Top US diplomat delivers 'incredibly damaging' testimony on Trump

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Testimony from Bill Taylor "could accelerate" impeachment proceedings, according to one lawmaker.

Bill Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat and the current chargé d'affaires for Ukraine, testified on Tuesday that he was told by Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, that Donald Trump held up military aid to Ukraine earlier this year in order to secure an investigation into his political rival, Joe Biden.

Taylor, who was subpoenaed for his testimony by the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight committees, which are leading the ongoing impeachment inquiry, intended to "fill in the gaps of his text messages with US diplomats about Ukraine," according to CNN. A selection of those text messages was made public in September and showed Taylor and Sondland discussing the supposed quid pro quo, which Trump has vehemently denied.

According to the outlet, Taylor told lawmakers — in a roughly hour-long opening statement on Tuesday — that "he and Sondland spoke by phone about why the aid was frozen, and Sondland cited the need for Ukraine to open an investigation among other reasons, according to the sources."

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Sondland then told Taylor that "the investigations potentially included both Ukraine's involvement in the 2016 election and Burisma," the Ukrainian energy company on whose board former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter served previously.

"During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election," Taylor wrote, according to CNN.

"Everything was dependent on such an announcement," he said.

A source familiar with Sondland's testimony to Congress last week told the outlet that the ambassador had also suggested aid may have been withheld "because the Europeans weren't giving Ukraine enough and corruption in general."

"He made very clear in his testimony that nobody would give him a straight answer" about the frozen funds, the source said.

After hearing from Taylor on Tuesday, Democrats emerged from their secure room and told reporters that his testimony could be the most important yet in the impeachment inquiry into Trump.

"This testimony is a sea change," Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), a member of the House Oversight Committee, said Tuesday. "I think it could accelerate matters. This will, I think, answer more questions than it raises."

According to Lynch, Taylor also indicated in his testimony that "he kept extensive notes on all of his correspondence."

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Taylor's testimony "incredibly damaging to the president."

Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) went a step further. "All I have to say is that in my 10 short months in Congress ... it's my most disturbing day in Congress so far," he told CNN.

Republicans gave markedly different responses when asked about Taylor's testimony.

"Nothing new here, I think," Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a staunch Trump ally, told CNN. "We're trying to see if any witness has a connection between foreign aid and pausing the foreign aid. As it relates to the quid pro quo, we haven't had any witness suggest that."

Taylor is a central figure in the building Ukraine scandal, which kicked off earlier this year following the release of a whistleblower complaint that claimed Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, one of Trump's 2020 election rivals.

House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry not long after that complaint was made public.

As part of their inquiry, the House committees leading the charge collected a number of text messages between Taylor, Sondland, and others, in which the officials discussed the quid pro quo arrangement.

In one such message, after learning of the conditions for that aid, Taylor told Sondland, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

Sondland responded several hours later, denying there was an quid pro quo. It was later reported that Sondland had in fact called Trump over the phone before replying to Taylor's message.

The House impeachment investigation seeks to find out whether Trump used his office inappropriately to solicit dirt on his political opponent. Trump, for his part, has claimed repeatedly that his requests were above board and focused on corruption in Ukraine more broadly, but has mostly refused to cooperate with congressional investigators so far, blocking others' testimony and documents whenever possible.

White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney further complicated things for Trump last week when he admitted the military aid was withheld as a way to get Ukraine to investigate Biden and a years-old conspiracy theory about the Democratic National Committee servers.

It is against the law to solicit or accept election assistance from a foreign national.

Taylor is a West Point graduate and veteran diplomat praised as a straight shooter by other diplomats. He served as ambassador to Ukraine during the final three years of the George W. Bush administration, and plans to return to Ukraine after his testimony to the House committees investigating Trump.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.