes a series of exchanges in which Trump’s confidants press for linkage between aid and investigations with increasing urgency, while insisting on the mantra that “there is no quid pro quo.”
According to [Tim] Morrison [a National Security Counsel staffer], President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a “quid pro quo.” But President Trump did insist that President Zelenskyy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskyy should want to do this himself. Mr. Morrison said that he told Ambassador Bolton and the NSC lawyers of this phone call between President and Ambassador Sondland.
The following day, on September 8, Ambassador Sondland and I spoke on the phone. He said he had talked to President Trump as I had suggested a week earlier, but that President Trump was adamant that President Zelenskyy, himself, had to “clear things up and do it in public.” President Trump said it was not a “quid pro quo.” Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelenskyy and [his assistant Dmitri] Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelenskyy did not clear things up public, we would be at a stalemate. I understood a stalemate to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance. Ambassador Sondland said that this conversation concluded with President Zelenskyy agreeing to make a public statement in an interview with CNN.
If the desired investigations were essential to avoiding a “stalemate” on military aid, then Sondland will have difficulty explaining how they were not a quid pro quo. Perhaps his Latin was simply rusty. Whatever the language, however, the Ukrainians apparently got the message.
Will Trump’s defenders in the GOP get Ambassador Taylor’s message? After all, his testimony seems to satisfy the criteria set out by Senator Graham just a few days ago. Taylor provided evidence of a clear quid pro quo, denied in name but made explicit in fact. The policy was initiated and directed by the President and energetically implemented by his henchmen. It went far beyond the confines of one rambling phone call, engaging all the apparatus of government, implicating numerous officials, and leaving trails of documentation.
We cannot expect Trump’s allies to abandon the field yet. But they will have to retreat to the next prepared line of defense: that a quid pro quo is just fine when a valiant President is crusading against corruption at home and abroad. If that won’t pass the laugh test, they will be left with little more than the memorable line – a blend of confession and defiance so characteristic of his boss — offered by White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney in his press conference on Oct. 17: “We do that all the time, get over it.”
In a normal world, when the defense is worse than the accusation, you know it’s over. On Planet Trump, it was just another very bad day, but with the promise of many more to come.