Article II: Inside Impeachment
I Think It’s Crazy
Carrie Dann: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Carrie Dann, political editor for NBC News, filling in for Steve Kornacki. It's Monday October 21st, and here's what's happening. There's another week of closed-door depositions ahead of us. Seven are scheduled, although it's not clear if all the witnesses will appear.
But tomorrow's witness is likely to be the headliner. Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, is appearing before three House committees on Tuesday. Taylor's name may not ring a bell, but you might remember hearing that he called any kind of quid pro quo for military aid to Ukraine, quote, "crazy."
Stephanie Ruhle: The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, texts the U.S. ambassador to EU, Gordon Sondland, and writes this: "As I said on the phone, I think it is crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." But this time Sondland pushes back, writing, "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear. No quid pro quos of any kind." Then Sondland says, "We should stop texting about this."
Dann: Taylor left Ukraine last week for Washington, D.C., two days after getting an official request to appear before Congress. So what do we know about Bill Taylor, and why is his deposition so critical to the impeachment inquiry? Leigh Ann Caldwell is an NBC News correspondent covering Congress. She joins us from Capitol Hill. Hi Leigh Ann.
Leigh Ann Caldwell: Hi Carrie.
Dann: Let's just start at the very, very top, 30,000 feet. Who is this man, Bill Taylor?
Caldwell: Bill Taylor is a career diplomat. He's a graduate from West Point. He went on to get his graduate degree from Harvard. He's a Vietnam veteran. He has worked in diplomatic roles for his entire career, spanning from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to Ukraine. He just has this really long history of service to the United States, mostly in the State Department.
And he is expected to appear before congressional impeachment investigators tomorrow behind closed doors, and he is expected to be kind of the linchpin for Democrats in their investigation into the president and this entire Ukrainian probe. Democrats are hoping that he is able to connect all of the dots of all the people that they've been hearing in these depositions for the past two and a half weeks.
Dann: So he's the ambassador to Ukraine, and he took that job most recently this past June. But this isn't actually his first time in the job. Is that right?
Caldwell: No, it's not. He was the ambassador to Ukraine-- from 2006 to 2009. He went on to retire-- from the government. You know, he's 72 years old. The only reason he's in this position again is because he came back to replace-- Marie Yovanovitch. She was ousted earlier this year from the Trump administration. She was part of the smear campaign.
And so sh-- he came back to fill this role of ambassador. And let's just point out he's not actually the official nominated ambassador, nominated from the Senate. It's in this interim acting position. And now, he's found himself in the middle of this entire probe and this entire scandal involving Ukraine.
Dann: So from retirement straight into the spotlight of the impeachment inquiry. We know Taylor has this respected track of service. But why is his deposition the biggest thing that's happening on the Hill this week?
Caldwell: So Taylor's gonna be crucial for Democrats. And that's because he was really instrumental and really involved in the Ukraine policy. We know that the president and the White House really sidelined all the State Department officials, all the people who were supposed to be working on Ukraine for the government and instead put in his political allies. EU Ambassador Sondland, Special Envoy Volker.
Giuliani was-- Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, was running this shadow State Department. And while all of these people close to the president were working on this issue, there was one career diplomat, Bill Taylor, who was as well. And he was very concerned about what was happening there.
He saw, according to text messages, that he thought that there was a quid pro quo taking place where there was the withholding of military aid and a meeting with the Ukrainian president in exchange for a commitment from the Ukrainian government to investigate the president's political rivals, namely Joe Biden and his son. So he was an unwitting character who has-- was-- appears like he was trying to do the right thing in this entire scenario, and that is why his testimony is going to be so important for Democrats tomorrow.
Dann: You mentioned the text messages. And those were huge news. They were released earlier this month. I think all of us who have been following this read them, you know, sort of with our-- with our eyes-- big, big emoji eyes, right, reading these text messages as they-- as we learned about how Bill Taylor was interacting with Gordon Sondland. And I'm hoping-- there's two particularly notable exchanges-- that we learned about, and I'm hoping you can kind of walk us through how-- those two specific text exchanges, how they played out.
Caldwell: There's a whole series of text messages between Sondland, Kurt Volker, and Bill Taylor that span weeks. We only have a snippet of these text messages that have been released to the media, but what-- from what we know there is a text message on September 1st where Taylor says, quote, "Are we now saying that security assistance and White House meeting are conditioned on investigations?"
