William Taylor Jr., key witness to impeachment, discreetly returns home to Washington

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The framework was an economic conference sponsored by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who spoke volumes about the uncertain state of the country. The nearest airport to Mariupol was destroyed in the fighting. For many participants, the quickest route to the conference was a rough 18-hour train ride.

Among the great attractions was the opportunity to present the ideas of the President of Ukraine to stimulate the economy. Each of the hundreds of participants had two minutes.

The other big lure was Taylor. Sympathizers invaded him. The war-ridden governor of the Luhansk region, still partially controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists, told him that he had read all of his prepared testimony and quoted some of the kind words that Taylor had said to About Ukraine.

At the beginning of January, Taylor was back in the suburbs of Washington, trying to understand the surreal whirlwind of his stay in Ukraine, his testimony before Congress and the resentful consequences.

His mind turned to Mariupol and then to Trump, whose antipathy towards Ukraine was, for him, among the greatest mysteries of all.

"I'm trying to figure out where [it] he says comes from this deep suspicion of this little country. I mean it's 44 million people. It's not so bad. "

Last week, Trump banished Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the White House suggested he should face military discipline for testifying against him. Vindman returned to the Pentagon, which said it did not investigate him.

Marie Yovanovitch, forced last spring from Trump as Kiev ambassador to Kiev, left the government and delivered a powerful speech lamenting the costs to the State Department and America’s position in the world. "An amoral, guessing foreign policy that substitutes threats, fear and confusion for trust cannot work in the long term," she warned on Thursday.

The consequences for Taylor, who was hastily dispatched to Ukraine as an emergency replacement for Yovanovitch, were calmer. He is currently on vacation, catching up with his family and planning his next move.

Like Yovanovitch, he had ample time to think about the damage. Taylor dedicated his life to service in the vast foreign policy institutions that the United States built after the war. From his days as an infantry officer in Vietnam, he lived according to their rules, which he considered "heavy, but thorough," a necessity for a great power whose routine decisions could change the course of millions of lives in distant places like Kiev or Mariupol.

Trump was the first President Taylor served who held these institutions in contempt. He doubted their loyalty and distrusted their expertise, often preferring the thoughts of television commentators or his personal conspiracy lawyer to the experts of his staff at the White House and in his intelligence sessions.

Most Americans describe Trump in Manichaean terms - he is brilliant or terrible, compassionate or irremediably cruel. For Taylor, it was beyond his comprehension.

"I don't understand the president," he said. "I can't get into his head to see what motivates him and what he thinks. "

Sometimes he wondered if it was even worth a try.

"It is no longer hypothetical"

Last spring, Taylor stepped out of government and served as executive vice president of the US Institute of Peace, a non-partisan think tank created by Congress, when George Kent, former State Department colleague and future Witness to the removal investigation, asked him if he could "Hypothetically" wish to become an ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovitch was fighting a smear campaign spearheaded by interested Ukrainian politicians and the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The next day, Kent called him back. "It is no longer hypothetical," he said.

Taylor's wife Deborah urged him to reject the job. Of great concern was the reputation of her husband. Almost five decades of government service have instilled in him a respect for his chain of command and an instinct for compromise. Both were life-threatening traits in the Trump administration.

"Bill's Achilles heel - and everyone has it - wants to strike a deal," she said. "I was afraid he would defile himself. . . . He passed this test. "

Shortly before leaving for Ukraine, Taylor learned how power in Washington works. In May, he learned from White House officials that Trump had refused to sign a letter congratulating the Ukrainian president on his resounding electoral victory.

Taylor voiced concerns about Trump with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"I think your boss does not like Ukraine," said Taylor, still doubtful that he would accept the job.

"You are right and it is my job to return it," Pompeo replied, according to several US officials familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak frankly.

Taylor then mentioned the unsigned letter. "Learn about it," Pompeo told his staff. Within 36 hours, a new letter had been written and signed by the president.

Taylor put a copy in a briefcase and went to Ukraine.

A patriotic and fragile Ukraine

Every morning at 8:30 a.m. in Kiev, Ukrainian troops gather in formation in front of the Ministry of Defense. A soldier rings a bell. Shots are fired. An officer then reads the names of the Ukrainian soldiers killed that day in the country's six-year war against the Russian-backed separatists.

When Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) And Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) Visited Kiev last fall, Taylor took them to the ceremony. He wanted them to see Ukraine a little as he saw it: patriotic, fragile and assaulted daily by Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Taylor arrived in Ukraine in June 2019, just weeks after Zelensky won the presidency in a landslide. He believed that the Ukrainian revolution of 2013, followed by the invasion of Russia a few months later and the annexation of Crimea, had created a new feeling of solidarity in the country. Corruption was still rampant. The war had ravaged the economy. But there was hope for Ukraine, which was not there when it left in 2009 after completing its term as ambassador under President George W. Bush.

