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Transcript: Star Witness

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Star Witness.
Image: Ambassador William Taylor arrives to testify on Capitol Hill on Oct. 22, 2019.
Ambassador William Taylor arrives to testify on Capitol Hill on Oct. 22, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP


Article II: Inside Impeachment

Star Witness

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News this is article two Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, October 23rd. And here's what's happening.

Andy Levin: In my ten short months in congress, it's not even noon. Right? And this is the-- my most disturbing day in congress so far.

Kornacki: That is one freshman democrat leaving a secure room on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after hearing testimony from the acting ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor. Taylor was expected to be a star witness in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. And the democrats weren't disappointed.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz: His testimony will be-- will be-- will be held up as-- a significant component of the pathway to how-- what we decide when it comes to articles of impeachment as it should be.

Ted Lieu: His opening statement which is now in the public domain is devastating to Donald Trump. It was very damning for the president.

Kornacki: Remember this deposition was behind closed doors. So we don't know everything that was said during the nine hours of testimony. But Taylor's opening statement was released on Tuesday

Ari Melber: As he went through methodical evidence and notes that he'd taken, it provoked sighs and gasps.

Chris Matthews: According to members who were in the room with him, his testimony represents a sea change, that's the phrase and elicited sighs and gasps.

Kornacki: Republicans say Taylor's opening remarks don't tell the full story.

Andy McCarthy: In 90 seconds, we had John Radcliffe destroy Taylor's whole argument.

Kornacki: So what did we learn from Ambassador Taylor's opening statement? Dan de Luce is a national security and global affairs reporter for the investigative unit at NBC. Hi, Dan.

Dan De Luce: Hi.

Kornacki: All right. Dan, well we have been following all of these depositions, all of this testimony. But of course it's been tricky for us because so much of it has been taking place behind closed doors, no cameras, no publicly available transcripts. But when it comes to Ambassador Taylor we did get his opening remarks, a transcript of his opening remarks.

They run 15 pages long. What he does is he lays out-- his basic story in-- in chronological, almost novelistic detail. What we thought we would do here is just go through some of the highlights of it, some of the most important, potentially significant things he had to say and then go deep on them with you.

They raise a bunch of questions. So maybe you can help walk us through them. So I'm gonna start near the beginning of his opening statement. He was talking about basically his interview for the job, the job of being the top envoy-- to Ukraine, takes place at the end of May with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Taylor says this in his opening statement. He said, "During my meeting with Secretary Pompeo on May 28th, I made clear to him and the others present that if U.S. policy toward Ukraine changed, he would not want me posted there. And I could not stay. He assured me that the policy of strong support for Ukraine would continue and that he would support me in defending that policy." So again this is the end of May. This is almost two months before that Trump, Zelenskiy phone call when Taylor says, "Maintaining existing policy to Ukraine was so important to him." What was he referring to? What was the general understanding at that point of U.S. policy toward Ukraine?

De Luce: Right. So his understanding of policy towards Ukraine and what had really had been policy to Ukraine long before Trump showed up-- for years and years was, you know, seeing Ukraine as a country that was under pressure because it's bordering Russia. And it was a country that the U.S. wanted to support in every way it could.

And then of course when Russia invaded Crimea when Obama was president and then pro-Russian forces then took control of some areas of eastern Ukraine, the U.S. policy was to provide assistance in every way it could to Ukraine to try to counter what the U.S. calls Russian aggression. And he didn't want to take the job and then get to Kiev and find out, oh no, we're-- we're not gonna support Kiev in-- in a robust way. And that's where he's coming from.

Kornacki: And he-- he indicates here that he had some concerns at that moment deciding whether to take this job because-- the context here was Yovanovitch, Marie Yovanovitch had just been recalled as the U.S. ambassador he alludes in this statement to the idea that she'd been caught up in some kind of political web. He-- he had some sense that the future of that policy was in question. Is that-- is that what he's saying?

De Luce: That's right. The-- the-- there was a real strong reason why he was asking Pompeo for reassurance because he knows that his former colleague, Marsha Yovanovitch, had just been recalled from Kiev. And it was-- under very strange or kind of unusual and maybe suspicious circumstances. There were these rightwing attacks on Yovanovitch that came out of nowhere. This is not a household name. This is just a career diplomat, a very senior person who had a very good reputation.

And Bill Taylor knows she's gotten recalled early because somehow-- she's run afoul of the White House. And so he-- he wants to make sure he's not walking into-- to a mess and that he's gonna have Pompeo's full backing. He wants to know from Pompeo, okay, A, is the policy gonna change on-- on Ukraine? And B, are you gonna back me up when I carry out this policy?

