House Democrats on Wednesday released the transcript of their interview with the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, who delivered dire warnings that President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE’s dealings with Ukraine “fundamentally undermined” U.S. interests in the country.
Bill Taylor, who serves as the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine, had testified in meticulous detail last month about what he considered an effort by Trump and his allies to create a shadow foreign policy designed to pressure Ukraine into opening investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
The contours of that Oct. 22 deposition have been known for weeks, since Taylor’s opening statement was widely disseminated at the time. But the 324-page blow-by-blow transcript provides new layers of detail about Trump’s efforts to find dirt on political rivals — and the extent to which it alarmed veterans in the State Department.
“By mid-July, it was becoming clear to me that the [White House] meeting President Zelensky wanted was conditioned on investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian influence in the 2016 elections,” Taylor testified.
He told House investigators it was “clear” that this “irregular” foreign policy channel was led by Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiThree Democrats call for investigation into Sidney Powell to move 'swiftly' Fox News bans Rudy Giuliani from appearing: report Alabama official dismisses Lindell claim that 100K votes were flipped from Trump to Biden: 'It's not possible' MORE, the president’s personal lawyer, whom Taylor deemed to be operating on behalf of the president.
Taylor, whose testimony is seen as key, is scheduled to be the first witness to testify in an open hearing next week, a sign that Democrats believe he can deliver damaging testimony when they plunge into the public phase of their six-week-old impeachment inquiry.
His testimony provides new depth to his 15-page opening statement, in which he voiced concerns that the Trump administration had withheld nearly $400 million in aid as leverage to get Zelensky to open investigations into both the 2016 election in the U.S. and Biden, one of his leading 2020 political rivals.
Democrats have strategically rolled out deposition transcripts each day this week, hoping to keep the public’s attention during a week when a number of witnesses have declined to testify.
Amid the week’s stonewalling, however, came an anomaly: Impeachment investigators on Wednesday deposed David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, for more than five hours behind closed doors.
Hale, the third-ranking official at the department, was thought to provide insights into Trump’s successful effort to remove Marie Yovanovitch from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine — a move that infuriated many department veterans, who have expressed concerns that the agencies top brass did too little to protect a career diplomat from White House interference.
The transcript of Yovanovitch’s testimony was also released this week. The former ambassador laid out what she described as a shadow campaign by Giuliani and others to have her removed from her diplomatic post as a result of her anti-corruption work.
Democrats also released the transcript of Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine, who testified he was unaware of contingencies being placed on the aid. Republicans have touted Volker as the central authority in the Ukraine affair — one they say exonerates Trump of any improper contact with Kiev.
“He seems to be the one honest broker in the whole thing,” Rep. Scott PerryScott Gordon PerryWatchdog group seeks ethics probe over McCarthy's Jan. 6 comments Jan. 6 panel seeks records of those involved in 'Stop the Steal' rally Jan. 6 panel to ask for preservation of phone records of GOP lawmakers who participated in Trump rally: report MORE (R-Pa.) told reporters Wednesday.
Taylor, however, described Volker as someone influenced – in detrimental ways – by his involvement with Giuliani.
"He is a man of integrity,” Taylor testified, before caveating, “when he got involved with Mr. Giuliani, I think that that pulled him away … So, in general, yes, but the Giuliani factor think affected Ambassador Volker."
One theme that resurfaces over and again in Taylor's accounting of the summer's events is the degree to which Trump has gone to deny there was ever a quid pro quo — even as he was demanding the investigations that led to the allegations to begin with. Taylor suggested Trump's actions belied his claims of innocence.
"Ambassador Sondland told me many times that President Trump said it was not a quid pro quo," Taylor said. "I observed that, in order to move forward on the security assistance, the Ukrainians were told by Ambassador Sondland that they had to pursue these investigations.”
Indeed, Sondland, after testifying last month that there was no quid pro quo, revised his narrative on Monday — a day before its release — to acknowledge that he himself had warned a top Ukrainian official that the military aid was "likely" contingent upon Zelensky launching the investigations Trump sought.
"I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland wrote in the revisions.
Trump's Republican allies have largely dismissed Sondland's revised testimony, characterizing it as the simple "opinion" from someone not fully informed of Trump's intentions.
"It's not based on the fact, it was his presumption," Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanAllies see rising prospect of Trump 2024 White House bid Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee Watchdog group seeks ethics probe over McCarthy's Jan. 6 comments MORE (Ohio), senior Republican on the Oversight Committee said Wednesday. Volker, he added, provided “the definitive account.”
By extension, Republicans are also quick to dismiss Taylor’s version of events, saying it leans heavily on second-hand accounts — largely from Sondland — and is therefore unreliable.
“When you see all the transcripts then you will understand: there is no direct linkage to the president of the United States,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsGraham told Trump he 'f'd up' the presidency: book Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump Biden does not plan to shield Trump docs in Jan. 6 probe MORE (R-N.C.).
Still, Democrats believe Taylor is a strong witness.
He was able to describe in detail a number of meetings, messages, phone calls and other communications due to contemporaneous notes he took. While he has turned over the notes to the State Department, he was able to use them in his deposition.
And they believe Taylor’s testimony is supported by multiple other witnesses, who are career public servants.
“The most important facts are largely not contested,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffJan. 6 panel subpoenas four ex-Trump aides Bannon, Meadows Schiff: Criminal contempt charges possible for noncooperation in Jan. 6 probe The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks MORE (D-Calif.) said Wednesday.
– Rebecca Klar contributed