Report: "Sighs and gasps" during testimony as Trump envoy claims he was told there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine

Report: "Sighs and gasps" during testimony as Trump envoy claims he was told there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine

Thanks to the secrecy of the proceedings, you can take these breathless reports about today’s impeachment testimony as seriously or unseriously as you like. Democrats are reeeeeeeally hyping it…

…but there were lots of moments during Russiagate that were reeeeeeeeally hyped as well, and you know how that turned out.

To refresh your memory, Bill Taylor is the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He’s also the guy who was on the now-famous text exchange with ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, in which Taylor wrote to Sondland in September, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” That … sounds like the sort of illicit quid pro quo that Democrats are suspicious of. Reportedly, Sondland didn’t reply to Taylor’s text at first; instead several hours passed, during which time Sondland spoke to Trump. Only then did he finally text Taylor back to stress that the president has been “crystal clear” that no quid pro quo took place with Ukraine, a curiously for-the-record reply.

Naturally Democrats wanted to hear more from Taylor about what he knew regarding withholding Ukraine’s military aid in exchange for help “with a political campaign.” If you believe the leaks to the media this afternoon, he didn’t disappoint. The key allegation from this afternoon’s testimony, allegedly, is Taylor claiming that Sondland told him Trump didn’t want to release the military aid until Ukraine made a public pledge to investigate the Bidens and Burisma, as well as 2016 matters like the DNC server.

The senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine said Tuesday he was told release of military aid was contingent on public declarations from Ukraine that it would investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election, contradicting President Trump’s denial that he used the money as leverage for political gain.

Acting ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. testified behind closed doors in the House impeachment probe of Trump that he stands by his characterization that it was “crazy” to make the assistance contingent on investigations he found troubling…

“During that phone call, Amb. Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President [Volodymyr] Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election,” Taylor said in the statement…

“Amb. Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Amb. Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,’” Taylor told House investigators.

Politico claims there were “sighs and gasps” in the room as Taylor went through his opening statement, with one Dem rep emerging later to say that Sondland now had a lot of explaining to do about his own testimony before the committee. WaPo reporter John Hudson adds this important detail: Although Sondland supposedly stressed to Taylor that Trump wasn’t demanding a quid pro quo, which may be true or may be CYA, he also claimed that Trump himself had expressed interest in the Biden/Burisma matter. That was a key missing piece from what Mick Mulvaney said last week. Per Mulvaney, Trump had mentioned the DNC/CrowdStrike server in connection with the hold-up in Ukraine aid but not Biden. Taylor, citing Sondland, says otherwise:

We already knew that someone up the chain was interested in getting Ukraine on the record, publicly, that they were pursuing the Biden and DNC matters. In August, Sondland and Kurt Volker, the White House’s special envoy to Ukraine, helped prepare a statement for Zelensky in which he would have committed to investigating Burisma and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election, specifically. (Volker allegedly testified that Rudy Giuliani had requested those two subjects be mentioned in the statement.) Why did Trump want a public statement? One reason might have been to simply force Ukraine to actually follow through on the probes. It would have been easy for them to assure him privately that they’d investigate and then, once they had the military aid in hand, to forget all about it. A public statement was the closest thing to a contract available to the president under the circumstances. Trump may also have wanted Zelensky to say something publicly in order to generate media coverage, especially coverage here in the U.S. The press can dismiss Trump’s accusations about Biden and the CrowdStrike on grounds that it’s partisan blather but a formal investigation by Ukraine would lend those claims new gravity.

The Zelensky statement prepared by Sondland and Volker wasn’t released. But the military aid wasn’t released to Ukraine either after Trump’s phone call with Zelensky on July 25th. Not until members of Congress started asking questions in September about why the aid had been held up did Trump finally hand it over to Ukraine. Whether he’d still be sitting on the aid to this day if Congress hadn’t pressured him, hoping to finally squeeze that public commitment to investigate Biden out of Zelensky, is one of the unsolved mysteries of this story.

If you can believe it, according to a WaPo story published early this morning before Taylor’s testimony, Trump is or was under the impression that Democrats might not impeach him after all.

The president has told several friends in recent days that he believes Democrats are divided and somewhat scattered about how to proceed in their impeachment inquiry, according to people who have spoken with him.

He has said he believes that House Democrats might fumble their probe and eventually decide against bringing articles of impeachment to a floor vote, according to two Trump advisers briefed on his discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly. But most of his friends have gently cautioned against that optimism and said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is determined to move forward, the advisers said.

We’re way past the point where it’d be less dangerous politically for Pelosi to cancel impeachment than to simply proceed with it. Polling shows moving forward on impeachment to be no worse than a 50/50 proposition or so; meanwhile the left would melt down if she pulled the plug now and let Trump off the hook. They have a very real chance of getting 51 votes in the Senate to remove, a symbolic victory that a majority of the chamber believes the president should be removed. They’re obviously going to impeach him. It’s alarming that Trump’s at the level of denial where he thinks there’s even a small chance that they won’t.

One more thing about Taylor: The Times claims that he “relied in part on detailed ‘notes to the file’ that he had made,” an echo of James Comey’s habit of memorializing his conversations with Trump after the fact. “Mr. Taylor’s habit of keeping notes throughout his tenure has given the inquiry a boost, allowing him to recreate crucial conversations and moments even as the administration seeks to block Congress from reviewing documents related to its dealings with Ukraine,” the NYT insisted. Again, if you want to disregard all of that for now on grounds that it’s second-hand information passed along by Trump-hating Democrats, that’s perfectly fair. But there’s every reason to believe Taylor will be a key witness at Trump’s impeachment trial, and that if the account of what he said today is true he’ll create big trouble for the president in the Senate. This is a sneak preview of what’s ahead.

Update: Annnnnd WaPo has now obtained Taylor’s entire opening statement. A taste:

Exactly my point earlier. Trump didn’t want Zelensky to merely assure him privately that he’d investigate the Bidens and the DNC server, he wanted a commitment. Either a public statement or the formal reopening of the probes by the Ukrainian government. Perform your labor, then you get your compensation. Quid pro quo.

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