So that's where he's coming from. And-- and he says in his opening statement when Pompeo asks him if he wants the job, he says he wanted to say yes. But he also says it wasn't an easy decision because of this whole cloud hanging over Yovanovitch's departure. And he says, "You know, my wife told me-- not to take it." And then he-- he turns to-- to a former mentor, a republican official, a former republican officials. And that former official says, "Well, you know, if your country asks you to do something, you do it if you can be effective." And so he concludes he can be effective.

Kornacki: So he gets enough reassurance to say yes to take the job. This is again at the end of May. Then he actually-- it's June 17th, I think. That's when he finally arrives-- in Kiev, the-- the capital in Ukraine-- to take over. Again June 17th, this is now almost a month, a little bit more than a month before that phone call. So in the middle of June when he gets to Kiev, what is Taylor saying he found there in terms of the situation?

De Luce: On the one hand, there's some positive-- aspects that-- Zelenskiy-- the new president seems to be moving quickly in-- in a positive direction, breath of fresh air. But he also discovers what he calls a weird combination something call-- he calls alarming circumstances where there's the regular channel where foreign policy is conducted the way most of us would assume it is by diplomats, by the ambassador, by the State Department-- by official channels.

But then there's also a highly irregular channel he calls it. And that involves Ambassador Sondland who is the political appointee as Trump's ambassador to the European union, not a career diplomat, a very rich man-- a successful-- a hotel business owner and-- contributed to Trump's inaugural committee.

And it also involves Kurt Volker who is the political appointee who's this special envoy to Ukraine. And also there's a connection he learns to Giuliani, Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer. So he-- he sees the-- there's the former diplomatic process, the way it sort of should operate in theory. And then the-- there's this informal, irregular channel. And at firs the thinks, well, the end goal of each of these is the same which is, you know, supporting Ukraine-- helping Ukraine counter Russia and so on.

Kornacki: Okay. So then (LAUGH) you're describing mid, late June when he gets there. The next development he's describing comes-- I think he says July 18th, that would be a week before the phone call. And that's when he says he starts putting together the pieces of-- of-- talk about investigations-- Ukraine having investigations involving the 2016 election, maybe the Biden's-- and U.S. policy. He says he starts to put that together about a week before the-- the phone call. Is that right?

De Luce: That's right. Exactly. Yeah. He's starting to put it all together. And he's getting more and more worried.

Kornacki: So then Taylor describes a moment when he says he found out the aid, the-- the-- the aid to Ukraine that congress had been approved that he believed was gonna be implemented was gonna be provided that it was actually being held up. And this he says on-- a video conference with officials from the Office of Management and Budget.

Here's what he says, quote, "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. I and others sat in astonishment." So this is somebody from OMB. Do we know where that-- where that order was coming from?

De Luce: Well-- as far as-- as we know it came from the president. And Mick Mulvaney who is not only the chief of staff to the president but also is still-- technically overseeing the Office of Management and Budget. He's-- stood up publicly recently and said, "Yeah. The president ordered that to be held up." But at this point in this phone call, this video conference, nothing publicly has been said about the aid being held up.

In fact, you know, this was something that the Department of Defense publicly said, "We are ready to release this money. Ukraine has met various criteria including anti-corruption efforts." So this is a major moment. And the word astonishment-- is the appropriate one because everyone in the room-- clearly is not aware.

And keep in mind OMB are the-- are the bankers. Right? They kinda oversee the spending of money that's already been approved by congress. This is appropriated money that the executive branch has to spend. It's not really a choice. So if you delay the spending of money appropriated by congress you have to have a very specific kind of technical reason. And this was very unusual.

Kornacki: So this OMB-- meeting was July 18th. July 25th, that is the phone call. That is President Trump and Zelenskiy. And of course we've now read the-- rough transcript of that. We've seen the whistleblower's complaint. The president of course continues to insist there was no quid pro quo.

It was a perfect call. That is his public line. But continuing with Taylor's testimony with this opening statement, he then talks about a conversation with Sondland on September 8th. So now we've moved, you know, about six weeks past this phone call. And-- and he says in his-- opening statement that President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a quid pro quo. He says again he's relaying a conversation had with Sondland. Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman.

When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said the businessman asks that person to pay before signing the check. So this is six weeks after the phone call. Sondland's having this conversation with Taylor. What's the context here? What's happened in those six weeks to prompt this phone call?