And then the EU ambassador, Sondland, says, responds just in a simple, "Call me." So there is the first instance right there where it looks like aid to Ukraine is being withheld-- on the condition of an investigation. So that was a critical moment. Then, eight days later on September 9th, Taylor writes, quote, "As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."
So that happens, and then almost five hours later Sondland responds to that text message saying, "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear. No quid pro quos of any kind." So those are the essence of what is-- Democrats are investigating. Is there a quid pro quo for the withholding of nearly $400 million of security aid to the Ukrainians?
Dann: So I'm-- I'm glad that you brought up both-- we walked through both of those. But we also know that Gordon Sondland has talked to investigators about these same two exchanges, too, right? He met with these same investigators behind closed doors. What do we know about what Gordon Sondland says he was saying to Bill Taylor, maybe filling in the gaps-- that five-hour gap between those two text messages? And also, what happened after he told Taylor to, quote, "Call me"? What do we know about that so far?
Caldwell: So we know that Sondland-- in that five-hour gap Sondland called the president. And Sondland said that the president was not in a good mood. He said that the president told him point blank that there was no quid pro quo. And so that is what Sondland responded to Bill Taylor.
But what's interesting about it is not only the words that Sondland texted but also the tone. It changed dramatically. We have-- we have pages of text messages between Sondland and Taylor and-- and Kurt Volker where it's a very friendly, very-- casual tone, but Sondland-- all of a sudden it becomes very legalese with very specific words.
"As the president has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind." It looks like Sondland was trying to get that on the record where in fact it also looks like on the other hand Bill Taylor was also trying to get on the record that he had very, very deep concerns about what was transpiring in Ukraine.
Dann: So you have seen this-- this parade of witnesses coming in or at least being subpoenaed-- being requested by House Democrats. When all of this is said and done, when all of these characters have said their piece, do you think Bill Taylor is gonna be one of the names the American people remember about this impeachment inquiry?
Caldwell: I think so. I think that he's going to be a key witness. I think that he knows more than most people who-- they have spoken to, and there's a few reasons for that. He was having these conversations with Sondland and Volker, these two Trump allies who were working at the behest of Giuliani, who was working at the behest of the president.
So he was involved in their intimate conversations on this issue, where everyone else-- like Yovanovitch, she was still an outside. They didn't trust her. They were trying to get rid of her. Fiona Hill, the president's Russia advisor, was-- was-- associated with John Bolton, the national security advisor, who had deep reservations about what was happening.
So Bill Taylor is the person who was a part of this. He played a different role than Sondland and Volker because from what it appears he didn't believe that this was appropriate, or just, or right but he was still involved in these conversations. So he might have the most to say and he might be the most important player in this, even more important than the whistleblower at the end of the day, who we actually might not ever hear from.
Dann: Leigh Ann Caldwell, thank you so much for walking us through all of this. We've gotta leave it there. But see you around, and good luck this week. I know you'll be running around on Capitol Hill, so we wish you good luck and-- hope you have comfortable shoes.
Caldwell: (LAUGH) I do. Definitely. Thanks, Carrie.
Dann: Another thing to keep an eye on: House Republicans are voting tonight on a resolution to censure House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. They say he is misleading the American people in the impeachment inquiry. President Trump tweeted his support for that resolution earlier today, but Democrats are expected to move to table it.
And in our first episode, we opened up our inbox for you to send questions that you have about the impeachment inquiry. On Friday, we talked about why the investigation is happening behind closed doors. And some of you asked about the role of Republicans in these hearings. Good question.
Republicans who are on the committees are allowed to participate in these hearings. Each side gets an equal amount of questions. That's according to the House rules. And they are largely being asked by expert staff hired by the lawmakers. Some Republicans have also called for the ability to bring rebuttal witnesses forward. So far, that hasn't happened. But members from both parties can ask unlimited questions, which explains why some of these depositions have run on for so many hours.
As for your questions, keep 'em comin'. Our email address is ArticleTwoPodcast@Gmail.com. That's Article-T-W-O-Podcast@Gmail.com. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Carrie Dann. Steve Kornacki will be back on Wednesday.