The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I know that parallels between Watergate and the Ukraine scandal can sometimes stretch pretty thin; I am, for instance, still waiting for someone to step forward to play Alexander Butterfield's "here-are-the-tapes-you-were-looking-for"** role.
**And I'll lay $50 that if the tape, or full transcript, of the July 25 phone call is ever released, that it will contain material, as judged by a neutral third party, that is severely damaging to whatever little is left of President Trump's defense of his actions during that call.
But the John Dean "senior-official-who-finally-lays-out-the scope-of-the-wrongdoing" role has apparently now been filled by Ambassador William Taylor in his testimony on Tuesday. Dean's testimony in June, 1973 was so damaging to Pres. Nixon both because of the information it contained on Nixon's involvement in illegal activities and because of the manner in which Dean methodically and dispassionately laid out the full scope of that wrongdoing with reference to the copious records he had been keeping in real time of the relevant events. He was very difficult to impeach—in the ordinary, and not the constitutional, sense—as a credible witness, and indeed his testimony later proved dispositive in the criminal trials of many of the Watergate conspirators (Mitchell, Haldeman, Erlichmann, and others).
If you have not read Ambassador Taylor's opening statement, you might wish to do so—it makes for grim reading, especially for those of you who have so steadfastly maintained that this scandal is all smoke and no fire. [Scott Anderson has an excellent analysis here]. Excerpts (emphases added) follow:
Once I arrived in Kyiv, I discovered a weird combination of encouraging, confusing, and ultimately alarming arrangement for making U.S. policy towards Ukraine. There appeared to be two channels of U.S. policy-making and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular. As the Chief of Mission, I had authority over the regular, formal diplomatic processes, including the bulk of the U.S. effort to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion and to help it defeat corruption. This regular channel of U.S. policy-making has consistently had strong, bipartisan support both in Congress and in all administrations since Ukraine' s independence from Russia in 1991.
At the same time, however, there was an irregular, informal channel of U . S . policy-making with respect to Ukraine, one which included then-Special Envoy Volker, Ambassador Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and, as I subsequently learned, Mr. Giuliani. I was clearly in the regular channel, but I was also in the irregular one to the extent that Ambassadors Volker and Sondland included me in certain conversations….
When I first arrived in Kyiv, in June and July, the actions of both the regular and
the irregular channels of foreign policy served the same goal—a strong US-Ukraine partnership—but it became clear to me by August that the channels had
diverged in their objectives. As this occurred, I became increasingly concerned….
In late June, one of the goals of both channels was to facilitate a visit by President
Zelenskyy to the White House for a meeting with President Trump, which
President Trump had promised in his congratulatory letter of May 29. But during my subsequent communications with Ambassadors Volker and Sondland, they relayed to me that the President "wanted to hear from Zelenskyy" before scheduling the meeting in the Oval Office. It was not clear to me what this meant….
On June 27 , Ambassador Sondland told me during a phone conversation that
President Zelenskyy needed to make clear to President Trump that he, President
Zelenskyy, was not standing in the way of " investigations. " I sensed something odd when Ambassador Sondland told me on June 28 that he did not wish to include most of the regular interagency participants in a call planned with President Zelenskyy later that day. Ambassador Sondland, Ambassador Volker, Secretary Perry, and I were on this call, dialing in from different locations. However, Ambassador Sondland said that he wanted to make sure no one was transcribing or monitoring as they added President Zelenskyy to the call….
By mid-July it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelenskyy
wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian
interference in the 2016 US elections. It was also clear that this condition was
driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr.
In a regular NSC secure video-conference call on July 18, I heard a staff person
from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) say that there was a hold on
security assistance to Ukraine but could not say why. Toward the end of an
otherwise normal meeting, a voice on the call—the person was off-screen –
said that she was from OMB and that her boss had instructed her not to approve any
additional spending of security assistance for Ukraine until further notice….The OMB staff person said was that the directive had come from the President to the Chief of Staff to OMB. In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukrainewas threatened. The irregular policy channel was running contrary to goals of longstanding U . S . policy….
