WASHINGTON — The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine who questioned why military aid for Kyiv had been held up by the White House has hired a veteran Republican attorney to help him navigate a request from House Democrats to testify in their impeachment inquiry, according to a letter obtained by NBC News and sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.
Bill Taylor, who came out of retirement to serve as charge d'affaires in Kyiv in June, will be represented by John Bellinger, who served as a senior official in President George W. Bush's administration, including stints at the National Security Council and as the State Department's top lawyer, the sources said.
Taylor is expected to testify next Tuesday.
Bellinger, partner with the Arnold and Porter law firm, was one of a number of prominent "Never Trump" Republicans in the foreign policy establishment that publicly opposed Donald Trump's candidacy in 2016. He drafted an August 2016 letter signed by 50 senior officials, many of them Republicans, warning of the dangers of electing Trump as president, and predicting he would be the "most reckless President in American history."
Bellinger has since said that every word of the letter "has turned out to be true, and worse."
Taylor has emerged as a key witness based on recently released text messages between him and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker. Taylor expressed his concern about where the administration was headed in its approach to Ukraine's newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, warning against tying a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance to investigations meant to benefit Trump's re-election effort.
"As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," Taylor wrote to Sondland on Sept. 9, according to text messages released by the congressional committees conducting the impeachment inquiry.
The confrontation between the executive branch and Congress over the impeachment inquiry has put Taylor and other diplomats in a difficult bind.
The White House has blasted the impeachment inquiry as a politically motivated attack on the president without legal justification, and refused to cooperate. The State Department has ordered diplomats not to appear before House lawmakers for depositions.
But after House Democrats issued subpoenas to the former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, whose tenure was cut short by President Trump, and the U.S. ambassador to the EU, Sondland. Once they were faced with subpoenas, Yovanovitch chose to defy the State Department and appear on Friday and Sondland is due to testify later this week.
In her opening statement, Yovanovitch said she was recalled from her post at the request of the president even though one of her bosses told her she had done "nothing wrong." She expressed dismay that the U.S. government would remove an ambassador based, "as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives."
Trump's personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, had pushed for Yovanovitch's removal as he pressed Ukraine to investigate baseless corruption allegations against former vice president Joe Biden and his family.
Taylor, who had served as ambassador to Ukraine from 2006-2009, had retired from a long career in the State Department and was serving as executive vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace when he was recruited to work in Ukraine in June after Yovanovitch's exit.
"He will lead our team during this period of historic elections and transition," the U.S. embassy in Ukraine said of Taylor after he was appointed.
A graduate of West Point and a Vietnam veteran, Taylor has a reputation among his colleagues as a capable, reserved foreign service officer who cares deeply about supporting Ukraine's effort to counter Russian pressure.
The American Foreign Service Association, which acts as a union for civil servants at the State Department, said it has launched a legal defense fund to help those officials called to testify in the impeachment inquiry.