recapping impeachment

Recapping Impeachment: Bill Taylor Returns for One Last Mission

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Unable to keep up with the dramatic twists and turns of the ongoing Ukraine saga? Losing the thread of the impeachment hearing process? We’ll be recapping the latest development in installments on Intelligencer, from here until we get subpoenaed to appear before congress. This week: Bill Taylor’s testimony and Rudy Giuliani’s lawyer pals.

We really need to talk about Ukraine ambassador Bill Taylor’s testimony. (Critics are saying: “a lot of sighs and gasps!”) But first, let’s talk about Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. All great works of drama feature a memorable, show-stealing pair of clowns — your Rosencrantzes and Gildensterns, your Vladimirs and Estragons. In the drama of Ukraine-gate (a.k.a Ukraine-ghazi, a.k.a. Uncle Rudy’s Wild Ride), the questing couple whose artful failures reveal the icy abyss deep in the heart of human existence is the Ukrainian-Floridian lawyer duo Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.

Parnas and Fruman are the kind of guys you call “entrepreneurs” with very raised eyebrows; the kind of guys who scheme to sell liquified natural gas to a Ukranian state-owned energy company; the kind of guys, in other words, who are perfect informal associates of President Trump’s informal diplomatic channel in Ukraine. Through big-dollar donations to the GOP — and payments to Rudy — the allegedly Russian mob-affiliated Parnas and Fruman secured clout with congressional Republicans, and meetings with Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. at Mar-a-Lago. They used that influence to push for the firing of Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch (whom they deemed insufficiently cooperative in advancing their business goals), and advertised their ties to Trump when trying to sell Ukranian energy executives on the merits of their gas deal. Meanwhile, they did the president a solid by imploring Ukranian prosecutors to investigate Joe Biden.

Throughout this time, by the way, Parnas is posting photos of himself hanging out with Rudy and Trump to Instagram, making it, uh, not particularly credible when Trump says, “I don’t know them. I don’t know about them. I don’t know what they do.” For future reference, if you’re an Eastern European natural-gas entrepreneur who has a personal note of thanks from the president, post it to Stories, not the grid.

Alas, Parnas and Fruman couldn’t move their gas. And in pursuit of that ill-fated deal, they allegedly illegally funneled millions of dollars to former Texas Republican congressman Pete Sessions’s reelection campaign, which recently got them arrested on campaign-finance violation charges. Whoops! In court this week, Parnas’s attorney argued that some of the prosecutors’ evidence may be subject to executive privilege — the presidential power to withhold information in the name of the public interest. His reasoning: Parnas had hired Giuliani as a lawyer, at the same time that Giuliani was serving as the president’s lawyer — ergo, by the transitive property of executive attorney-client privilege … maybe Trump can make some of the evidence against Parnas go away? “I don’t know any more about how to invoke executive privilege than anyone else,” Parnas’s attorney assured reporters after the hearing. Well, fair enough.

Anyway: Bill Taylor. In a closed-door hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Donald Trump’s acting ambassador to Ukraine gave an exacting account of the president’s illicit diplomacy in Eastern Europe. Odd though it may seem, Taylor’s testimony proved more damaging to the president than his own administration’s lackadaisical confessions.

To understand how this could be the case, you need to acquaint yourself with William B. Taylor Jr. Like the Trump era’s previous paragons of bygone bureaucratic virtue (James Comey and Robert Mueller), Bill Taylor is “straight from central casting.” You could imagine him playing touch football on the lawn, or drinking scotch with a college professor who’s actually a CIA recruiter, or whatever it is that Waspy diplomatic elites are supposed to do. Neither a conservative movement apparatchik nor a deep state liberal, Taylor is the humble servant of American imperium par excellence. A child of the Cold War, Taylor still believes that partisanship stops at the water’s edge — or, at least, NATO’s eastern borders. He’s a West Point alumnus and Vietnam veteran, who has lent a hand to every White House since Reagan’s, typically in a role dedicated to preempting the penetration of Russian czardom (communist or otherwise) into Eastern Europe.

