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How Ambassador Taylor’s ‘stunning’ testimony could affect the impeachment inquiry

Bill Taylor, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified Tuesday as part of the House impeachment inquiry. Taylor’s detailed explanation of how U.S. military aid and the White House meeting that Ukraine’s president desired were both contingent upon investigations of President Trump’s Democratic rivals drew surprised gasps from the room. Yamiche Alcindor reports and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The congressional impeachment inquiry now has critical new evidence tying President Trump to possible abuse of power. It came today from the man running the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

    White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A new day, a new startling witness in the growing impeachment inquiry. This time, it was acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor.

    Taylor delivered a 15-page opening statement that stunned the room. Taylor said Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had been told by President Trump — quote — "that he wasn't asking for a quid pro quo, but President Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference."

    Freshman Democrat Andy Levin of Michigan called Taylor's testimony disturbing.

  • Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich.:

    All I have to say is that, in my 10 short months in Congress, it's not even noon, right, and this is the — my most disturbing day in Congress.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Taylor had been ambassador to Ukraine a decade ago. He agreed to fill in again in June, after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was abruptly removed.

    In text messages to Sondland, Taylor voiced his concerns. He called it — quote — "crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." Sondland then replied: "The president has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo's of any kind" and — quote — "I suggest we stop the back and forth by text."

    Today, House Democrats said those messages and Taylor's deposition are central to their impeachment inquiry. Meanwhile, there was bipartisan backlash to President Trump comparing impeachment to lynching.

    Early today, President Trump tweeted that — quote — "All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here, a lynching."

    The blowback came quickly. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn:

  • Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.:

    Well, I think to have the president classify a constitutional remedy to an unlawful, egregious act such as lynching is beneath the dignity of the office of president of the United States.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, also spoke out.

  • Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.:

    There is no question that the impeachment process is the closest thing of a political death row trial, so I get his absolute rejection of the process. I wouldn't use the word lynching.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    GOP leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell distanced themselves from the president's language.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    Given the history in our country, I wouldn't compare this to a lynching.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of President Trump, defended him.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    This is a lynching in every sense. This is un-American.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said this:

  • Hogan Gidley:

    He's not comparing himself to those dark times. Whether you're white, black, brown, red, it doesn't matter. His policies have lifted all the boats in this country, and that is the story.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    All this comes as reports suggest Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungary's far-right leader Viktor Orban negatively influenced President Trump's view of Ukraine. Both countries view Ukraine as hostile to their own interests.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Yamiche joins me now, even as this story continues to develop.

    So, Yamiche, it's pretty clear that Ambassador Taylor, what he had to say startled lawmakers in what he had to say about the administration, in exchange for information about what happened in 2016 and going forward about Joe Biden, that the ambassador was saying the administration clearly withheld military aid.

    But what more did we learn about what he had to say today?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, came to Capitol Hill and delivered stunning testimony.

    I spoke to several people who were in the room, and they told me that there were audible gasps and that people were really sighing and really surprised by the fact that Bill Taylor was laying out what he believes was a pressure campaign by President Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to really pressure Ukraine to investigate Democrats for his own political gain.

    I want to walk through some of that 15-page opening statement, because it was really stunning, even as Bill Taylor spoke for hours.

    So, some of the things he said was, Ambassador Sondland — now, he is the E.U. ambassador — the ambassador to the European Union — said that he had talked to President Zelensky and Mr. Yermak — now, that's a top aide to President Zelensky — and told them that although there wasn't a quid pro quo, if President Zelensky didn't clear things up in public, we would be at a — quote — "stalemate. I understood stalemate to mean that Ukraine wouldn't receive much needed military assistance."

    He went on to say that: "Everything was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance."

    So, what you saw there was Bill Taylor really walking lawmakers through what he felt was a pressure campaign to get Ukraine to do things to benefit President Trump politically.

    And it's also stunning to put in that statement that Bill Taylor said he pushed back on Ambassador Gordon Sondland and said, you know, why is President Trump doing this? It seems crazy. And Gordon Sondland told him, well, President Trump is a businessman, and that he feels as though he needs to get what's owed to him before he signs.

    And Bill Taylor essentially said, well, President Trump isn't really owed anything from Ukraine. And Gordon Sondland basically doubled down and said the president needed to get what he wanted to get before this military aid would go to Ukraine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, given that, how does this fit — how did — what Ambassador Taylor had to say, how does this fit into the overall impeachment inquiry at this point?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Democrats say that Bill Taylor is now a central part of the impeachment inquiry.

    They say that his testimony is really evidence that President Trump was engaged in this quid pro quo. Now, a number of lawmakers came out praising Bill Taylor for his words.

    I want to also, though, explain that Bill Taylor talked specifically about the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Here's what he said.

    He said his involvement — quote — "shows how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani."

    So, essentially, he's saying Mr. Giuliani, Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, his work was intertwined, and that that was troubling to him.

    That dovetails and really goes in with what all the other people have been saying to lawmakers that they have come to Capitol Hill. The ambassador to Ukraine, the former ambassador to Ukraine, that was removed said the same thing.

    And really what we're seeing is a clearer and clearer picture of the fact that Rudy Giuliani was doing the president's bidding. But there are lawmakers that say that this is really just the beginning of this and that Bill Taylor is going to be possibly leading to Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, being called back to Congress.

    They're also saying that his testimony might accelerate the impeachment inquiry. So we are going to have to really see how these developments continue, as Bill Taylor might just be the beginning of other people being called back to Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, separately, Yamiche, you did refer and you were reporting on the reaction to the president comparing this inquiry to a lynching.

    We heard what some members of Congress have had to say today about that. But I know you have been talking to the White House.

    How does this — what does this say about how they view this impeachment inquiry and how they're dealing with it?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Trump understands what a lynching is.

    And he rally was trying the use the strongest language that he felt possible to explain the fact that he feels as though he's being wronged by this impeachment inquiry.

    The White House is saying that he didn't mean to compare himself to the mass murder of African-Americans, which is what lynching refers to. But, that said, there are a lot of people, including members of the president's own party, who are really up in arms with his use of the language of lynching.

    And we should remain — or we should explain to people that lynching is something that happened between 1882 and 1958, according to the NAACP, and about 4,700 Americans were lynched, and the vast majority of them were African-Americans.

    So there are people who are still alive whose family members were lynched who were killed just because they were African-American. So, this is really painful history that President Trump was talking about.

    But, that being said, there are Democrats who are really saying that this is more of the same from President Trump, that he's been someone who has been using, they consider, racist language and other things that have really been making race relations in this country harder and harder and the divisions deeper.

    But there are Republicans who say that the president should feel wronged because they feel as though the impeachment inquiry is unfair.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So interesting to hear the different reactions from the two Republican U.S. senators from South Carolina, Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, to the president's comments.

    Yamiche Alcindor, reporting for us from the Capitol today, thank you, Yamiche.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks so much.

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