Trump impeachment: Five takeways from 'explosive' testimony

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

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image captionBill Taylor arrives at Congress

Acting US Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor spoke to Congress behind closed doors for more than nine hours on Tuesday, providing testimony alternatively described as explosive or inconclusive, depending who was doing the talking.

Although Taylor didn't appear in front of television cameras, his 15-page opening statement was quickly leaked to the Washington Post, providing the veteran diplomat's unfiltered take on his connection to the rapidly unfolding story of the Trump administration's Ukraine policy machinations.

The picture Taylor paints isn't a positive one for the White House, bolstering Democratic claims that his testimony was more bombshell than dud.

Here are five takeaways from Taylor's opening statement, which reportedly took more than an hour to deliver and elicited sighs and gasps from those in attendance.

1. Trump the 'businessman'

At this point there's little question that Donald Trump, whose background is in real estate and reality television, has made for an unconventional president.

Supporters have touted this as a strength - something US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland leaned into during an 8 September phone conversation detailed by Taylor.

Sondland - who was part of what Taylor described as an "irregular, informal channel of US policy-making" that included Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani - was explaining how Trump wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to make a public statement about opening investigations that could potentially be damaging to Democrats.

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According to Taylor, Sondland said Trump was a businessman, and "when a businessman is about to sign a cheque to someone who owes him something… the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the cheque".

Taylor balked at this, insisting that Ukraine didn't "owe" the US anything.

Much of the controversy around Trump's back-channel US-Ukraine policy has centred around whether there was a "quid pro quo" - a promise of Ukrainian action that could be politically beneficial to the president in exchange for releasing US military assistance and giving Zelensky a coveted White House visit.

It doesn't take a working knowledge of Latin to figure that the "businessman deal" Taylor describes is exactly such an arrangement.

2. The mystery budget woman

There have been multiple reports that the order to suspend US military aid to Ukraine came directly from the president. Taylor's statement corroborates this, in a somewhat unusual fashion.

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He describes an 18 July National Security Council video-conference in which the topic of the delayed military aid came up. A woman who said she was from the White House budget office (OMB) - Taylor could not tell who because she was off-screen - said that "her boss" had instructed her not to approve any additional security money to Ukraine "until further notice".

That boss would be Mick Mulvaney, head of the budget office and the president's acting chief-of-staff.

The unidentified woman went on to say that "the directive had come from the president to the chief-of-staff to the OMB".

"In an instant," Taylor testified, "I realised that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened."

Democrats are probably already scouring the OMB staff list to determine the identity of the mystery woman - although they may have little luck getting her to testify. Other officials in the agency have already refused Democratic subpoenas to appear before the impeachment inquiry.

3. Ukraine under siege

Taylor detailed the strategic significance of Ukraine, underlining that he viewed Trump's decision to delay military aid as one that put lives at risk.

In one of the most dramatic passages of Taylor's opening statement, he describes a visit to the eastern front of Ukraine's civil war, where he stared across a river at Russian-led military forces. He relayed his unease as the Ukrainian military commander thanked him for military support Taylor knew was being delayed.

"Over 13,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war, one or two a week," Taylor testified. "More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the US assistance."

Taylor bookended his opening statement by emphasising the importance of US support for Ukraine and the heroism of the Ukrainian people, who he said were standing up to Russian aggression and yearning for a "more secure and prosperous life".

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"If we believe in the principle of sovereignty of nations on which our security and the security of our friends and allies depends, we must support Ukraine in its fight against its bullying neighbour," he said.

In Taylor's opinion, the stakes were too high for what he saw as the administration's back-channel efforts to use Ukraine as a pawn in an US political game; it was more than a political controversy, for Ukrainians it was a matter of life or death.

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4. Tim Morrison, check your messages

A key figure emerging from Taylor's opening statement has yet to appear before Congress - Tim Morrison, Eurasia expert on the National Security Council staff.

Some of the most damaging details about White House efforts to pressure Ukraine were relayed to Taylor from Morrison. For instance, on 1 September, Taylor says Morrison attended a meeting in Warsaw between Sondland and a Ukrainian official, Andrey Yermak, in which the EU ambassador directly tied security assistance to opening an investigation into the Ukrainian energy company with ties to the Bidens.

Morrison also attended a meeting in Warsaw between Zelensky and Vice-President Mike Pence, and reportedly listened in on the fateful 25 July phone call between Trump and Zelensky during which the US president asked for investigatory "favours" from his counterpart.

House impeachment investigators have already requested that Morrison appear before Congress. That request will take on additional urgency - and may turn into an official subpoena - with Taylor's testimony in the books.

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image captionUkraine tanks in training

5. An independent voice

In a statement released by the White House after Taylor's congressional appearance, press secretary Stephanie Grisham suggested the 72-year-old ambassador was part of a far-left "smear campaign" by Democrats and a group of "radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution".

Such an assertion is difficult to square with Taylor's long record of public service, however. A West Point military academy graduate and Bronze Star-awarded Vietnam War veteran, Taylor worked as a low-level congressional staffer for New Jersey Democratic Senator Bill Bradely before becoming a diplomat in the Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

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He served as US ambassador to Ukraine from June 2006 to May 2009 and was convinced to return to the job earlier this year by Trump's own secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Taylor's opening statement was methodical and meticulous, corroborating previous revelations and fleshing out key details. He reportedly has taken extensive notes that could supplement his testimony, as well, if Democrats can get the State Department to hand them over.

It is in the White House's interests to undermine Taylor's authority and credibility, particularly if he publicly testifies at some point, but doing so will be no easy task.

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