Taylor is no doubt a consummate professional, but you can imagine how a Washington Post kind of guy might react to a New York Post kind of president. The U.S. State Department has generally operated in the 20th century with a strict policy of saying the loud part (democracy, freedom) loud and the quiet part (American business interests, guns) quiet. Trump has operated with a loose policy of saying the loud part loud, the quiet part louder — and a new “definitely should be silent part” (the president’s personal political and/or business interests) at an audible volume. His brand of diplomacy in Ukraine directly betrays the conception of national purpose that has imbued Taylor’s world and vocation with meaning. Taylor did not abet the bombing of Vietnamese peasants to preserve the U.S. president’s power to employ foreign governments as opposition researchers; he did so to preserve America’s power to defend the liberal world order against the Kremlin.

Which is a long way of saying that the distinctive feature of Taylor’s testimony is its emphasis on the geopolitical stakes of Trump’s corruption. Poor Joe Biden is not the victim in Taylor’s narrative — Ukraine’s freedom fighters are. The other distinctive feature of the diplomat’s account is that it is comprehensive, thoroughly substantiated with primary source documents, and ostensibly untainted by any ham-fisted ass-covering (unlike that of one Sondland, Gordan).

Taylor’s story begins a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in Commando: An aging erstwhile diplomat is enjoying a quiet life in the private sector (as aging erstwhile diplomats do), when the secretary of State asks him to come out of retirement for one last mission. At first, Taylor hesitates. He knows the ambassador he’s being asked to replace, Marie Yovanovitch, is a first-class public servant. And he knows that she’s been ousted for unseemly reasons, and worries he could get caught in the same “web of political machinations.” But he’s also spent the better part of a decade following Russia’s incursions into Ukraine with alarm and exasperation. He had implored the Obama administration to send lethal aid to Ukranian forces, only to see his warnings ignored. He relishes the opportunity to beat back the Russian menace. So, when Yovanovitch tells him to accept the offer, Taylor takes her advice.

(Who spun the “web of political machinations” that ensnared former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch? That would be Rudy Giuliani’s Russian-American — or, more precisely, Soviet-Floridan — clients.)

But when our hero gets to Kiev, he quickly discovers something is rotten in the state of Ukraine. The United States appears to have two separate diplomatic channels in the country — an official one led by himself, and an informal one led by the president’s personal attorney, who is, uh, not really a traditional diplomat. And it becomes increasingly clear that these two teams don’t just have separate missions, but conflicting ones. Taylor and his allies are eager for Trump to host Ukraine’s new president at the White House. But Gordan Sondland — wealthy hotelier turned ambassador to the European Union turned Rudy Giuliani envoy — informs Taylor that if President Zelensky wants to see the Oval Office, he’ll first need to show that he isn’t “standing in the way of ‘investigations.’” Taylor is baffled. Another Giuliani associate, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, explains that Trump wants Zelensky to earn a White House visit by demonstrating a commitment to “rule of law, transparency, but also, specifically, cooperation on investigations to ‘get to the bottom of things.’” You know: things. Like, uh, Hunter Biden, and a tremendously stupid right-wing conspiracy theory about illicit Ukrainian aid to the Clinton campign in 2016.

For Taylor, the president’s bid to trade a White House visit for investigations into his domestic opposition is discomfiting. But he’s far more alarmed by his subsequent discovery that military aid to Ukraine has ceased flowing — and this alarm is compounded by the fact that, at first, no one in the White House’s official policy channel seems to know why.

Outraged and confused, Taylor makes a visit to the front line in northern Donbass. He meets with a Ukrainian military commander who thanks the diplomat for his nation’s much-needed aid. The ambassador bites his tongue and swallows his shame. He then gazes out at “the armed and hostile Russian-led forces on the other side of the damaged bridge across the line of contact,” and thinks, “Over 13,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war, one or two a week. More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance.” This is the emotional center of Taylor’s tale. Clive Cussler, eat your heart out!

And then Taylor’s story reaches its climax:

On September 8, Ambassador Sondland and I spoke on the phone. He said he had talked to President Trump as I had suggested a week earlier, but that President Trump was adamant that President Zelenskyy, himself, had to “clear things up and do it in public.” President Trump said it was not a “quid pro quo.” Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelenskyy and Mr. Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelenskyy did not “clear things up” in public, we would be at a “stalemate.” I understood a “stalemate” to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance. Ambassador Sondland said that this conversation concluded with President Zelenskyy agreeing to make a public statement in an interview with CNN.

