WASHINGTON • The top US envoy to Ukraine has testified that a senior diplomat told him in early September that President Donald Trump made US security aid to Ukraine entirely dependent on a public promise to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden and the 2016 election.
Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor also quoted senior diplomat Gordon Sondland as saying Mr Trump wanted Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky "in a public box", according to a prepared statement to congressional committees on Tuesday.
The account offers what may be the most damaging revelations yet on the events that have spawned a House impeachment probe. It directly contradicts Mr Trump's assertions that there was no "quid pro quo" behind his July 25 phone conversation with Mr Zelensky.
Mr Taylor is a key witness because of his previously released text messages to colleagues expressing concern about back-channel Ukraine negotiations led by Mr Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Mr Taylor's exchanges with Mr Sondland - the US ambassador to the European Union who gave about US$1 million (S$1.36 million) to Mr Trump's inauguration - form a crucial part of the House inquiry.
"By mid-July, it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections," Mr Taylor said, referring to a company on whose board Mr Biden's son served.
"It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr Giuliani."
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that "President Trump has done nothing wrong - this is a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution. There was no quid pro quo".
Mr Taylor's account "further corroborates" the allegation that Mr Trump made the release of security aid dependent on the President's demands to go after his political rivals, said Representative Gerald Connolly, a Democrat who is on the House Oversight Committee.
Mr Taylor, a career diplomat, took over as acting ambassador after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cut short the term of the previous envoy, Ms Marie Yovanovitch, who was viewed by Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani as failing to support their agenda in Ukraine.
Mr Taylor corroborated some of the testimony of earlier witnesses, including former National Security Council (NSC) Russia expert Fiona Hill. Mr Taylor said he was told by Ms Hill of a July 10 meeting in which Mr Sondland tied a White House meeting sought by Mr Zelensky to proceeding with "investigations". Mr Taylor said then-national security adviser John Bolton was so irritated that he abruptly ended the meeting and told Ms Hill to brief White House lawyers.
He also said that during an NSC video conference on July 18, a staff person from the Office of Management and Budget, who was not identified, said a hold was placed on Ukraine security assistance until further notice at the President's direction to Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
In a July 20 conversation, Mr Taylor said, Mr Oleksandr Danyliuk, then secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, conveyed that Mr Zelensky "did not want to be used as a pawn in a US election campaign". Mr Taylor said he initially understood that Mr Trump was holding out on a White House meeting with Mr Zelensky as his leverage to force an investigation of the Bidens.
In early September, Mr Taylor said, Mr Tim Morrison, who replaced Ms Hill at the NSC, described a conversation in which Mr Sondland told Mr Zelensky's adviser Andriy Yermak during a meeting in Warsaw that US aid would not be released until Mr Zelensky committed to pursuing the Burisma probe.