The U.S. diplomat who questioned Trump's Ukraine scheme
One person stands out in the flurry of impeachment-related texts cascading onto Washington this week: The guy who says what’s happening is “crazy” and that he might have to quit.
William Taylor, the veteran diplomat in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, is being hailed within foreign policy circles as a hero of sorts — a straight shooter who plays by the rules even in a chaotic political environment.
In texts with two other top diplomats, Taylor objected to what some suspect to be an effort by President Donald Trump to withhold military aid to Ukraine until it investigated one of his political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Whether Taylor knew those texts would one day be public is unclear, but friends and associates say that either in person or in print, he’ll tell you exactly what’s on his mind.
“He’s quiet, very smart, very measured. He’s also forthright. He says what he thinks,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former senior State Department official who’s long known Taylor.
Another former U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was more blunt: “He’s the only honorable man in this disgusting drama.”
Taylor declined to comment for this article. But after two weeks of rapid Ukraine-related revelations now fueling a House Democrat-led impeachment inquiry, the sudden appearance of his name jolted observers of the drama.
One of his texts in particular crystallized the concerns in Washington: “As I said on the phone,” Taylor texted on Sept. 9, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Throughout a lengthy career, Taylor has worked in several hot spots, including as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006-2009. He had been serving as the executive vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace when he was asked to return to Kyiv after the ambassador there, Marie Yovanovitch, was pulled out early in May in circumstances House Democrats also are probing.
Taylor’s texts were among documents the former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, Kurt Volker, handed over to lawmakers as part of a lengthy deposition Thursday. The text messages included conversations between Volker, Taylor and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
They appear to show that the diplomats were aware of Trump’s desire for Ukraine’s new government to get involved in investigations of the U.S. president’s political rivals, including events surrounding the 2016 campaign.
Separate documents since have shown that Trump specifically wanted Ukraine to look into Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. There’s no evidence that either Biden committed any wrongdoing. But Trump, and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, were nonetheless agitating for another look by Ukraine.
In the texts, Volker and Sondland in particular appear to try to make it clear to the Ukrainians that a White House visit or even a phone call with Trump would be conditioned on them agreeing to an investigation, though the exact parameters are not clear.
Taylor appears wary early on. In a July 21 text, for instance, he points out to Sondland that the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenksy, “is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.”
Sondland replies: “Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.”
Zelensky, a former comedian, won the Ukrainian presidency in April. Given Ukraine’s reliance on U.S. military assistance in its war with Russia, diplomats on both sides wanted Trump and Zelensky to establish a good rapport.
A few days later, on July 25, Trump spoke to Zelensky and repeatedly pressed him to investigate the Bidens, according to a detailed call memo released by the White House. That call is at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
Weeks later, after reports that the Trump administration had put on hold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine, Taylor again voiced outrage.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he asked in a Sept. 1 text.
Sondland’s reply? “Call me.”
A week later, Taylor expresses frustration over what appears to be the possibility that Ukraine’s president may give an interview to the press that the White House wants, but that Kyiv still might not get the military aid it is requesting.
“The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.),” he writes.
The following day, he and Sondland have a more tense exchange:
“The message to the Ukrainians (and Russians) we send with the decision on security assistance is key. With the hold, we have already shaken their faith in us. Thus my nightmare scenario,” Taylor writes Sept. 9.
Minutes later, he adds: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
To that, Sondland replies: “I Believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been clear no quid pro quo's of any kind.” He goes on to add that they should stop the texting.
Some former U.S. diplomats expressed discomfort with the extensive use of texting as part of the policy-making process. They noted that it’s generally preferable to use State Department email or other means so that there’s a proper record kept for the future.
But others say that texting is increasingly a key tool for diplomats everywhere, including those of other countries, and that its use does not necessarily indicate ill-intent.
Andrew Weiss, a Eurasia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that Taylor was willing to voice his objections even though he knew that could put him at odds with Trump’s political appointees and other conservative backers.
He must have known that Yovanovitch, the former ambassador, had been pulled out a few months before her tenure in Kyiv was due to end after coming under sustained attack from Giuliani and elements of the conservative media who claimed she was anti-Trump.
“He was explaining that major harm was being done to U.S.-Ukraine relations,” Weiss added. “That it would redound to Russia’s benefit and that he wouldn’t be part of it.”
Taylor’s diplomatic work has included coordinating U.S. government assistance for places like Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of the former Soviet Union. He has degrees from West Point and Harvard. His Army career included tours in Vietnam and Germany.
A former State Department official said that after what happened to Yovanovitch, U.S. diplomats in Kyiv were happy to have a veteran like Taylor at the helm.
“He was a salve for those wounds,” the former official said.
Yovanovitch is due to give a deposition to Congress next week, as is Sondland. Given the revelations this week, Taylor might soon find himself beckoned to Capitol Hill, too.