Why is this so damaging? Well, remember “no quid pro quo”? “No quid pro quo” has been the “no collusion” of Ukraine-o-rama. Ever since the CIA’s whistle-blower blew, you know, the whistle, and Donald Trump’s shadow diplomacy in Kiev came to light, the White House has recited “no quid pro quo” like a mantra, cited to reporters, to supporters, while doing yoga, etc. As with “no collusion,” the point of the president’s new refrain is to make his defense as simple — and his opponents’ burden of proof as formidable — as possible. It has been the ONE WEIRD TRICK (Democrats HATE it!) of the impeachment process: To defend their man against the slings and arrows of outrageous facts, Trump’s apologists needed only to memorize four words. To prove that Trump had committed impeachable offenses, however, his adversaries needed something akin to a video recording of the president telling his counterpart in Kiev, “If you do not investigate Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., I, Donald John Trump, will let Vladimir Putin paint the Donbass red with Ukrainian blood, and, by the way, I am absolutely not joking.”

As with “no collusion,” “no quid pro quo” set a threshold for gross misconduct so absurdly high it would seem impossible for the president to clear, even accidentally. And yet, as always, our superlative president outdid himself. In late September, Trump strongly implied to reporters that he had held back congressionally ordered aid to Ukraine to coerce Zelensky into investigating “corruption” — a phrase that he had literally just established as a synonym for Biden. Last week, the acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announced at a press conference that Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine so as to force its government to investigate a right-wing conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. Mulvaney instructed those who found such an arrangement offensive to “get over it.” But the Constitution, apparently, gives the Executive branch the inalienable right to “backsies.” Hours later — after remembering the White House’s four-word defense — Mulvaney released a statement clarifying that he actually did not say all those words that he had just said. Thus, with the executive authority to a “do-over” duly invoked, Lindsey Graham could tell Axios on HBO that he would gladly support impeachment, “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo.” One prominent GOP defense of Trump has been that the Ukrainians were never told why their aid had been held up — ergo, whatever the president’s intentions, there was effectively “no quid pro quo.”

Taylor’s testimony nullifies that argument.

But Taylor’s account also reveals that the president never really saw “no quid pro quo” as a line of defense, anyway. Trump, a creature of television and public relations, thinks of language not as a tool for describing reality, but for dictating it — like a sovereign citizen at a traffic stop, or a 3-year-old. If the president says there was no “quid pro quo” — and a critical mass of GOP senators and right-wing media pretend to believe him — then for 40 percent of registered voters, the facts are clear. The phrase has always been less of an argument than a spell: Close your eyes, tap your heels together three times, and say “there’s no quid pro quo, there’s no quid pro quo, there’s no quid pro quo” — and poof, any illicit tit-for-tat exchange becomes magically legitimate.

So how are Trump’s fellow mantra-chanters responding? Congressional Republicans are no strangers to mythmaking. But some retain Taylor’s instinct to put empire before party using the brave and time-honored strategy of keeping mum and playing dumb in public, while whispering grave concerns behind closed doors. Another younger-leaning faction — whose worldview owes less to William F. Buckley’s anti-communism than Rush Limbaugh’s anti-liberalism — has enthusiastically enlisted in Trump’s latest war on reality. Two dozen GOP lawmakers — some of our nation’s finest car-dealership owners and fraternity brothers — muscled their way past Capitol Hill police and into the private chambers of the House Intelligence Committee, shouting that they’ve only resorted to such anarchic measures because Democrats have taken the unprecedented, “Soviet style” step of holding closed-door committee hearings. (Congressional inquiries, of course, often begin with closed-door committee hearings. The GOP opened its 2012 probe of the Benghazi attack with such private testimony.)

Which strain of Republicanism will prevail? The one that sees anti-Democrat propaganda as a tool for advancing American global dominance, or American global dominance as a tool for generating anti-Democrat propaganda? How quickly will Lindsey Graham reverse whatever position he’s taken, again? Tune in next week.

Recapping Impeachment: Bill Taylor Back for One Last Mission