During the first day of the public impeachment inquiry, the Democrats led off by calling one of their key witnesses, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor Jr., who in his opening statement laid out his reasons for believing that President Trump was trying to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
When Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe had a chance to ask Taylor some questions, he pointed out a crucial detail that Democrats have attempted to downplay or outright ignore: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly denied that any quid pro quo or pressure was involved in his talks with Trump about investigations into the 2016 U.S. election or allegations of corruption involving the Bidens and Burisma Holdings.
As many on the right, and even CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, have pointed out, one glaring problem with Taylor’s testimony, as well as the second witness interviewed Wednesday, is that he had no direct contact with Trump about the issue, thus any claims he presented about the president’s actions and intentions are second-hand at best. In one of his questions for Taylor, Ratcliffe noted this problem while also presenting first-hand, direct quotes from the other world leader involved in the situation, Zelensky himself.
“President Zelesnky went on to confirm a number of things: that there was no pressure, that there were no conditions, that there were no threats on military aid, that there was no pressure or conditions to investigate Burisma or the 2016 election, that there was no blackmail, that there was no corruption of any kind during the July 25th call,” Ratcliffe noted to Taylor Wednesday (video below).
RATCLIFFE: Again, from his official press release: “Therefore, there was no blackmail because it was not the subject of our conversation with the President of the United States. There were no conditions on the investigation, either because of arms or the situation around Burisma company.”
[Zelensky] told Reuters, “There was no blackmail.” He told the L.A. Times, “There was no pressure from the United States.” He told Japan’s Kyoto News, “I was never pressured, and there were no conditions being imposed.” He told ABC News and the BBC, “I’m against corruption. This is not corruption; it was just a call.”
The Ukrainian President stood in front of a world press and repeatedly, consistently, over and over again, interview after interview, said he had no knowledge of military aid being withheld, meaning no quid pro quo, no pressure, no demands, no threats, no blackmail, nothing corrupt.
And unlike the first 45 minutes we heard from the Democrats today, that’s not second-hand information, that’s not hearsay, it’s not what someone overheard Ambassador Sondland say. That was his direct testimony.
After quoting Zelensky repeatedly denying any kind of pressure or a quid pro quo, as Democrats have alleged that Trump imposed, Ratcliffe asked Taylor if he had “any evidence” that Zelensky was “lying” to the press.
“Ambassador Taylor, do you have any evidence to assert that President Zelensky was lying to the world press when he said those things?” Ratcliffe asked. “Yes or no?”
Taylor replied, “I have no reason to doubt what the president said in his speeches.”
Among those who highlighted the moment online was Donald Trump Jr, who tweeted out video of the exchange Wednesday:
“The Ukrainian President stood in front of a world press and repeatedly, consistently, over and over again, interview after interview, said he had no knowledge of military aid being withheld, meaning no quid pro quo.”@RepRatcliffe destroys dem arguments. pic.twitter.com/Xg7tPnTJ1I
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) November 13, 2019
Ratcliffe’s reference to “someone overhear[ing] Ambassador Sondland” appears to be a reference to Taylor’s previous statement Wednesday in which he revealed a new piece of information not included in his Oct. 22 testimony. Taylor said one of his aides recently told him that while at a meeting with Sondland he/she “could hear President Trump on the phone” inquiring about “investigations.”
“Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26,” Taylor told congressional committee members. “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.”
Many media outlets have highlighted the moment as a significant piece of evidence, but Republicans have noted its vagueness and third-hand nature as another example of information that would not stand up in court.