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Top US diplomat in Ukraine says Trump linked aid to demand for Biden probe

President Donald Trump talks on the phone aboard Air Force One during a flight to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to address a joint gathering of House and Senate Republicans, Thursday, January 26, 2017. This was the President’s first trip aboard Air Force One. (Shealah Craighead/White House)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A top U.S. diplomat has said President Donald Trump wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate his political opponent before agreeing to release military aid or a White House meeting.

U.S. Charge d’Affaires to Ukraine William Taylor made the comment in opening remarks on October 22 in a closed-door session in front of three congressional panels as part of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump’s dealings with Kyiv.

The remarks by Taylor — who served as ambassador to Ukraine in 2006-09 under then-President George W. Bush — add more force to the impeachment inquiry that was launched a month ago to determine whether Trump pressured Zelenskiy during a July 25 phone call to investigate Joe Biden, a Democrat who is seeking to unseat the U.S. president in 2020.

At the time of the call, Trump was withholding nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine.

Trump, who has called the impeachment probe a “witch-hunt,” has denied there was quid pro quo at play with Zelenskiy, a political novice who sought to follow up on his landslide victory in April with a White House meeting to demonstrate he had U.S. support.

However, Taylor’s testimony described Trump’s demand that “everything” Zelenskiy wanted, including vital military aid, was contingent on making a public vow that Ukraine would investigate Democrats and an energy company linked to Biden’s son Hunter.

After his testimony, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham released a statement, labeling what Taylor said as “triple hearsay” while insisting Trump “has done nothing wrong.”

The career diplomat laid out in his 15-page opening statement a timeline of events that showed how U.S. policy toward Ukraine began in May to move simultaneously along two divergent paths: one pursued by the National Security Council to maintain support for Ukraine and one driven by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to entice its young leader to investigate Biden and possible interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Giuliani has claimed that Biden, who oversaw U.S. policy toward Ukraine while serving as vice president to Barack Obama, ordered Kyiv to fire its prosecutor-general to halt an investigation into gas producer Burisma. Biden’s son Hunter Biden was serving on the board of Burisma at the time.

Ukrainian officials have said investigations into Burisma stood dormant, while the prosecutor was fired for inaction on or even stymieing high-profile corruption cases.

Giuliani, a close friend of Trump’s going back to the 1980s, has also pursued an unfounded theory that Ukraine was behind the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) servers. A two-year-long investigation led by former U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russian intelligence agents were behind the DNC hack.

Taylor told members of the House of Representatives’ panels that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland informed him in September that Trump said he wanted “Zelenskiy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election” and that military aid and a White House visit were “dependent on such an announcement.”

‘Sat In Astonishment’

Taylor, 72, said he was shocked to learn in July that Trump had decided to delay military aid to Ukraine, which has been fighting a five-year war with Kremlin-backed separatists in two of its easternmost regions.

In light of that, Taylor called the aid “crucial” and said it sent a signal to both Kyiv and Moscow that the United States was a reliable partner to Ukraine. He also said a Ukraine free of Russian influence was important to both U.S. and European security.

“I and others sat in astonishment,” he told the House members as he recalled hearing about the aid delay. “In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened. [Giuliani’s] irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of long-standing U.S. policy.”

Taylor described a National Security Council that was fiercely at odds with the policy pursued by Giuliani — and supported by Sondland and Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker — of tying military aid and a White House meeting to Kyiv’s launch of the investigations.

He also depicted a new Ukrainian administration that was deeply concerned about being pulled into U.S. domestic affairs.

Taylor said he was told that then-national-security adviser John Bolton cut a White House meeting with Ukrainian officials in July short after Sondland tied a future meeting to the investigations. Taylor said he was told that Bolton referred to it as a “drug deal” and did not want Trump to speak with Zelenskiy yet, fearing it would be a “disaster.”

Trump would make the call — which is at the heart of the impeachment process — two weeks later to ask Zelenskiy for a “favor” and look into the activity of the Bidens as well as Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.