"There is an idealism, a spirit of youth, a charm represented by this new president," he said. "It is a chance. A real chance, which you don't have very often in the history of countries. "

About a month after Taylor's arrival in Kiev, he learned during a routine conference call with Washington that Trump had ordered the suspension of $ 391 million in aid to Ukraine. Initially, he assumed it was a misunderstanding.

The weeks have passed and the wedge has remained in place. Kurt Volker, the administration’s special representative in Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, a Trump mega-donor acting as ambassador to the European Union, attributed the problem to Giuliani. Both later became witnesses to the impeachment.

Their solution was to negotiate an agreement that could roll back Giuliani. Giuliani was looking for dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had been paid between $ 50,000 and $ 100,000 a month to sit on the board of directors of a Ukrainian gas company. The Ukrainians wanted a visit to the oval office for Zelensky.

Taylor urged Zelensky's top advisers to keep their distance. "Rudy is useless. If you think he is doing this because he cares about Ukraine, you are wrong, "he warned Andriy Yermak, one of Zelensky's main collaborators.

On August 27, national security adviser John Bolton traveled to Kiev for a meeting with Zelensky, who still did not know that aid had been frozen. Before Bolton left, Taylor asked for five minutes with him at his hotel. Taylor feared that if the aid freeze became public, it would undermine Zelensky and strengthen Putin. Bolton asked Taylor to assert Pompeo's aid in a cable.

"It will be noticed," he promised.

In the last line of the cable, Taylor said that if the restraint was not lifted, he would not be able to support the policy and would resign. It was the first time in nearly 50 years of public service that he had threatened to resign.

At the time, Taylor had no idea a CIA whistleblower had accused Trump of using "the power of his office to solicit interference." . . in the 2020 US election. "The complaint, sent by email to the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community on August 12, was a bomb ready to explode.

A departure request

In early January, it was clear that Trump was very likely to be acquitted. In Kiev, Taylor had a glimpse of the likely consequences. He was finishing his tour as interim ambassador and preparing for a visit to Pompeo on January 2.

A senior secretary said that Pompeo wanted to meet the Ukrainian president in Kiev one-on-one without the embassy staff taking notes.

"I'm going to protest," Taylor told officials in Washington. "I'm going to be painful about this. Taylor was concerned that such an arrangement would signal that Pompeo did not trust embassy staff. Ukrainians may conclude that they could not trust the embassy either.

In Kiev, Taylor quickly realized that it was he - not the embassy - who was the problem.

Taylor hadn't spoken to Pompeo since his May meeting before taking the job. But, he knew his testimony had upset the president, who had criticized him as "never deceptive," a subset of the Trump Republicans described as "human scum."

Taylor therefore proposed that his assistant accompany the secretary to the meeting. The Pompeo staff agreed. Then they asked Taylor to leave his post early six days earlier so that he would not be responsible when Pompeo arrived in Kiev.

Taylor returned to Washington last month in the modest bungalow he and his wife bought in 1983 as he began his career in government.

Scattered throughout a lifetime of memories of assignments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine and Israel, were reminders of the tumultuous past months.

On the coffee table near the front door was a photo of Taylor testifying before Congress - a gift from Yovanovitch. Upstairs, a wooden block with the message "Stand Your Ground", engraved in Russian, sat on Taylor's desk. He had been handed over to him a few days earlier by another removal witness.

At the dining room table, Deborah, a biblical academic, translated a text from Ancient Greek. A Ukrainian bracelet with an anti-Putin epithet hung on his wrist.

Taylor had taken clips from the Senate trial in the car. His wife, who had watched "every second of the fridge" in the House hearings, avoided him.

"I am learning nothing," she said of the Senate debates. "I just feel the emotion. "

Earlier today, Pompeo visited Kiev, which had been delayed for a month. Taylor was delighted to see a photo of Kristina Kvien, the Acting Ambassador, with Pompeo and the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

After his meeting, Pompeo promised that US support for Ukraine "would not wane." To support this promise, the Trump administration has said it plans to provide $ 400 million in additional aid for Ukraine by 2021. This decision has received strong bipartisan support from Congress.

Some former officials, such as Yovanovitch, warned of the damage caused by Trump. "Right now, the State Department is in trouble," she said.

Taylor tended to focus on the resistance of Washington institutions, despite the assault and battery.

Trump could still despise Kiev. His strange affection for Putin almost certainly remained. At the highest levels of government, senior officials still had to bypass Trump's resentments, impulses and anger.

But despite all the chaos of the past few months, Taylor noted that the administration's official policy toward Ukraine and Russia - articulated by Pompeo, supported by Congress, and codified in the strategy documents of the White House - remained essentially unchanged. Ukraine is still America's ally. Russia was still an adversary. This was another lesson from the saga of impeachment. In much of institutional Washington - Bill Taylor's Washington - the president was strangely foreign.

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