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Bill Taylor served as the top American diplomat in Ukraine following the dismissal of Amb. Marie Yovanovitch. The former ambassador was a key witness in the House impeachment inquiry and subsequently left his post. Taylor sits down with Nick Schifrin to discuss the firing of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, his view of Sec. of State Mike Pompeo and why Ukraine is a critical strategic ally of the U.S.
Bill Taylor served as the top American diplomat in Ukraine following the dismissal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was forced out early.
Taylor said he agreed to accept the post reluctantly, calling the environment both in Kyiv and the USA a snake pit.
The former ambassador went on to serve as a key witness in the House impeachment inquiry. He departed his post early this year, and sat down this afternoon with Nick Schifrin.
Few people had a more front-line view of the Trump administration's policy toward Ukraine than Ambassador Bill Taylor. He was in Kyiv from June 2019 to January of this year. He also served as the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine during the George W. Bush administration.
Welcome back to "NewsHour," Ambassador Bill Taylor.
Ambassador William Taylor:
Thank you, Nick.
This afternoon, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who, of course, testified in the impeachment trial against President Trump, was escorted from the building, from his job on the National Security Council staff.
And this is what his lawyer, Ambassador David Pressman, said this afternoon — quote — "He followed orders, he obeyed his oath, he served his country, even when doing so was fraught with danger and personal peril. For that, the most powerful man in the world, buoyed by the silent, the pliable, and the complicit, has decided to exact revenge."
You're a veteran. Did Vindman follow orders, and did the president exact revenge?
Alex Vindman did follow orders.
He's been a total professional the times I have had the opportunity to deal with Alex. He tried to stay nonpolitical, focused, professional. He knew Ukraine very well, obviously, cared about it, cared about the United States. So, this is disappointing that it ended this way.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently questioned an NPR reporter after a difficult interview that Americans don't care about Ukraine.
Why do you think Americans should care about Ukraine?
I think Americans should care about Ukraine because Ukraine is the front line against Russia.
Russia is attacking us, and they are going through Ukraine. So, they — the Russians are attacking Ukraine. They are attacking Europe. And they are attacking the United States. And Ukraine is the front line. We should support the Ukrainians when they push back against the Russians. That's why we should care.
And there is a literal front line. Ukraine is the only country at war against Europe.
And you, for years, have been advocating to send lethal aid to Ukraine, things like anti-tank weapons, anti-sniper systems. The Obama administration decided not to send that aid, for fear it would lead to a conflict against Russia.
The Trump administration decided, and you advocated, for — to actually send that aid. Has that aid increased the conflict with Russia at all?
That aid was meant to and has, I believe, deterred further Russian aggression against Ukraine. That's the purpose of that aid. The — those missiles that you described, the anti-tank missiles, those are very capable. The Russians know it. The Russians know that the Ukrainians have these missiles.
And the Russians are now very loath to attack. So they have been very useful and effective.
And that was the Trump administration's policy. That was the policy you enacted, of course, in Kyiv.
And yet — and yet we had Rudy Giuliani and allies suggesting that aid should be withheld until Ukrainians announced investigations into 2016 and Joe Biden.
And, in August, you wrote a cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the first cable you said that you had ever written directly to a secretary of state, expressing your concerns.
What did it say, as much as you can say? And why do you think Pompeo never responded?
Because those are fairly unusual. They're very unusual, first person.
I wanted to be sure that he got it, and I was assured that he got it. And the process, the system ensures that that kind of cable goes to the secretary, so I know he got it. And that's what I wanted to be sure happened.
That is, I wanted to be sure he understood the importance of security assistance to Ukraine and to us and to the United States. It's important that we support them, for the reasons that I mentioned earlier.
And that's what I put in the cable, because I thought that maybe it was a misunderstanding, maybe they — it wasn't clear to people in Washington, in particular, the secretary, but also the other members of the Cabinet, that the importance of this assistance was in our benefit.
If you were so concerned, why not pick up the phone and call him? Or why not even resign?
I was ready to resign, if that had happened,.
And I did pick up the phone and talk to his immediate confidant, Ulrich Brechbuhl.
So, you no doubt the secretary got the message directly from you in every way possible?
I have no doubt.
Secretary Pompeo, of course, went to Kyiv.
Were you told that he could not be seen with you?
No, I was not told that.
I was told that it would be a good idea for me to hand over my responsibilities on the 2nd of January to my deputy. And she became the charge.
Secretary Pompeo's allies have this narrative, that he privately resisted Giuliani, he privately resisted President Trump's desire to fire your predecessor, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, and then, when he couldn't resist anymore, he turned to you, Bill Taylor, thinking that you, Ambassador Taylor, would continue the policy that they had going.
Do you believe Pompeo did enough?
We now know, because of some tapes of Lev Parnas…
Associate of Rudy Giuliani.
Associated with Rudy Giuliani — that the president had made it clear a year-and-a-half ago, so spring of 2018.
In fact, the year before Marie Yovanovitch was ultimately fired.
And that suggests to me that someone — and I have to believe it was Secretary Pompeo — resisted that.
If the notion is that Pompeo might have resisted this criticism or skepticism from the president, the other side is, Masha Yovanovitch, Marie Yovanovitch's words herself.
She's written in The Washington Post just yesterday — quote — "This administration, through acts of omission and commission, has undermined our democratic institutions, making the public question the truth, and leaving public servants without the support and example of ethical behavior that they need to do their jobs and advanced U.S. interests."
Do you agree with that?
I do. I do.
Masha is the top notch of the diplomatic corps. And she deserves and deserved all the support necessary, as I say, all the support that could be provided.
I believe she got some support during the lead-up to that. In the end, it wasn't enough.
In the end, the president and his allies have said the military aid got to Ukraine, the policy never actually changed.
Do you believe that U.S. support for Ukraine has been affected by impeachment and also the actions and the statements by this administration over the last year-and-a-half?
I believe that the Ukrainians had reason to be concerned about the strength of U.S. support.
There has been no confirmed U.S. ambassador in Kyiv since Ambassador Yovanovitch left last May. There was this slowdown, pause in the security assistance that they need in order to defend themselves against the Russians, but, even more important, to have the confidence to negotiate against the Russians.
That's been paused. And there have been a lot of people leaving this administration who knew something about and cared a lot about Ukraine out of this administration.
Ambassador Bill Taylor, thank you very much.
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