Top US diplomat who called Ukraine aid freeze 'crazy' is asked to testify
Posted October 11, 2019 12:00 a.m. EDT
CNN — House Democrats have requested a deposition from Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, as part of their impeachment inquiry, but his interview has not yet been formally scheduled, multiple sources familiar with the issue told CNN.
The request, if met by expected White House and State Department opposition, is likely to present a quandary for the longtime diplomat, according to former State Department officials who know him.
Those former officials close to the former ambassador suggested that if Taylor were made to choose between staying on to guide US policy as charge d'affaires in Kiev -- a post he came out of retirement to take -- or resigning to be able to testify, he would choose the former.
Nine former State Department officials who spoke to CNN about Taylor described him as a person of high character and professionalism -- a "very quiet guy," in the words of retired Ambassador Ronald Neumann -- who is deeply respected in the diplomatic world and seen as more likely to put sound foreign policy before politics.
Taylor was thrust into the public eye following the release of his text exchanges with former Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker and President Donald Trump's appointee to be the US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland.
In the exchanges, Taylor expressed his concerns about foreign policy moves being tied to political motives, writing that it was "crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."
A source familiar with his career said Taylor took the job to be a good soldier and that from reading the public text messages, the former ambassador appeared to be doing what a professional in these circumstances would do: keeping a record of what was going on.
"He is very skilled and has many years of experience dealing with the bureaucracy. You can see in the language of the texts that he is memorializing phone calls -- 'As I told you on the phone ... ,' " this source said.
For the moment, Taylor has not been issued a subpoena. However, House Democrats made clear in their request that they want to hear from the veteran foreign policy professional. There's no guarantee that will happen.
The House Democrats have offered few details related to their plans for obtaining testimony from Taylor. Several members appeared to be unaware that a notification had been sent when asked about the development by CNN. That secrecy is likely strategic, as the Trump administration has made clear that it has no intention of cooperating with the impeachment probe.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said he will seek to push back on any efforts by Congress to circumvent the State Department's official channels and contact top State officials directly. It is unclear how Taylor's deposition request was sent. The House Foreign Affairs Committee and Taylor declined to comment. CNN has reached out to the State Department for comment.
'That would be a very tough judgment call'
It is unlikely that Taylor would be allowed to participate in his deposition once it is scheduled.
On Tuesday, just hours before he was due to appear, the State Department instructed Sondland not to testify at his scheduled hearing.
The department has not responded to numerous inquiries as to whether former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie "Masha" Yovanovitch will be permitted to speak on Friday. The career diplomat was pulled from her post in Kiev in May, reportedly at Trump's personal behest, after becoming the target of unfounded allegations of disloyalty and corruption by Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others.
Of the five diplomats who were scheduled to testify by the House, only Volker has been deposed. He resigned from the State Department days before his congressional appearance in order to testify -- an option that Taylor could take.
"His desire would be to cooperate with a congressional investigation and he would see that as his duty unless there was a compelling reason to obey a directive from senior leadership at the State Department not to respond," retired Ambassador Gerald Feierstein said. "In a situation like this, when Congress wants a particular person, the idea of simply saying no, for career person, is extremely uncomfortable. Direction from State saying do not go to the Hill would cross everything Bill spent his career learning."
Another retired US ambassador who is in touch with Taylor and knows him well indicated it is highly unlikely the diplomat would resign to be able to speak freely to Congress. This former ambassador told CNN that Taylor's overriding priority in this situation is ensuring US policy on Ukraine remains sound, seeing a strong Ukraine as essential to American interests in Europe, and that if the choice were between testifying before Congress and staying in Kiev, Taylor would opt to stay in place.
"He will have to weigh testifying to Congress as opposed to leaving the mission in Ukraine without anybody in charge," retired Ambassador Neumann agreed. "That would be a very tough judgment call. It's not just about whether he's courageous and will go to the Congress, it's also how much does he worry about what happens to Ukrainian policy if he leaves Ukraine with nobody picked to succeed him."
"I think that would be a tougher call than many people would think who will only be looking at the domestic side of the issue," he added.
One former State Department official noted that "to some extent, the department needs him out there, needs a seasoned diplomat there."
'Remarkable legacy of service'
Several of the officials who spoke with CNN said they were not surprised to see Taylor pushing back on the alleged quid pro quo revealed in the texts Volker turned over to the House committees.
"When I look at those text messages, he's the one asking the exact right questions, questioning the appropriateness of the whole thing," the first former State Department official said.
Taylor returned to Kiev as the embassy's charge d'affaires in June, taking over the post after Yovanovitch's unexpected removal.
"He was appalled, as we all were, when Marie Yovanovitch was removed prematurely," the retired US ambassador said.
Taylor had served as the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009.
At the time he was asked to take over at the embassy, Taylor had retired from the Foreign Service and was serving as executive vice president at the US Institute of Peace. Several of the former officials told CNN they were unsurprised that he was chosen for the embassy job and said State Department officials who work on Ukraine were pleased with the choice.
"It certainly provided a morale boost to the embassy when he arrived," another former State Department official said, noting that the embassy had been "pretty battered" by the false allegations against Yovanovitch.
However, one former senior State Department official said it was "a little unusual" that Taylor was called out of retirement, noting that it requires decisions and special dispensations involving pensions and pay.
"It's not an easy thing to do," that official said.
Others noted that Taylor did not need to return, but did so out of a sense of diplomatic obligation.
"He's somebody who's been willing to take hard jobs," Neumann told CNN.
The former senior State Department official described Taylor as having "a remarkable legacy of service."
Taylor is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point and a Vietnam War veteran. In addition to his diplomatic service in Ukraine, he oversaw assistance and support to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria at the State Department during the Arab Spring, "served in Jerusalem as the U.S. Government's representative to the Mideast Quartet," "oversaw reconstruction in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, and served in Kabul as coordinator of international and U.S. assistance to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003," according to his State Department biography.