Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, told congressional investigators on Tuesday that he believed President Donald Trump withheld money from Ukraine on condition that the government open politically motivated investigations, including a probe into political rival, Joe Biden.
In some of the most damning testimony against the Trump administration to date in the ongoing impeachment inquiry, Mr Taylor told investigators he noticed "a confusing and unusual arrangement" in US policy towards Ukraine when he was appointed acting ambassador earlier this year. "There appeared to be two channels of US policymaking and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular," he said. The latter involved the now outgoing energy secretary Rick Perry, former special envoy Kurt Vockler, US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and Mr Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, he added.
“I was clearly in the regular channel, but I was also in the irregular one to the extent that ambassadors Volker and Sondland included me in certain conversations,” he told the three committees leading the impeachment inquiry.
Mr Taylor told lawmakers he believed Mr Trump's promise of a meeting with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy was conditional on the new president investigating former vice-president Joe Biden and Burisma, the gas company which employed his son, Hunter, as a director.
Withholding of aid
“By mid-July it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelenskiy wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma . . . and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US elections,” the diplomat wrote in his prepared statement to lawmakers. He said he later came to the conclusion that promised US aid to Ukraine was being withheld for the same reason.
His comments to the House committees on Tuesday confirm what he suggested in a text message sent to Mr Sondland earlier this year when he warned that it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign”.
He also alleged on Tuesday that Mr Sondland, a hotelier appointed by Mr Trump to become the US ambassador in Brussels, communicated to Ukrainian officials that there was effectively a quid pro quo involved with the granting of military aid to the country. Mr Sondland testified before the committees last week.
Mr Taylor was the first of several former state department and national security officials due to testify this week in Congress as part of the impeachment inquiry.
Shortly before his appearance, the committees issued him with a subpoena to allow him to circumvent a ban imposed by the state department on officials from participating in the ongoing impeachment inquiry.
Trump use of ‘lynching’
Ahead of his testimony on Tuesday, Mr Trump lashed out in an early-morning tweet about the inquiry, using racially charged language that was immediately denounced by political opponents.
“So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”
His comparison of the impeachment inquiry to “lynching” – the process of killing someone, usually by hanging, without a trial, which was perpetrated against thousands of African-Americans – prompted widespread criticism from Democrats.
"I know the history of that word," said Democrat James Clyburn. "That is a word that we ought to be very, very careful about."
Some Republicans also voiced concern. “I don’t agree with that language; it’s pretty simple,” said Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives. But Trump ally Lindsey Graham defended the president in comments to reporters.
“This is a lynching in every sense. If Republicans were doing this, you’d be okay with it, calling it a political lynching because that’s literally what it is,” he said.