Today, major networks halted their regular programming as millions of Americans watched the historic first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump. What Americans saw was the most damning witness testimony of the Trump presidency.
House Democrats delivered a line of questioning that showcased a coherent, fact-based story of President Trump's alleged abuse of power. House Republicans twisted themselves into a ball of Trump sycophancy as they rolled their way down a rabbit-hole of conspiracy theories.
Bill Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, George Kent, delivered compelling and credible testimony – especially Bill Taylor. Throughout his remarks, Taylor outlined how he slowly became aware of President Trump's alleged effort to extort Ukraine into investigating his political targets. While Taylor didn't use the word extortion or “quid pro quo,” it became crystal clear that is exactly what transpired: military aid and a White House meeting were withheld to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and false allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
In his opening statement, Bill Taylor – who has been falsely labeled as a “Never Trumper” by President Trump, and publicly denied being so today – discussed his distinguished 50-year career of service to the US. Taylor was a West Point cadet and military officer, and subsequently served at the State Department under both presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then offered him the job to replace then-ambassador to Ukraine Maria Yovanovitch, who was ousted after smears from Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, and the right-wing media.
Taylor is a nonpartisan official, which makes what he said today even more damning. With a narrator's voice that sounded like a blend of Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw, Ambassador Taylor captivated the attention of the American people with a story of corruption.
As George Kent did in his opening statement, Bill Taylor discussed the context necessary to understand Ukraine's vulnerable position and Russia's annexation of Crimea. This framed what was to come, which was a detailed account of the Trump administration's months-long alleged extortion plot. It also dismantled Republican claims that there was “no quid pro quo,” that Ukraine wasn't aware of the fact military aid was withheld, and that nothing was wrong with the transcript memo of the July 25th Trump-Zelensky phone call. Much of the statement was previously delivered in his closed-door deposition, but there was a new damning testimony.
Taylor claimed: “Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26. While Ambassador Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr Yermak. Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations’. Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.”
Upon starting his new role this past summer, Bill Taylor says he noticed that there was a shadow diplomacy apparatus being run by Rudy Giuliani that contradicted US national security interests. On whether or not there was a “quid pro quo” deal being made, he said: “On June 27, Ambassador Sondland told me during a phone conversation that President Zelenskyy needed to make clear to President Trump that he, President Zelensky, was not standing in the way of ‘investigations’.
He continued: “By mid-July it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma [the company connected with Joe Biden’s son Hunter] and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US elections.” Taylor testified that while he was in a National Security Council meeting he was “astonished” to learn that military aid for Ukraine was being withheld. During that meeting, Taylor alleges that a staffer of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told them “the directive [to withhold aid] had come from the President to the Chief of Staff to OMB.
“Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognised that he had made a mistake by earlier telling Ukrainian officials that only a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations – in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,” Taylor continued. He said that Trump wanted Zelensky “in a public box".
Taylor went on to say that in a September 8th phone call with Sondland, he was told the alleged “quid pro quo” was directly relayed to Zelensky himself: “Ambassador Sondland also said that he had talked to President Zelensky and Mr Yermak and had told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelensky did not ‘clear things up' in public, we would be at a ‘stalemate’.”
It's important to note that after the closed-door testimonies of Morrison and Taylor, Sondland revised his October 17th testimony. “I now recall [saying]… resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” he said while adding three pages to his testimony, all but confirming a quid pro quo arrangement was in place. Sondland testifies publicly next week.
After the opening statements today, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) handed 45 minutes of questioning to their counsel Daniel Goldman, who weaved a coherent narrative covering all the aspects of Taylor's testimony. This was significantly more effective than leading with five-minute increments of scattered questioning from lawmakers with varying degrees of familiarity with the substance of the alleged extortion plot.
In the line of questioning with Goldman, Bill Taylor went over various text messages he had sent expressing concerns about tying military aid to the investigations. Taylor also said that he knew the Ukrainians were very concerned about the security assistance and that they were prepared to make a statement announcing the probes on CNN, which corroborates a New York Times report alleging the same. Zelensky was allegedly prepared to make the public announcement on September 13th, but the White House released the aid after House Democrats were made aware of the whistleblower complaint.
Daniel Goldman read the transcript memo that President Trump has said he wants everyone to read. Goldman highlighted that Trump did request a probe of the Bidens.
Goldman asked George Kent if there was any merit to allegations of wrongdoing against Joe Biden and if there was any merit to the claims that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. George Kent said no. But nevertheless, the GOP persisted.
Rather than try and defend the substance of the extortion allegations against President Trump, House Intelligence Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-CA) began what would become a baseless line of questioning into the Ukraine meddling conspiracy theory. This defence of President Trump is laser-targeted to the GOP echo chamber and will do nothing to swing Independents.
The bottom line here is this: if this testimony had happened under any other presidency, and in a world without right-wing media absolutely loyal to that president, it would have brought that administration to a screeching halt. Not only is it illegal to solicit something of value from a foreign power in connection with an election, but the extortion/bribery plot showcases an even larger abuse of power.
Over the next two weeks, the country will watch a full slate of public hearings that will continue to outline these facts, and if today's conspiracy theory-peddling is the best defence the GOP can come up with, support for impeaching President Donald Trump will surely continue to rise.
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