Later on July 20, I had a phone conversation with Ambassador Sondland while he
was on a train from Paris to London, Ambassador Sondland told me that he had
recommended to President Zelenskyy that he use the phrase "I will leave no stone
unturned" with regard to investigations when President Zelenskyy spoke with
On August 16, I exchanged text messages with Ambassador Volker in which I learned that Mr. Yermak [an assistant to President Zelenskyy] had asked that the United States submit an official request for an investigation into Burisma' s alleged violations of Ukrainian law , if that is what the United States desired. A formal US request to the Ukrainians to conduct an investigation based on violations of their own law struck meas improper, and I recommended to Ambassador Volker that we stay clear….
I wrote and transmitted a cable [to Secretary of State Pompeo] on August 29 describing the "folly in withholding military aid to Ukraine at a time when hostilities were still active in the east and when Russia was watching closely to gauge the level of American support for the Ukrainian government. I told the Secretary that I could not and would not defend such a policy. I received no specific response …
It had still not occurred to me that the hold on security assistance could be related
to the "investigations." That, however, would soon change.
[During a September 1 phone call with NSA staffer Tim Morrison], he went on to describe a conversation that Ambassador Sondland had with Mr. Yermak in Warsaw. Ambassador Sondland told Mr. Yermak that security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation. I was alarmed by what Mr. Morrison told me about the Sondland -Yermak conversation. This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance—not just the White House meeting — was conditioned on the investigations….
Very concerned, on that same day I sent Ambassador Sondland a text message
asking if "we are now saying that security assistance and [a ] WH meeting are
conditioned on investigations?" Ambassador Sondland responded asking me to
call him, which I did. During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that
President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly
that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the
2016 US election. Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelenskyy was dependent on a public announcement of investigations—in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, "everything" was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskyy "in a public box" by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.
On September 7, I had a conversation with Mr .Morrison in which he described a phone conversation earlier that day between Ambassador Sondland and President Trump. Mr . Morrison said that he had a "sinking feeling after learning about this conversation from Ambassador Sondland. According to Mr . Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a "quid pro quo." But President Trump did insist that President Zelenskyy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskyy should want to do this himself….
The following day, on September 8, Ambassador Sondland and I spoke on the phone. He said he had talked to President Trump, [and] 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….
On September 25 at the UN General Assembly session in New York City, President Trump met President Zelenskyy face-to -face. He also released the transcript of the July 25 call. The United States gave the Ukrainians virtually no notice of the release, and they were livid. Although this was the first time I had seen the details of President Trump's July 25 call with President Zelenskyy, in which he mentioned Vice President Biden, I had come to understand well before then that "investigations" was a term that Ambassadors Volker and Sondland used to mean matters related to the 2016 elections, and to investigations of Burisma and the Bidens.
Though I'm sure people will try, it will not be easy to say that Taylor is lying about all this.
My background and experience are nonpartisan and I have been honored to serve under every administration, Republican and Democratic, since 1985. For 50 years, I have served the country, starting as a cadet at West Point, then as an infantry officer for six years, including with the Division in Vietnam; then at the Department of Energy; then as a member of a Senate staff; then at NATO; then with the State Department here and abroad in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jerusalem, and Ukraine; andmore recently , as Executive Vice President of the nonpartisan United States Institute of Peace.
There are, to be sure, important differences between Dean's testimony and Taylor's. Dean was a frequent visitor to the Oval Office, and could testify to face-to-face interactions with Nixon, whereas Taylor can only provide second-hand, hearsay testimony regarding the President's communications. Dean also gained credibility because his testimony revealed his own participation in illegal acts, including payments of hush money to the Watergate burglars and assistance in the preparation of Nixon's "enemies list," and these "admissions against interest" enhanced the perception that he was telling the truth. Taylor's statement portrays him (Taylor) as a "good guy" throughout this episode—possibly, of course, because he was a good guy throughout this episode.
But Taylor's testimony is deeply damning for Pres. Trump, destroying the main pillar of his public defense: that there was no quid pro quo tying withheld military and security assistance to the investigation into alleged misbehavior by Trump's political opponents. Trump's protestations to the contrary—"President Trump said it was not a 'quid pro quo'"—strike me as more than a little like someone stabbing you in the chest while saying "I'm not murdering you."
And the House Republicans' hysterical response yesterday—and I do mean that in both senses of the term—has "desperation" written all over it, and is evidence that the final stage of the unraveling is upon us. "Let Us In!!—[to a secure facility, with our cellphones]"—"It is Unfair for the Democrats to interview these witnesses without us!! [even though our Republican colleagues on the relevant committees are, of course, allowed into the proceedings]." There have been sillier moments in the US Capitol, but not many.