A career civil servant who is a West Point graduate, soldier, officer, military attache and veteran diplomat told Congress on Tuesday that President Donald Trump personally and explicitly tried to force Ukraine’s president to investigate Trump’s political opponents by withholding crucial military aid and a coveted White House meeting.
William Taylor testified that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told him that “everything” Ukraine wanted depended on whether its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, pursued an investigation. Sondland also told Taylor that Trump wanted to squeeze Zelenskiy into “a public box” by forcing him to commit openly to a probe.
Taylor said Sondland told him that tying military aid to efforts to kneecap political opponents didn’t amount to a quid pro quo. But it was exactly that, of course, and in his testimony Taylor didn’t hesitate to describe it as such. He said Sondland told him he needed to understand the give-and-take with Ukraine as a business transaction because Trump was a businessman.
“When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something,” Taylor quoted Sondland as saying, “the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.” Sondland told Taylor that he even coached Zelenskiy to tell Trump he would “leave no stone unturned” in pursuit of Trump’s political opponents.
“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor said he told Sondland in September, after threatening to quit if the practice continued. Shortly after that, the U.S. released the military aid to Ukraine.
Taylor has much on the line. He jeopardized his career by speaking out, and by defying White House orders not to cooperate with Democrats managing the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry. But he made it clear in his testimony what motivates him: He sees Ukraine as a promising and important U.S. ally and a bulwark against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
The country “is struggling to break free of its past, hopeful that their new government will finally usher in a new Ukraine, proud of its independence from Russia, eager to join Western institutions and enjoy a more secure and prosperous life,” Taylor testified. “Because of the strategic importance of Ukraine in our effort to create a whole, free Europe, we, through Republican and Democratic administrations over three decades, have supported Ukraine.”
And what motivates Gordon Sondland? Sondland is a wealthy hotel operator with no diplomatic or public policy experience who received his ambassadorship after making generous donations to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. He reportedly aspires to a cabinet position. To get one, he was apparently willing to help the president abuse the powers of his office by strong-arming Ukraine to meet his personal needs.
And what motivates Rudy Giuliani? He’s a former federal prosecutor and mayor with a thirst for the limelight and political power who was willing to test legal boundaries and strong-arm public servants in the U.S. and Ukraine to orchestrate the slagging of Trump’s political opponents.
And what motivates Donald Trump? He’s a haphazard developer and reality TV star who pursued the presidency as a marketing ploy and surprised even himself by winning it. He hasn’t any meaningful interest in public policy or public service, but when his candidacy and office have offered him opportunities to consolidate his power and line his wallet he has pursued them with gusto.
Why has Trump courted Russian President Vladimir Putin? It’s not simply because he has an affinity for dictators or is irrational and unpredictable (though those things are true). It’s because he’d like to make money with Putin. He tried to do that before and during the 2016 campaign when he pursued a real estate deal in Moscow, and I suspect he’ll try again more overtly whenever he leaves the White House. Putin wants to control Ukraine and its natural gas supplies, and get the U.S. to lift the economic sanctions it imposed after he invaded and occupied part of Ukraine. He and Trump are wheeling and dealing.
Why has Trump courted Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Trump does business in Istanbul. Trump is willing to give Erdogan what he wants (domination and potential obliteration of the Kurds in northern Syria) because, I suspect, he wants to do even more robust business in Turkey whenever he leaves the White House.
Why did Trump want to convene next year’s Group of Seven summit at his resort in Doral, Florida? No, it wasn’t because he thinks it is the best place for the meeting or because he’s super proud of it. Yes, it was the money.
Money, money, money. It’s rarely more complex than that with Trump.
Trump, Sondland and Giuliani are light years apart from Taylor. They’re opportunists who are perverting the wheels of government to feather their own nests. Taylor is a person of purpose, integrity and decency, and his testimony before legislators exploring impeachment has been one of the most devastating and consequential episodes of the Trump presidency. It destroys the White House argument that there was no quid pro quo in Trump’s Ukraine dealings.
Building on already ample evidence of presidential wrongdoing, Taylor’s testimony means that Trump will be impeached in the House. It will then be interesting to see whether the Senate, in adjudicating Trump’s case, stands up for integrity and national purpose, as Taylor has, or emulates Sondland and Giuliani by acquiescing to the president’s misdeeds.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine.