Bill Taylor’s testimony removes any last plausible line of defense for Trump

The Guardian Opinions 3 weeks ago

On Tuesday, Donald Trump dismissed the impeachment inquiry into his conduct towards Ukraine as a “lynching”. This proved, unsurprisingly, that Trump doesn’t know much about history – for a start, victims of lynching couldn’t look forward to a trial heavily stacked in their favor, which is likely what awaits Trump in the Senate. It also showed that there is no depth to which the president will not stoop in an attempt to distract attention from his wrongdoing.

It was no surprise that Trump wanted to create a distraction on the day that the impeachment inquiry heard its most explosive testimony yet. But we shouldn’t let him. Stunning new details were provided by William B Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, who the State Department tried to block from testifying before Congress. He went anyway, and what he said provided the most direct evidence yet that Trump ordered military assistance to Ukraine to be withheld until Kiev agreed to take action that would benefit the president’s re-election campaign.

Taylor testified that even though he was the top American representative in Ukraine, he found himself undercut by Trump appointees who ran their own “unofficial” Ukraine policy. One of this latter group, Gordon Sondland, told Taylor that “everything” Ukraine wanted from Washington – including a meeting with Trump and security assistance for its war against Russia – was dependent on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announcing investigations into Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election.

When Taylor raised concerns over what was happening, he was met with the sort of inversion of truth and of the meaning of the English language which the Trump administration has long practiced. Both Sondland and Trump insisted no “quid pro quo” was expected of Ukraine – before spelling out precisely the actions Kiev would have to take in order to receive security assistance. According to Taylor, Sondland even told him that Trump “is a businessman” and that businessmen always make sure to collect what they are owed.

Taylor also said that Zelensky was being pressured to give a statement about opening the investigations on CNN, making clear that the aim was to influence US public opinion rather than to actually tackle corruption in Ukraine. Officials in Kiev certainly understood the message they were receiving, and were deeply disturbed by the contents. According to Taylor, Zelensky’s national security advisor “conveyed to me that President Zelensky did not want to be used as a pawn in a US re-election campaign.”

Rather than denying the facts that Taylor reported, the White House last night dismissed the impeachment inquiry as “a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats.” But to any reasonable person, Taylor is impossible to dismiss as a partisan hack. A former infantry officer who served in Vietnam, he has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and was first appointed as ambassador to Ukraine by George W Bush. Taylor was critical of aspects of Barack Obama’s policy towards Ukraine, including his administration’s decision not to provide lethal military aid – the same military aid that Trump later announced he would supply and then corruptly withheld.

Taylor’s testimony removes any last plausible line of defense of the president’s conduct. Trump clearly perverted US official diplomacy in pursuit of his own private interests. The “investigations” he pressured Ukraine to open into his political opponents were based on conspiracy theories, meaning the investigations themselves could only be shams. Trump was not asking for an honest investigation of wrongdoing. Instead, he wanted Kiev to make up dirt on his political enemies to substantiate the conspiracy theories he had heard about on TV – or to lose the military aid it needed to survive. It is hard to think of a more shocking misuse of presidential power in foreign affairs.

The most disturbing fact of this whole mess is how close the plot Taylor described came to succeeding. If it hadn’t been for the media, government whistleblowers, and Congress, then the first words the American people heard on the matter might have been President Zelensky appearing on CNN to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden. Instead, these forces came together to provide a vital check on a lawless president, just as they did during Watergate.

The work isn’t yet done. Republicans are likely to invent new excuses to protect the president. But support for removing Trump from office continues to rise, portending a difficult 2020 election both for the president and the Republican senators who continue to defend him. The idea that impeaching Trump was a political mistake, fashionable just weeks ago, looks misplaced in light of everything we have learned since. Impeachment, if pursued wisely, can actually be used to build a case for removing Trump and his protectors at the ballot box.

America deserves a president who doesn’t use his office for personal enrichment and gain at the expense of the public good. It also deserves a president who has enough historical and moral sensibility not to describe his own richly-deserved problems as a “lynching”. Thanks in part to the unfolding impeachment inquiry, it might soon have one.

  • Andy Gawthorpe is a Lecturer in History and International Studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands

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