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Why William Taylor’s testimony is central to the impeachment inquiry

House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry said Wednesday that the investigation will go public next week, with senior State Department officials scheduled for open hearings beginning November 13th. Meanwhile, Amb. William Taylor's deposition transcript illuminates why U.S. military aid to Ukraine was withheld. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, next week, the impeachment inquiry into President Trump will go public.

    House Democrats' announcement comes as they release a transcript of a closed-door deposition that sheds new light on the heart of the impeachment inquiry, why U.S. military aid to Ukraine was withheld.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, House Democrats today released the testimony of Bill Taylor.

    He is the acting ambassador to Ukraine back in 2006 to 2009, appointed by President George W. Bush. And he served under both parties' administrations since the mid 1980s. He's also a West Point grad and Vietnam vet.

    And his testimony has been one of the most important for Democrats, who say it provides the clearest explanation for what President Trump and his allies were demanding before Ukraine could receive nearly $400 million of military assistance.

    And so we turn to our to dynamic duo, Lisa Desjardins, who's here with me, Yamiche Alcindor.

    Welcome to you both.

    Lisa, let's start with you.

    What did we learn today? What are the main takeaways from this testimony?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, let's break down these hundreds of pages.

    As you say, Democrats think he's the most important. And one of the reasons is because he was in meetings where he said it was clear that President Trump was ordering kind of this quid pro quo, as some see it.

    Let's look at that first. He is the — he testified that he was told that Trump himself ordered that Ukrainian aid money frozen. Again, he was told that secondhand, but he's the one testifying to it.

    He also testifies that very soon after he took over that position as acting ambassador, he learned of irregular back channels, including Rudy Giuliani, the president's attorney, and that diplomats were cut out.

    This is something he said he hadn't experienced before. Why does that matter? He goes into great detail in this testimony that he sees this has grave consequences. This was not just in a regular back channel to help the president, but he saw it as something that specifically, in his words, ran counter to longstanding U.S. goals with Ukraine.

    He said one of our key pillars of U.S. policy with Ukraine was being threatened.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And really suggesting that that security assistance was life or death for Ukraine and its future.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right. This is a diplomat who spent a lot of time thinking about this. This is his personal view.

    But, to him, this was a dramatic situation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Yamiche, let's look at that.

    What does that order to freeze military assistance to Ukraine look like? And, according to Taylor, how specific was it?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A careful reading of this transcript of William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, really shows why Democrats think of him as a central figure and why he's going to be one of the first people publicly testifying in those open hearings as part of this impeachment inquiry.

    So we had some really clear quotes that I want to walk people through.

    The first quote is, he says: "That was my clear understanding. Security assistance money would not come until the president" — and that's the president of Ukraine — "committed to pursue the investigation of the Bidens." So that's really clear there.

    He goes on to say, "He" — and he's talking about the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. "He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky," the president of Ukraine, "in a box by making a public statement about ordering such investigations."

    So, right there, you have William Taylor really laying out in very clear and short terms what he really believed President Trump was trying to do.

    It's also important to note that Ambassador Taylor was — really had some pause when it came to taking that post in Ukraine. And he goes on to say this.

    And I'm going to again read from the transcript: "I was concerned that there was, I think I put it, a snake pit in Kiev" — that's the capital city of Ukraine — "and a snake pit here." He's talking about Washington, D.C. "And I was not sure that I could usefully serve in that context."

    And what he's referring to there is the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani making frequent trips to Ukraine, and he says that he was meeting with people who he didn't think were credible, and really launching this kind of shadow campaign, the shadow foreign policy.

    And he was — he was really concerned that he wouldn't be able to work in those conditions. He did, of course, go on to take that post.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Yamiche, we certainly saw some Republicans pushing back today, and we saw that in two ways.

    One, outside of the deposition room, we heard from lawmakers today. And, also, inside the deposition room, we got to read what Republican lawyers were asking Taylor . What were those two defenses of the president?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president has continuously said that Republicans need to show fierce loyalty to him, and he wants to see them defending him on social media, on TV and in interviews.

    So here's Senator Lindsey Graham today really defending the president in clear terms.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    What I can tell you about the Trump policy toward the Ukraine, it was incoherent. It depends on who you talk to. They seemed to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    This is really a remarkable statement coming from a close ally of the president, because he's essentially saying that President Trump and U.S. officials carrying out foreign policy when it comes to Ukraine were simply not organized enough to have a quid pro quo.

    That's a new type of defense that we haven't seen Republicans making. And Republicans have had to change their messaging and their defense of the president several times.

    The other thing Republicans were saying today was that Ambassador Taylor — again, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine — that he wasn't a fact witness, when, in fact, he actually had several conversations with people about the president's intent to have Ukraine investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

    The other thing to note is that Republicans essentially were saying in the deposition that there were Ukrainian officials targeting President Trump when he was running, when he was a candidate for president in 2016.

    And they were asking questions very specifically about officials that were working for the former president of Ukraine. And that's important, because the president told officials in his government that he believed that Ukrainians were trying to take him down. He said that over and over again.

    So you had Republican lawyers essentially making that point as they were interviewing William Taylor in the room during the depositions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lisa, I just want to turn to you quickly.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes, quickly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's next? Open hearings next week. How does that play out?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let me just summarize this verbally for you.

    Those hearings, we will have two days next week. And, as you can see, this will pop up right there. But let's look quickly. Congress is only supposed to be in session for a few more weeks after that through December.

    So I think coming back to me, Nick, let me just summarize this really quickly. There are so many lawmakers, I want to tell you, who would like to finish this up by that end date. You saw the 20th, have that House vote by the 20th. But it's not clear if they can do it or not.

    Hopefully, we will get more time to talk about it another time. And I have a feeling we will.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I think we will here. We got lots — lots to go on this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lisa Desjardins, Yamiche Alcindor, thanks very much.

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