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Ambassador’s testimony offers window into impeachment inquiry’s first public hearing

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) on Nov. 6 announced the first public impeachment inquiry hearings. (Video: The Washington Post)

The top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine had a “clear understanding” that U.S. military aid for Kyiv would not be sent until the country pursued investigations that could benefit President Trump politically, according to a transcript of his closed-door testimony released by House impeachment investigators on Wednesday.

The vivid account by acting ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. described a “Washington snake pit” of bad actors who were willing to cut off aid to Ukraine as it battled Russian-backed separatists, a situation he described as a “nightmare” scenario.

The release of the transcript came as Democrats announced that the House will hold the first public impeachment hearings on Trump and his actions beginning next Wednesday, with Taylor as the lead witness.

Taylor’s 324-page deposition, taken Oct. 22, offers a window into why Democrats believe he will provide compelling testimony, given his meticulous accounting of texts, emails and phone calls, and his unsparing criticism of an effort he viewed as unethical and transactional.

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes the key takeaways from ambassador William B. Taylor Jr.’s testimony to House impeachment investigators on Oct. 22. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Democrats see the open sessions on national television as an opportunity to build a public case for impeaching Trump over his pressure on a foreign power to investigate his domestic political rivals. To date, the details have been in transcripts, news reports and descriptions from Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The open hearings will give voice to those words.

George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, also will testify next Wednesday. Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was abruptly forced out, will testify two days later.

The release of the transcript and the announcement about open hearings came as investigators continued with closed-door depositions. David Hale, the State Department’s third-ranking official, testified for more than six hours Wednesday.

Live updates: Acting ambassador says it was his ‘clear understanding’ U.S. military aid would not be sent until Ukraine pursued investigations that could help Trump

Taylor’s account details how Trump’s associates, including his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, tried to pressure Ukraine into investigations into former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden, and his son Hunter, and a conspiracy theory about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. election.

Taylor testified that Sondland and Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, tried to make the exchange of nearly $400 million in congressionally appropriated aid for investigations more palatable by using a business metaphor.

“When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check,” Taylor said Sondland told him.

The “check,” Taylor testified, was military assistance. And if Ukraine did not announce the launch of the investigations, Sondland told Ukrainian officials, “We would be at a stalemate.”

Taylor says that before he reluctantly accepted the job in Ukraine, he had concerns that an “informal channel” of actors that included Giuliani and a group of Ukrainian nationals were impacting U.S. policy for the worse.

“I was concerned that there was . . . a snake pit in Kyiv and a snake pit here, and I was not sure that I could usefully serve in that context,” Taylor said.

By August and September, he realized that this informal channel had “fundamentally undermined” U.S. policy “by the withholding of vital security assistance for domestic political reasons.”

The Democrats’ decision to call Yovanovitch, Taylor and Kent as their first public witnesses demonstrates a preference for career Foreign Service officers with deep expertise in Ukraine and experience working under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

In each of their testimony, the three diplomats displayed a mastery of Ukrainian politics and a warning about the untrustworthiness of the ex-Ukrainian officials the president’s personal attorney relied on to push conspiracy theories.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who will lead next week’s hearings, told reporters Wednesday that the public will see that the “facts are largely not contested.”

He said House investigators “are getting an increasing appreciation for just what took place in the course of the last year.”

Republicans, who for weeks called for open hearings, denounced Schiff’s decision, saying the Democratic congressman should be under investigation, not the president.

“Next week, proven liar Adam Schiff should be the first witness to testify in public,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

Other Republicans dismissed the notion of a quid pro quo, offering a fresh explanation: The Trump administration is too disorganized to execute a scheme of that nature.

“It was incoherent,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters when asked about Trump’s Ukraine policy. “They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo.”

In one exchange in his testimony, Taylor was asked whether U.S. military aid being withheld from Ukraine was conditioned on investigations.

“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the President [of Ukraine] committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor said.

He specifically described a July 18 video conference call in which an official from the Office of Management and Budget said there was a hold on aid to Ukraine but could not explain why. He said he “sat in astonishment” along with others on the call.

“The Ukrainians were fighting the Russians and counted on not only the training and weapons but also the assurance of U.S. support,” Taylor testified. “All that the OMB staff person said was that the directive had come from the president to the chief of staff to OMB. In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened.”

Seven days later, Trump held a call with the Ukrainian president in which he asked for a “favor” of investigation into the Bidens, including Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

John Bolton expressed alarm about shadow Ukraine policy, but at key moments, it’s unclear what he did to stop it

Taylor’s testimony describes a campaign led by Giuliani that clearly disturbed many U.S. officials over a series of months. It also draws in national security adviser John Bolton, who has been an elusive witness in the House impeachment probe, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Taylor says that in August, he spoke to Bolton about his concerns about Ukraine policy, describing him as “very sympathetic” to his concerns about withholding aid to Ukraine, and that Bolton was working to reverse the decision to put OMB in charge of the military assistance.

Taylor testified that officials had told him that Bolton wanted to return authority over Ukraine funds to the secretaries of state and defense and the CIA director. During a late August trip to Kyiv, Bolton also told Taylor directly that he should send a first-person cable about his concerns regarding the withholding of aid, as “there are not many first-person cables” written and it was thus bound to get attention.

Taylor did so on Aug. 29 and was told by a colleague that Pompeo carried the cable with him into a White House meeting on Ukraine security assistance, and that the reception from the “sixth floor” — where the offices of the assistant secretaries are — was that people were “glad” he sent the cable.

Taylor’s testimony also reinforced that of others that Bolton believed Sondland was trying to push a “drug deal” in demanding the Ukrainians launch investigations that could affect domestic U.S. politics.

He also reinforced testimony that Bolton had opposed the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky “out of concern that it would be a disaster,” but that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney scheduled it anyway.

“Turned out he was right,” Taylor noted of Bolton’s qualms.

In a signal of how Taylor might approach his public testimony scheduled for next week, he carefully answered leading questions from Democrats during his closed-door deposition — suggesting he will be reluctant to participate in partisan theatrics. Repeatedly, Taylor said he would stick to “facts” when he was pressed to agree or disagree with a particular characterization.

“Wouldn’t you say that trying to get a foreign country to intervene in a U.S. presidential election is not fighting corruption, it is in itself corruption?” Schiff asked.

“Mr. Chairman, you’re taking me beyond my area of expertise,” Taylor replied. “Just the facts are what I can attest to. . . . The way to fight corruption is to fix the courts and fix the judges.”

Schiff then pressed Taylor to confirm that he was concerned that Trump allies were trying to “get Ukraine to interfere in U.S. politics and the next election.”

Taylor spoke with precision: “The irregular channel seemed to focus on specific issues, specific cases, rather than the regular channel’s focus on institution building.”

Later, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) asked Taylor to “assess the character” of Sondland, the ambassador to the E.U. who was at the center of the irregular channel.

“I can do facts, you know,” Taylor said, ultimately answering that he had “no reason to believe that [Sondland] was not acting with integrity.”

Swalwell later tried to get Taylor to agree that Ukrainian aid had been made subject to a quid pro quo: “You’re familiar with the phrase, ‘If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck, you can say it’s not a duck, but it’s a duck?’ ”

Said Taylor, “Congressman, I can just tell you the facts. You’ve stated them.”

Rachael Bade and Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.

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