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Ex-ambassador gives 'disturbing' testimony on Trump's Ukraine dealings, lawmakers say

William Taylor, the ex-ambassador who has sharply questioned Donald Trump's policy on Ukraine, provided lawmakers with a detailed and "disturbing" account of his recollection of events at the centre of the Democrats' impeachment probe on Tuesday, as the president used rhetoric to decry the probe that uncomfortably evoked racial tensions from America's past.

U.S. president horrifies Democrats by comparing House inquiry to a 'lynching'

Ambassador William Taylor, escorted by U.S. Capitol Police, arrived Tuesday to testify before House committees as part of the Democrats' impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Former U.S. ambassador William Taylor, a diplomat who has sharply questioned President Donald Trump's policy on Ukraine, provided lawmakers Tuesday with a detailed account of his recollection of events at the centre of the Democrats' impeachment probe.

In what some lawmakers called a "disturbing" account, Taylor described the way Trump wanted to put the new Ukraine president "in a public box" by demanding a quid pro quo.

In a lengthy opening statement to House investigators, Taylor said Trump demanded that "everything" Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wanted — including vital military aid to counter Russia — be hinged on making a public vow that he would investigate Democrats. Taylor said Trump wanted the investigation to look at the 2016 U.S. election and a company linked to the family of Trump's potential 2020 Democratic rival, Joe Biden.

Taylor testified that what he discovered in Kyiv was the Trump administration's back channel to foreign policy, led by the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and a "weird combination" of "ultimately alarming circumstances" that threaten to erode the United States's relationship with a budding eastern European ally.

Lawmakers, emerging after hours of the private deposition, said Taylor's account established a "direct line" to the quid pro quo at the centre of the impeachment probe. They added that his recalling of events filled in gaps from the testimony of other witnesses, particularly Gordon Sondland, the U.S. European Union ambassador who testified last week but couldn't recall many specific details.

They said Taylor kept records of conversations and documents.

"The testimony is very disturbing," said New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney, who attended the start of the Taylor interview.

Gordon Sondland, centre, testified last week as the Democrats have continued to issue subpoenas to compel officials to appear before joint sessions of three House committees, intelligence, oversight and foreign relations. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips used the same word. Asked why, he said, "because it's becoming more distinct."

Taylor's appearance is among the most watched because of a text message, released by House investigators earlier in the probe, in which he called Trump's attempt to hold back military aid to Ukraine in return for a political investigation "crazy."

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Taylor "drew a straight line" with documents, timelines and individual conversations in his records.

"I do not know how you would listen to today's testimony from Ambassador Taylor and come to any other [conclusion] except that the president abused his power and withheld foreign aid," she said.

Lawmakers did not discuss other details of the closed-door session, which was expected to continue into the evening. Taylor declined to comment as he entered the deposition. He was the latest diplomat with concerns to testify. Like the others, he was subpoenaed to appear.

But the career civil servant's delivery was credible and consistent, people said, as he answered hours of questions from Democrats and Republicans, drawing silence in the room as lawmakers exchanged glances.

Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands during a meeting in New York on Sept. 25, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Trump is now being investigated for a controversial phone call he had with Zelensky in July. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Taylor laid out the quid pro quo of the White House's decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless the new president, Zelensky, agreed to Trump's requests to investigate Democrats, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the private testimony.

In a July phone call, Trump told Zelensky he wanted "a favour," which the White House later acknowledged in a rough transcript of the conversation was Trump's desire for Ukraine to investigate the Democratic National Committee's email hack in 2016, as well as the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, with ties to Biden's family.

Taylor told lawmakers that another diplomat on the string of text messages, U.S. ambassador to the EU, Sondland, was aware of the demands, and later admitted he made a mistake that the aid hinged on agreeing to Trump's requests, the person said.

The account calls into question the testimony from Sondland, a wealthy businessman who donated $1 million US to Trump's inauguration. He told Congress last week that he did not fully remember some details of the events. Sondland may be asked to return to Congress after he testified that, among other things, he was initially unaware that the gas company was tied to the Bidens.

Brought back into government service

Taylor was involved in diplomatic efforts surrounding several major international conflicts. He served in Jerusalem as U.S. envoy to the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers. He oversaw reconstruction in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, and from Kabul co-ordinated U.S. and international assistance to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003.

He was one of several intermediaries between Trump and Ukrainian officials as the president advocated for the investigations into the Bidens.

The former army infantry platoon leader had been serving as executive vice-president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a non-partisan think-tank founded by Congress, when he was appointed to run the embassy in Kyiv — after the administration abruptly ousted the ambassador, Marie (Masha) Yovanovitch, in May.

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine testified in the Trump impeachment inquiry that there had been "a concerted campaign" to remove her from her post. 2:02

Soon after, Trump would have his now-famous phone conversation with the Ukraine president. At the time, Trump had quietly put a hold on nearly $400 million in military aid that Ukraine was counting on in its fight against Russian-backed separatists.

Trump and his Republican allies have complained that the process House Democrats are using for the inquiry is unfair and that Democrats are trying to undo the 2016 election that sent Trump to the White House.

Trump repeated that criticism Tuesday morning, but with a tweet carrying racially-charged connotations.

"All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching," said the president.

Historically in the United States, blacks were lynched, or hanged, by whites in the South beginning in the late 19th century, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights group.

Trump's tweet immediately led to criticism from members of Congress.

Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush — a longtime civil rights activist and the only man to ever defeat Barack Obama in an election — was blunt.

"Do you know how many people who look like me have been lynched, since the inception of this country, by people who look like you? Delete this tweet," Rush demanded.

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