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The nation’s eyes were on Washington, D.C. on Wednesday as the public impeachment inquiry, spearheaded by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, officially began. In a new wrinkle added to his previous testimony, William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine — who has been referenced as one of the Democrats’ “star” witnesses — said he was recently told by one of his aides that President Trump inquired about “the investigations” during a phone call with Ambassador Gordon Sondland. The aide knows this because he/she was meeting with Sondland and “could hear President Trump on the phone.”
“Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26,” Taylor told congressional committee members at the hearing Wednesday. “While Ambassador [Kurt] Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr. [Andrey] Yermak,” a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“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,” said Taylor. “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.”
“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” Taylor continued. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”
Taylor then explained that he was presenting this new information now “for completeness” because he did not know it at the time he gave his deposition on October 22.
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) November 13, 2019
That Trump was interested in Ukraine investigating alleged Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election as well as corruption allegations involving the Bidens is no secret. Along with releasing the whistleblower complaint that laid out the accusations that Trump tried to “pressure” Ukraine into “digging up dirt,” as Democrats’ put it, on his political opponent by withholding military aid, the Trump administration also released the transcript of the July 25 call referenced in the complaint.
In the transcript, Trump indeed asks Zelensky to “look into” the alleged corruption involving former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, but offers no “quid pro quo,” as initially alleged. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that,” Trump told Zelensky. “So whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
A key figure in the Democrat-led inquiry has been Sondland, who is generally viewed as a “pro-Trump” figure. In a text exchange that was leaked early on in the Ukraine story, Sondland stressed to Taylor that there was “no quid pro quo” for Trump’s requested investigations:
[9/9/19, 12:47:11 AM] Bill Taylor: As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.
[9/9/19, 5:19:35 AM] Gordon Sondland: Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text If you still have concerns I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or S a call to discuss them directly. Thanks.
In other exchanges with his fellow diplomats, the idea that the investigations were a top priority is clear. In his early testimony before congressional investigators, Sondland said that he at one point came to “presume” that the aid and the investigations were connected.
Sondland told committee members last week in additional testimony that he thought withholding aid from Ukraine was “ill-advised,” but was unsure “when, why or by whom the aid was suspended.” By early September, he said, he began to “presume” the aid was linked to the anti-corruption investigation statement the White House wanted Zelensky to issue.
“I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anticorruption statement,” said Sondland.
Sondland explained that in his discussion with Zelensky’s advisor Yermak on September 1, which took place while Vice President Mike Pence was meeting with Zelensky, he told Yermak that the U.S. military aid “would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
“I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” he said, according to the additional testimony.
Republicans have pointed to the fact that Ukraine did end up receiving the aid, without having begun an investigation, as evidence that there was no quid pro quo, as Trump has maintained.
Read Taylor’s full opening statement for the congressional hearing Wednesday here.