De Luce: So at this point now there's tension building between Sondland and Taylor because Taylor has now copped on to the whole situation. And he is now pushing back-- and expressing real concern saying, you know, Ukraine needs this assistance. And you're telling me that Ukraine has to conduct investigations that would help the president politically to get its assistance, to get a meeting with the president in the Oval Office.

And Sondland is trying to explain the president's thinking to Taylor and also kind of justify it or-- or rationalize the position. And he's saying, "Well, you know, he's a businessman. And-- you know, a businessman-- aren't going to sign a check for you until you pay it up-- on your bill to them." And Taylor's response is hold on. That analogy doesn't work here.

Ukraine doesn't owe something to President Trump, certainly doesn't owe-- some kind of-- politically charged investigation that would help somehow dig up dirt on President Trump's political opponents in the U.S. That's not a bill that Ukraine owes-- to the U.S. or to Trump. And so Taylor is not having it and not buying that explanation.

Kornacki: So you've just taken us through-- Taylor-- making-- from-- from his vantage point-- a case there. You know, and a lot of folks are-- are saying-- this is in the coverage right now, they're saying that he's made a strong case of-- of a quid pro quo.

But as I mentioned this is the opening statement. This is the only thing that was made public from that hearing-- on Tuesday. Kevin McCarthy, Devin Nunez, some of the top republicans they have said that once you got beyond this opening statement again behind closed doors, no cameras, we don't know. No transcript that's been made available. They said that this whole argument essentially fell apart under questioning from republicans specifically I think they mentioned John Ratcliffe from Texas. Do we know anything about what happened behind closed doors, what they might be referring to there?

De Luce: I think this is a bit like a Grand Jury process. Right? So that's why you're getting these very divergent interpretations afterward. Everyone-- it's-- it's like a spinroom. Right? The-- the democrats are saying this was a bombshell, this was a smoking gun. It's a smoking Howitzer.

And you have the-- some republicans lawmakers saying it all fell apart. It's unclear what-- what these republicans members are referring to exactly. He was questioned for many hours. And keep in mind that they have also interviewed several other State Department officials including the former ambassador Marsha Yovanovitch.

And we don't know-- all the details-- of those depositions. What is interesting though is that the republicans I would think if they had something to show how they could dismantle Taylor's presentation, you would think they would-- they would cite some detail. You would think they would leak something or make some reference to kinda buttress their argument.

And up until now the republican talking points on the impeachment inquiry tend to focus on the process. We'll see. But I think they have a hard time if they go at the crux of this given Taylor's testimony and given some other testimony.

Kornacki: Well, one other thing they did say-- or I should-- the White House at least did say-- the Trump White House did say in a statement, they said that Taylor's testimony-- their term was triple hearsay. You know, Taylor in-- at least in this opening statement is not describing direct interactions with Trump-- with the president. Some of these key moments you've just been taking us through that he describes-- they are his accounts of conversations with people who are then relaying-- information to him-- Gordon Sondland-- in particular. Does the White House have an argument here when it comes to the-- the-- the credibility just based on that?

De Luce: I suppose that is a reasonable argument to make. But then of course Taylor is not testifying in a vacuum. Right? We have the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy that the White House itself has-- has released the summary of-- of that call. He doesn't explicitly say military aid will be held up. But he does ask for a favor. And he does make it pretty clear-- that-- he wants investigations on the Biden's and so on.

His own chief of staff-- Mick Mulvaney said publicly last week, he said that the aid was-- was held up for the investigations. And then he later tried to walk it back. And so I-- I think the triple hearsay is-- is an interesting point to make. I think we have to wait and look how all of this fits together in the entire puzzle. It may not be a very strong argument if the White House itself is even offering evidence that-- that buttresses it-- you know, without-- without meaning to.

Kornacki: Well, speaking of that then so-- okay, you've got Bill Taylor's testimony now. You've got this opening statement. What next? What is the-- what do these committees-- do with this next?

De Luce: Yes. Well-- there are still others to-- to hear from. There is-- Laura Cooper-- who was in the Pentagon. She would be the first person from the Defense Department to testify. And she would've been handling the security assistance money that was appropriated by congress and was held up.

There are national security officials, some of whom are mentioned in this opening statement by Taylor. And then, you know, at some point there are documents that they are asking for. And-- and the-- it's not clear what they've received if any. So there's still more to come. But you have to ask yourself how long-- how long do they need.

Kornacki: And-- speaking of how long it took Taylor 40 minutes we were told to go through that opening statement. I think we were able to cover it and some of the questions that raised in a little less time than that. So Dan, I think you can take some credit for that. Thanks for joining us.

De Luce: Thanks, Steve.

