By Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, a key witness in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, arrived on Tuesday to testify to lawmakers eager to hear about concerns he raised about Trump withholding security aid to Ukraine to help with a domestic political campaign.
William Taylor, a former Army officer and career U.S. diplomat who as the charge d’affaires is the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, walked past journalists without answering questions as he made his way into the U.S. Capitol to testify behind closed doors to the three House of Representatives committees leading the inquiry.
Taylor’s appearance marks the latest development in the political drama unfolding in Washington that threatens Trump’s presidency even as he pursues re-election in 2020. Trump added to the controversy by proclaiming himself the victim of a “lynching,” language swiftly condemned by many lawmakers.
Trump’s administration has not cooperated in the inquiry, seeking to block testimony and documents. The House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena to compel Taylor’s testimony after the State Department had directed him not to appear, an official involved in the inquiry said.
The Democratic-led House is focusing on the Republican president’s request during a July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy that he investigate a domestic political rival, Joe Biden, and Biden’s son Hunter.
Former vice president Biden is a leading contender to become the Democratic 2020 presidential nominee to face Trump. Hunter Biden had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Trump’s request – described by Democrats as an improper invitation for foreign interference in an American election – came after the U.S. president had withheld $391 million in security aid to Ukraine approved by the U.S. Congress to help combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. Zelenskiy agreed to the request. The aid was later released.
Taylor mentioned his concern about the withholding of U.S. aid on Sept. 9 to Kurt Volker, the State Department’s then special envoy to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in a text message provided to investigators and later made public.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote.
Taylor was tapped to serve as charge d’affaires in Kiev, where he had served as U.S. ambassador from 2006 to 2009, after Trump in May abruptly recalled Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who had come under attack from his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor had portrayed her as resisting his efforts to push Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Yovanovitch testified in the impeachment inquiry on Oct. 11.
Democratic lawmakers are eager to hear from Taylor. They want to know about the text messages as well as any telephone calls he may have had with other U.S. officials and with Giuliani. Trump in May instructed senior U.S. officials to work with Giuliani on Ukraine policy.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and accused Democrats of trying to oust him to prevent him from being re-elected. He also has called on his fellow Republicans to get tougher and fight harder against the fast-moving impeachment inquiry.
If the Democratic-led House approves of articles of impeachment – formal charges – against Trump, the Republican-led Senate would then hold a trial on whether to remove Trump from office. Few Republicans have shown an inclination to remove Trump from office though some have begun to express rising concerns about his policies including U.S. troop withdrawals in the Syria war.
In a Twitter post on Tuesday, Trump wrote, “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!” The comment drew sharp criticism from African American lawmakers in light of the past U.S. history of lynching of black people.
“Lynching is a reprehensible stain on this nation’s history, as is this President. We’ll never erase the pain and trauma of lynching, and to invoke that torture to whitewash your own corruption is disgraceful,” Senator Kamala Harris, a Democratic presidential candidate, wrote on Twitter.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, also voiced unease with Trump’s word choice, telling reporters, “That’s not the language I would use.”
But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham defended the president and also called the impeachment inquiry a “lynching.”
Two other witnesses are expected to give testimony this week in the impeachment inquiry.
A Pentagon official, deputy assistant defence secretary Laura Cooper, is due to testify on Wednesday. Cooper has worked on Russia and Ukraine policy at the Pentagon. Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, is expected to appear in a closed session on Saturday, instead of Wednesday, as was originally scheduled, according to a source familiar with the process.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan, Doina Chiacu and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Sandra Maler)