The setting was an economic conference sponsored by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that spoke volumes about the country’s uncertain state. The nearest airport to Mariupol had been destroyed in the fighting. For many of the attendees, the fastest route to the conference was a brutal 18-hour train ride.
Among the conference’s big attractions was a chance to pitch ideas for sparking the economy to Ukraine’s president. Each of the hundreds of attendees got two minutes.
The other big lure was Taylor. Well-wishers swarmed him. The governor of the war-scarred Luhansk region, still partially controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists, told him that he had read all his prepared testimony and quoted back a few of the kind words Taylor had said about Ukraine.
By early January, Taylor was back home in the Washington suburbs trying to make sense of the surreal swirl of his time in Ukraine, his testimony before Congress and the rancorous aftermath.
His mind turned to Mariupol and then to President Trump, whose antipathy toward Ukraine was, for him, among the biggest mysteries of all.
“I’m trying to figure out where [it] came from,” he said, “this deep suspicion of this little country. I mean, it’s 44 million people. It’s not that big a deal.”
Trump has emerged from his acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial aggrieved and triumphant. Those who testified against him — a mix of political appointees and career bureaucrats — are trying to figure out their place in the Washington left behind following his acquittal.
Last week, Trump banished Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the White House and suggested he should face disciplinary action from the military for testifying against him. Vindman returned to the Pentagon, which has said it isn’t investigating him.
Marie Yovanovitch, forced from her position as ambassador in Kyiv by Trump last spring, left the government and delivered a powerful speech lamenting the costs to the State Department and America’s standing in the world. “An amoral, keep-’em-guessing foreign policy that substitutes threats, fear and confusion for trust cannot work over the long haul,” she warned on Wednesday.
The aftermath for Taylor, who was hurriedly dispatched to Ukraine as an emergency fill-in for Yovanovitch, has been quieter. He’s currently taking time off, catching up with his family and considering his next move.
Like Yovanovitch, he has had plenty of time to ponder the damage. Taylor dedicated his life to service within the vast foreign policy institutions that the United States built following the war. Since his days as an infantry officer in Vietnam, he lived by their rules, which he saw as “cumbersome, but thorough,” a necessity for a great power whose routine decisions could alter the course of millions of lives in faraway places like Kyiv or Mariupol.
Trump was the first president Taylor had served who held these institutions in contempt. He doubted their loyalty and distrusted their expertise, often preferring the musings of television commentators or his conspiracy-minded personal attorney to the experts on his White House staff and in his intelligence briefings.
Most Americans describe Trump in Manichaean terms — he’s brilliant or terrible, compassionate or irredeemably cruel. To Taylor, he was beyond his comprehension.
“I don’t understand the president,” he said. “I can’t get in his head to see what motivates him and what he thinks.”
Sometimes, he wondered if it was even worth trying.
'It's no longer hypothetical'
Last spring, Taylor was out of the government and serving as the executive vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan think tank established by Congress, when George Kent, a former State Department colleague and future impeachment inquiry witness, asked if he might “hypothetically” be interested in serving as the ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovitch was fighting a smear campaign fomented by self-interested Ukrainian politicians and the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The following day, Kent called him back. “It’s no longer hypothetical,” he said.
Taylor’s wife, Deborah, urged him to reject the job. A big worry was her husband’s reputation. Nearly five decades of government service had instilled in him a respect for his chain of command and an instinct for compromise. Both were potentially lethal traits inside the Trump administration.
“Bill’s Achilles’ heel — and everyone has them — is wanting to find agreement,” she said. “I was concerned he’d sully himself. . . . He passed that test.”
Shortly before he left for Ukraine, Taylor got a lesson in how power works in Trump’s Washington. In May, he learned from officials in the White House that Trump had refused to sign a letter congratulating Ukraine’s president on his resounding election victory.
Taylor raised his concerns about Trump with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“I think your boss doesn’t like Ukraine,” Taylor said, still doubtful that he would take the job.
“You’re right, and it’s my job to turn him around,” Pompeo replied, according to several U.S. officials familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.
Taylor then mentioned the unsigned letter. “Find out about this,” Pompeo told his staff. Within 36 hours, a new letter had been drafted and signed by the president.
Taylor tucked a copy of it in a briefcase and headed off to Ukraine.
Patriotic and fragile Ukraine
Each morning at 8:30 in Kyiv, Ukrainian troops gather in formation outside the Ministry of Defense. A soldier rings a bell. Shots are fired. An officer then reads the names of the Ukrainian soldiers killed on that day over the course of the country’s six-year war with Russian-backed separatists.
When Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) visited Kyiv last fall, Taylor took them to the ceremony. He wanted them to see a bit of Ukraine as he saw it: patriotic, fragile and under daily assault from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Taylor arrived in Ukraine in June, just weeks after Zelensky won the presidency in a landslide. He believed that the 2013 Ukrainian revolution, followed by Russia’s invasion a few months later and annexation of Crimea, had created a new sense of solidarity in the country. Corruption was still rampant. The war had ravaged the economy. But, there was a hope for Ukraine that wasn’t present when he left in 2009, after concluding his stint as ambassador under President George W. Bush.