Kornacki: Here's what else we're following in the inquiry today.

Ali Velshi: Republican lawmakers have launched a type of sit in at the SCIF.

Matt Gaetz: We're gonna go and see if we can get inside. So let's-- let's see if we can get in.

Kornacki: Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official who oversees Ukraine policy was set to testify today. But that deposition was interrupted by a group of House republicans who stormed the secure room to object to it being held behind closed doors.

Gaetz: I'm gathered here with dozens of my congressional colleagues underground in the basement of the capital because if behind those doors they intend to overturn the results of an American presidential election, we wanna know what's going on.

Kornacki: Cooper's testimony did eventually get underway earlier today. Though after a five-hour delay. Deposition is scheduled for tomorrow and Friday have been postponed because of events honoring the late representative Elijah Cummings. And we asked for questions from you. And boy did you through. We've got a ton of questions that have come in about the impeachment process including this one from Tio. Tio is from Miami, Florida.

And Tio wrote to us, "Can a witness lie to congress while they are being interviewed? And if so will they face consequences for committing perjury?" That is a good question. After all these hearings are taking place behind closed doors. We don't know. We haven't seen any video of an oath being administered. So we thought we would ask Pete Williams, Justice Department correspondent for NBC News. (PHONE RINGING)

Pete Williams: Steve Kornacki fan club. (LAUGH)

Kornacki: I got the right number, huh? So Pete, I-- I think you might be the perfect person to answer one of our listener questions. An Article Two listener wrote in and wanted to know-- if during these closed-door hearings if the people being interviewed, giving depositions, if they are under oath? And if they are under oath and they do lie, would there be consequences?

Williams: Well, sure. It's against the law to lie to congress. But it doesn't matter if it's under oath or not. The relevant statute-- I'm looking at (LAUGH) a criminal code book here-- that pr-- pretty much any-- anybody who spends any time around the criminal law knows about 18 U.S. Code 1001. It makes it a crime-- basically a crime to lie to the feds.

And that would be an FBI agent who knocks at your door-- the IRS or-- specifically-- in this congress a member of congress or lying to congress. So for example Michael Cohen who you m-- remember submitted a statement to the congress saying-- that the-- the-- the work on the Trump Tower project in Moscow stopped early and that kind of thing.

He was charged with violating this very statute-- for lying to congress. So it doesn't matter whether you're under oath or not if you lie to a fellow agent or to congress. Now a couple of things about this, first of all it has to be intentional.

And secondly the statement has to be material, meaning it has to be important. So if you just lie for example about-- what your favorite color is or where you were on Tuesday and it's not central to the congressional investigation, it's not punishable under this crime. Now there is a separate perjury statute. And it applies to people who are under oath. But the government doesn't use it very often because-- there's-- there's a rule that says in order to indict somebody and convict them of perjury, there has to be two witnesses to the perjury.

And-- it's the so-called two-person rule. And so for that reason the feds don't use it much. This is the statute. So the answer is it doesn't matter whether you're under oath. If you like to congress you can be prosecuted for it. And the penalty is-- up to five years in prison.

Kornacki: And I'm just curious-- with these particular hearings then-- is there any reason to think that any of the folks who-- who have testified so far or who will testify behind closed doors, is there any reason to suspect any of them would lie? And if they-- if they do in this case-- if there'd be repercussions in this case from congress?

Williams: Not-- not that I know of. And by the way the way this would work is if somebody lies to congress then congress refers the matter to the justice department for prosecution. That's what happened for example to the baseball pitcher-- Roger Clemens who was charged with lying to congress about-- when he denied the use of steroids. That was referred to congress. He was charged with lying to congress. So I mean, perjury is the commonly used term. But in-- in this case it's a separate statute. It's illegal to lie to the feds.

Kornacki: I think we turned to the right person for answers. Pete, thanks for helping us out.

Williams: Anytime.

Kornacki: Thanks for that great question to Tio from Miami. Tio's question teed up that great answer from Pete. And we want you to keep those questions coming. You might have noticed though we actually changed our email address. We are figuring out the best way to engage with all of you. So now you can email us. It's a different address than I originally gave out in our first podcast. The new one, the correct one Make sure you got your pen and paper out.

It is Article Two with two spelled out. It's not the number. It's the word, T-W-O, Keep sending your questions. We love getting them. They are providing all sorts of possibilities for this show.

And if yours is good enough, if it's smart enough, if it's something we wanna put to Pete Williams or another expert here, maybe-- maybe we'll make you as famous as Tio from Miami. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Naboa and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Friday.