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Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Resumes With Diplomat Who Warned Of 'Nightmare'

The acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, is testifying before Congress on Tuesday. Above, he's seen in July during a briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Inna Sokolovska
The acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, is testifying before Congress on Tuesday. Above, he's seen in July during a briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine.

House Democrats are set to resume their impeachment inquiry on Tuesday with a deposition from another diplomat who appeared uneasy with President Trump's strategy to pressure Ukraine for political help.

Ambassador William Taylor, who has been serving as the interim head of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Kyiv, is scheduled to talk behind closed doors with members and staff of the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.

Taylor is the longtime foreign policy specialist who feared that Trump's strategy could become "a nightmare" and who said the policy that he and his colleagues were executing might prompt him to quit.

Trump used a combination of personal aides, led by attorney Rudy Giuliani, and diplomats to encourage Ukraine to launch investigations that Trump thought might help him in the 2020 presidential race.

Democratic critics of the president who are carrying out the impeachment inquiry say that, in exchange, Washington would grant access to Trump and keep up military assistance to Ukraine — assistance that had been flowing since Ukraine was invaded by Russia in 2014.

The administration has denied making an explicit link between any investigations and aid.

Other diplomats are said to have told members of Congress that they weren't fully aware of Trump's and Giuliani's true aims until late summer, when — after military aid to Ukraine was frozen, prompting press reports and questions from Congress — they began to piece the story together.

"Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Taylor asked the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, in messages on Sept. 1.

That was the policy Trump had wrought, although the president is said to have told Sondland, who phoned him to ask about what the U.S. was doing, that there was no "quid pro quo."

The White House has gone back and forth as to the nature of the specific exchange between Washington and Kyiv, but it has confirmed and defended the substance of the policy.

Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters that diplomats work for the president, that foreign policy is necessarily political and that people should "get over it."

Trump also dismissed the impeachment inquiry on Monday as evidence that Democrats have no strategy to unseat him fairly in the 2020 election. The president said that he assumes he'll be impeached, which would lead to a trial in the Senate — one that Trump also assumes he'll win with the support he enjoys there from majority Republicans.

The outsider

National security and diplomatic specialists are said to have told Congress that they resented the involvement of an outsider, in Giuliani, and a few of them are understood to have opposed Trump's pressure strategy on its merits.

For one, it flouted the will of Congress, which had been authorizing and appropriating the military support to Ukraine for years. And for another reason, it sowed doubts about American resolve in Eastern Europe, to the detriment of Ukraine and the benefit of Russia, some argued.

That's what Taylor, Tuesday's witness, said to his counterparts.

"The message to the Ukrainians (and Russians) we send with the decision on security assistance is key," Taylor wrote in another text message in September. "With the hold" — the interruption in delivery of funding that Kyiv was expecting — "we have already shaken their faith in us. Thus my nightmare scenario."

The Democrats' depositions have taken place behind closed doors and so the picture that has emerged about their discoveries is incomplete. Reporters have had to rely in part on accounts given by others about what is being said in testimony or on only opening statements that have been made public.

Additions and deletions

The committees' witness on Wednesday is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper. She is a career Defense Department official who's responsible for policy toward Russia and Eastern Europe — including Ukraine.

Members and committee staff likely want to ask her for the Defense Department's perspective on the events of the past few months, given the key role the military has played in supplying weapons and other assistance to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian and Russian-backed groups in the east.

Trump and the White House have said one reason that military assistance to Ukraine was frozen was the U.S. wanted more assurances about Kyiv's commitment to fighting corruption.

The White House blocked that aid in the summer, even though, as NPR has revealed, the Defense Department had certified in May that Ukraine's corruption-fighting progress was sufficient to clear the way for about $250 million in assistance.

Cooper likely will be questioned about how much she or others in the Pentagon knew about the full picture of what was involved with the freeze that followed the green light from the Defense Department.

The road goes ever on

Lawmakers canceled the depositions they had planned for Thursday and Friday because the House instead is planning memorial events for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who chaired the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Two other prospective witnesses this week have said they won't show.

The acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russ Vought, scoffed at Democrats' inquiry on Twitter on Monday and vowed that neither he nor OMB's associate director of national security programs, Michael Duffey, would appear as requested.

The White House has declared Democrats' impeachment inquiry invalid because, among other reasons, the full House hasn't been able to cast a vote on whether to convene one.

That and other objections prompted White House counsel Pat Cipollone to notify House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the administration wouldn't play ball.

Trump's supporters in Congress — including Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia — also observe that for as much as Pelosi has sought to make the Ukraine affair the focus of the current impeachment efforts, Democrats' first impeachment proposals were filed, for various causes, years ago.

For many of the best-known prospective witnesses in the administration, including Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others, Cipollone's bulwark has held.

But the stream of agency-level experts and others has nonetheless continued, in part because witnesses have so far been unwilling to fight congressional subpoenas.

Pelosi, meanwhile, cites what she calls the broad discretion she has under the Constitution to pursue impeachment. The House doesn't need to vote, she argues — but she also hasn't ruled out a vote at some point.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.