We are about to hear from a big witness in the Ukraine scandal: Acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr., who is set to testify to the House impeachment inquiry, potentially deepening the case against President Trump’s seemingly bottomless corruption.

At the same time, new details are emerging about Trump that further deepen our understanding about another form of Trump’s corruption — his increasing embrace of what you might call an Axis of Autocracy.

These things are related to one another. The Taylor testimony will likely show how Trump is actively trying to corrupt our democracy on his own behalf, even as these other new revelations show that in so doing, he’s falling under the sway of other fellow illiberal, anti-democratic autocrats, in particular Vladimir Putin of Russia and Viktor Orban of Hungary.

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Taylor, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Ukraine, is a crucial witness because he likely can shed new light on the direct quid pro quo in which Trump froze hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine to pressure its president Volodymyr Zelensky into carrying out his political bidding.

In those now-notorious texts released by Democrats, Taylor twice objected to what he bluntly described as just such a quid pro quo. As Taylor put it to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on Sept. 1:

Taylor: Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?
Sondland: Call me

And then, in a Sept. 9 exchange, Taylor said:

As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.

At this point, of course, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani — and Trump himself — had already spent months openly advertising their corrupt scheme to pressure Ukraine to undertake fake investigations to undercut the fact of Russian interference in 2016 and smear potential 2020 rival Joe Biden.

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Those texts show Taylor believed there was a direct quid pro quo that would exchange the military aid not just for the White House meeting that Zelensky sought but also for the investigations Trump wanted. They also show Taylor believed those investigations were conditioned on that military aid and were all about helping Trump’s campaign — the latter point, of course, having already been widely and publicly established.

The point here is that Taylor had a reason for believing these things — something he saw, heard or knows led him to believe there was this direct quid pro quo.

And remember, Sondland has not denied that there was any such quid pro quo. All he testified is that Trump told him to assert as much.

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The Axis of Autocracy

Meanwhile, The Post reports that in the run-up to Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky, Putin and Orban held conversations with Trump in which they fed him the idea that Ukraine is hopelessly corrupt.

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Mick Mulvaney was at the center of this effort, and it complicated efforts by other officials to stave off Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for political purposes.

The Post piece paints a picture of a president who is easily manipulated by Putin and Orban — they prey on Trump’s instinctual attraction to the views of fellow autocrats, especially their hostility toward a country seeking Western-oriented reform.

The two leaders didn’t urge Trump to see Zelensky as a potential source of smears against Biden. But they didn’t have to — feeding Trump this line helped reinforce a talking point Trump would use to pursue his own political goals while, they hoped, helping turn the United States against Ukraine: Trump could pressure Zelensky to help smear Biden, while pretending this was only about combating generic “corruption.”

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Indeed, as The Post reports, U.S. officials continue to say Trump’s pressure on Zelensky was mostly driven by Trump’s desire to target Biden and by conspiracy theories fed to him by Giuliani.

Mulvaney’s role

Mulvaney’s role is fleshed out by the New York Times, which reports that Mulvaney outmaneuvered other officials who wanted to prevent Trump’s meeting with Orban. They didn’t want this autocrat — who has taken extensive steps to undermine democracy at home — granted a propaganda coup.

What’s more, Mulvaney himself directly held up the aid to Ukraine only a few weeks after that conversation.

Last week, Mulvaney openly admitted there was a quid pro quo that would exchange the money for the meeting, before unconvincingly taking it back. Yet he flatly denied there was any quid pro quo for the smearing of Biden.

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How likely is it that Trump had the White House meeting on his mind when freezing the military aid, but did not have the smearing of Biden on his mind, after months of public and private obsessing over the Biden/Ukraine angle, at precisely the moment he maximized his leverage over Ukraine? This is an absurdity that Taylor may help dispense with once and for all.

It’s true that Ukraine did, in the end, get its military aid. But this whole saga helped advance Putin’s interests: As Anne Gearan reports, Ukraine has been “left to wonder about the Trump administration’s commitment to its national interests,” even as it’s looking for “signs of strong U.S. backing” amid worries about expanding Russian designs.

All the while, Facebook has revealed that Russia has launched a new round of disinformation warfare against our election. Meanwhile, Trump not only is trying to pressure Ukraine into absolving Russia of its 2016 electoral sabotage; he has openly invited more of it.

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So what this amounts to is that autocrats abroad and malignantly anti-democratic actors at home — including Mulvaney, Giuliani and, of course, Trump — are functioning as a kind of Axis of Autocracy doing all it can to corrupt our democracy, for a whole bundle of reasons. And we may know a lot more about this soon enough.

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