Ambassador's Ukraine testimony leaves Trump struggling to respond

Joanna Walters in New York and Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump launched a relatively lackluster attack on Wednesday morning against the impeachment inquiry into his dealings with Ukraine and the devastating testimony on Capitol Hill the previous day of the most senior US diplomat in Kyiv, Bill Taylor.

Unlike some of his aggressive and fiercely personal attacks on opponents, the US president appeared to be struggling early on Wednesday in any attempt to discredit the explosive account given by Taylor – a career diplomat who discussed his role in detail with the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, earlier this year before accepting the post of acting ambassador to Ukraine.

Trump resorted to quoting, on Twitter, the Texas Republican congressman John Ratcliffe, who claimed on Fox News that Ukraine had not been aware that Trump was holding back congressionally approved military aid for the country when he requested an investigation into Joe Biden.

Trump had earlier repeated one of his most common protests, that investigations against him, whether the Trump-Ukraine impeachment inquiry or the previous Trump-Russia investigation conducted by the special counsel Robert Mueller, add up to nothing more than a “witch-hunt”.

He then added on Twitter on Wednesday morning that the fight to regain the majority in the House of Representatives for the Republicans in the 2020 election – after losing control in the 2018 midterm elections – is on.

On Tuesday, in 10 hours of testimony behind closed doors, Taylor provided congressional committees conducting impeachment hearings a detailed account of how Trump repeatedly sought to make a summit meeting for the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, at the White House and a military aid package to Ukraine conditional on Zelenskiy launching investigations into Trump’s political opponents.

Taylor’s testimony was the latest in a series of depositions by serving and former administration officials, as part of the impeachment inquiry, about Trump’s use of the presidency to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to procure compromising information on his political rivals. And it was the most detailed and damning to date.

The veteran diplomat said that soon after arriving in Kyiv, he became concerned “our relationship with Ukraine was being fundamentally undermined by an irregular informal channel of US policymaking, and by the withholding of vital security assistance for domestic political reasons”.

Taylor said this irregular channel was run by Trump through several emissaries: his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; the departing energy secretary, Rick Perry; the ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland; and the special Ukraine envoy, Kurt Volker.

They became focused solely on persuading Zelenskiy to announce investigations that would damage Democrats and especially Biden, the former vice-president and a leading contender to the be the 2020 Democratic nominee.

Democrats declared it to be the clearest account to date of Trump’s abuse of office in the Ukraine scandal.

The White House spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, issued a statement late on Tuesday denouncing the congressional hearings as “a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the constitution”.

According to Taylor’s statement, published by the Lawfare website, Sondland made clear that both aid and a White House summit were conditional on the launch of two investigations.

One into a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, which had employed Biden’s son Hunter. The second was into Ukraine’s role in the 2016 presidential election, a reference to a conspiracy theory that – counter to the consensus view of US intelligence agencies – held that it was Ukraine that had interfered in the vote in the Democrats’ favour, rather than Russia in favour of Trump.