A pivotal witness in the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry described several conversations among top administration officials this summer in which President Trump’s Ukraine quid pro quo was explicitly discussed.
Within the prepared remarks of career diplomat Bill Taylor, three conversations in particular stood out. They confirmed an understanding in the White House and among key State Department officials that Trump was withholding military aid as leverage for his demand that Ukraine open probes beneficial to him politically.
Trump repeatedly denied that there was a quid pro quo, according to Taylor’s accounts of the conversations relayed to him, but then the President would describe just that.
Trump insisted “that [Ukraine] President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference,” according to an account of a Trump conversation that was delivered to Taylor and described in his opening remarks.
Sept. 1: Ukraine is told military aid is being withheld for probes
Taylor’s prepared statement described the frenzied weeks after Trump placed a hold on military aid to Ukraine that had been authorized by Congress.
Even after Politico broke the news of the freeze on Aug. 28, it wasn’t Taylor’s understanding that the hold was connected to Trump’s demands that Ukraine open a Biden-related probe and a probe into conspiracy theories about the 2016 election.
The connection was only made for him four days later, during a Sept. 1 conversation with a National Security Council official, Taylor testified.
The NSC official, Tim Morrison, recounted a conversation Ambassador Gordon Sondland had with a top aide to Ukraine’s president. Sondland had previously been tasked by Trump to work with Rudy Giuliani on what amounted to a shadow foreign policy with Ukraine.
Sondland told the aide, Andriy Yermak, that the military assistance was being withheld until Ukraine committed to investigating Burisma, according to Taylor’s recollection of Morrison’s account of the conversation. Burisma is a Ukrainian company with ties to Joe Biden’s son.
“[A]larmed,” Taylor texted Sondland, who told Taylor to call him.
On the call, Sondland confirmed that the assistance was being withheld due to Trump’s demands for an investigation, Taylor recounted.
Sondland said that Trump wanted Ukraine’s President Zelensky in a “public box” by making a public statement ordering the opening of the probes, according to Taylor.
Taylor told Sondland to push back on the demand. They also discussed having Ukraine’s prosecutor general instead make a public statement — possibly in conjunction with the review of the 2016 election interference investigation that Attorney General Bill Barr was leading.
Sept. 7: Trump wants Zelensky to announce probes into ‘Biden’ and the 2016 election
Taylor spoke to Morrison several more times after the Sept. 1 phone call. During a Sept. 7 phone call, Morrison recalled to Taylor a conversation that Sondland said he had had with President Trump.
According to the account, Trump had denied to Sondland that there was 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,” Taylor said of Morrison’s account of the Sondland-Trump call.
Morrison said he had a “sinking feeling” about what Sondland told him, according to Taylor’s testimony. Morrison had also alerted National Security Advisor John Bolton and lawyers for the NSC about the Trump-Sondland call, according to Taylor’s testimony.
Sept 8: Frozen aid is at a “stalemate” unless Zelensky announces probes
Taylor went to Sondland again, who discussed on the phone with Taylor his conversations with Trump and top Ukrainian officials, according to Taylor’s testimony.
Again denying the quid pro quo, Trump still wanted Zelensky to “clear things up and do it in public,” Sondland allegedly told Taylor.
Sondland told Taylor that he delivered the message to Zelensky and his aide Yermak, telling them there would be a “stalemate” unless Zelensky “cleared things up”
Zelensky agreed to do an interview on CNN announcing the probes, according to Taylor’s account of what Sonland told him.
“I understood a ‘stalemate’ to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance,” Taylor said in his opening statement.
On the call Sondland rationalized Trump’s demands as the “businessman” approach of the President.
The hold on the military assistance was lifted two days later.