“There’s an idealism, a spirit of youth, a charm represented by this new president,” he said. “It’s a chance. A real chance, which you don’t get very often in the history of countries.”
About a month after Taylor arrived in Kyiv, he learned via a routine conference call with Washington that Trump had ordered a hold on $391 million in aid to Ukraine. Initially, he assumed it was a misunderstanding.
Weeks passed, and the hold remained in place. Kurt Volker, the administration’s special representative to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, a Trump megadonor serving as ambassador to the European Union, blamed the problem on Giuliani. Both later became impeachment witnesses.
Their fix was to broker a deal that might get Giuliani to back off. Giuliani was looking for dirt on former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had been paid between $50,000 and $100,000 a month to serve on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. The Ukrainians wanted an Oval Office visit for Zelensky.
Taylor urged Zelensky’s top advisers to keep their distance. “Rudy is up to no good. If you think he’s doing this because he cares about Ukraine, you’re wrong,” he warned Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Zelensky.
On Aug. 27, national security adviser John Bolton visited Kyiv for a meeting with Zelensky, who still did not know the aid was frozen. Before Bolton left, Taylor asked for five minutes with him at his hotel. Taylor worried that if the aid freeze became public, it would undermine Zelensky and strengthen Putin. Bolton asked Taylor to make the case for the aid to Pompeo in a cable.
“It’ll get noticed,” he promised.
In the cable’s last line, Taylor made it clear that if the hold wasn’t lifted, he wouldn’t be able to support the policy and would resign. It was the first time in almost 50 years of government service that he had threatened to quit.
At that point, Taylor had no idea a CIA whistleblower had accused Trump of using “the power of his office to solicit interference . . . in the 2020 U.S. election.” The complaint, emailed to the intelligence community’s inspector general on Aug. 12, was a bomb ready to explode.
A request to leave
By early January, it was clear that Trump was most likely going to be acquitted. In Kyiv, Taylor got a glimpse of the likely aftermath. He was finishing his tour as acting ambassador and preparing for a Pompeo visit on Jan. 2.
A senior aide to the secretary informed him that Pompeo wanted to meet with the Ukrainian president in Kyiv one-on-one, without embassy staff to take notes.
“I’m going to protest,” Taylor told officials in Washington. “I’m going to become a pain on this.” Taylor worried that such an arrangement would signal that Pompeo didn’t trust his embassy staff. Ukrainians might conclude that they couldn’t trust the embassy either.
In Kyiv, Taylor quickly realized that he — not the embassy — was the problem.
Taylor hadn’t spoken to Pompeo since his meeting in May, before taking the job. But, he knew that his testimony had upset the president, who blasted him as a “never Trumper,” a subset of Republicans Trump described as “human scum.”
So, Taylor proposed that his deputy accompany the secretary to the meeting. Pompeo’s staff agreed. Then they asked Taylor to leave his position six days early so that he would not be in charge when Pompeo arrived in Kyiv.
Last month, Taylor returned to Washington and the modest bungalow that he and his wife bought in 1983 as he was beginning his government career.
Scattered amid a lifetime of mementos from postings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine and Israel were reminders of the last few tumultuous months.
On the coffee table by the front door, there was a picture of Taylor testifying before Congress — a gift from Yovanovitch. Upstairs, a block of wood with the message “Stand Your Ground,” etched in Russian, sat on Taylor’s desk. He had been given it a few days earlier by another impeachment witness.
At the dining room table, Deborah, a biblical scholar, was translating a text from ancient Greek. A bracelet from Ukraine bearing an anti-Putin epithet dangled from her wrist.
Taylor had caught snippets of the Senate trial in the car. His wife, who had watched “every frigging second” of the House hearings, was avoiding it.
“I am not learning anything,” she said of the Senate proceedings. “I am just experiencing the emotion.”
Earlier that day, Pompeo made his visit to Kyiv, which had been delayed a month. Taylor was pleased to see a photograph of Kristina Kvien, the acting ambassador, with Pompeo and the Ukrainian foreign minister.
After his meeting, Pompeo pledged that America’s support for Ukraine “would not waver.” To back up that promise, the Trump administration said it was budgeting another $400 million in aid to Ukraine for 2021. The move had strong bipartisan backing from Congress.
Some former officials, such as Yovanovitch, were warning of the damage wrought by Trump. “Right now, the State Department is in trouble,” she said.
Taylor tended to focus on how well Washington’s institutions had held up, despite the battering.
Trump might still despise Kyiv. His strange affection for Putin almost certainly remained. At the highest levels of government, senior officials still had to work around Trump’s grudges, impulses and rages.
But for all the chaos of the past few months, Taylor noted that the administration’s official policy toward Ukraine and Russia — articulated by Pompeo, supported by Congress and codified in White House strategy documents — remained essentially unchanged. Ukraine was still America’s ally. Russia was still an adversary. This was one more lesson of the impeachment saga. In much of institutional Washington — Bill Taylor’s Washington — the president was strangely the outsider.