Taylor’s troubling testimony

Text messages released weeks ago showed that Bill Taylor believed the Trump administration was conditioning the release of military aid to Ukraine on a Ukrainian investigation of Trump’s political opponents. Yesterday, in testimony before Congress, Taylor described the events that caused him to believe this.

If Taylor is telling the truth, he had a sound basis for believing that, for a while, there was a quid pro quo relationship between the release of aid and an investigation by Ukraine of the Bidens. He testified about a conversation with a National Security Council official who informed him that Gordon Sondland, our ambassador to the EU, had told a high level Ukrainain that “security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation.” Burisma is the company on whose board Hunter Biden served.

Taylor also testified that he asked Sondland whether aid was conditioned on the investigation. Sondland responded that Trump had told him he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and that “everything” was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance.

That’s a quid pro quo.

Is Taylor telling the truth? I think so. There’s nothing in his background that suggests he’s a partisan Democrat or sleazy “Deep Stater” who would lie to hurt the president.

Taylor is a West Point grad. He served in Vietnam. He was appointed ambassador to Ukraine by George W. Bush and asked to return to the diplomatic corps as charge d’affaires in Ukraine by Mike Pompeo.

Ask yourself which is more likely, that Trump, the “transactional” president, would scheme as Taylor describes to injure a political opponent or that Taylor would invent a story to this effect. I think it’s former.

Was Sondland telling Taylor the truth about what Trump said to him? Again, I assume so. Why would Sondland misrepresent Trump’s instructions? He had no strong reason to want an investigation of Joe Biden. Trump did.

Later Sondland told Taylor that Trump had insisted there is no quid pro quo. But this seems like a case of exalting labeling over substance (as well as a case of CYA). Indeed, Sondland informed Taylor that he had told Ukraine’s president Zelenskyy that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if Zelenskyy did not “clear things up” in public, we would be at a “stalemate.”

Taylor said he understood a “stalemate” to mean that Ukraine would not receive the military assistance. I don’t think there’s any other rational way to understand “stalemate” in this context. When military assistance is “dependent” on the public announcement of an investigation into Hunter Biden’s company, that’s a quid pro whether one uses the label or disavows it.

Fortunately, soon after Taylor complained to Sondland about the withholding of aid for domestic political purposes, the hold on aid was lifted. Ukraine received the military aid and, to my knowledge, did not agree to investigate the Bidens.

Thus, the most we can say is that aid was held up for maybe two months while the Trump administration used it as leverage to try to get Ukraine to investigate his chief (at the time) rival for the presidency. We cannot say that aid was denied.

How serious an offense is it for a president to withhold aid for a few months because the recipient hasn’t agreed to investigate his political opponent? Pretty serious, in my view.

Corruption is rampant in Ukraine and around the globe. There was no reason for Trump to fixate on one Ukrainian company, Burisma, other than the fact that Hunter Biden was associated with it. And there was no reason for Trump to fixate on Hunter Biden other than the fact that his father might well be Trump’s opponent in 2020.

Some will disagree with me as to whether there is a serious offense here. There’s not much point in arguing about it. One either sees significant impropriety or one doesn’t.

But those who don’t might ask themselves whether they would see a major problem if, under the same facts, it was President Obama who withheld the aid and Donald Trump whom Obama insisted had to be investigated before it could be released.

The offense would be more serious if Trump hadn’t ultimately released the aid. In that scenario, I think there would be a case for impeaching him. But that scenario didn’t happen so I don’t have to assess how the substantial the case for impeachment would be if it had.

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