MARIUPOL, Ukraine — More than 5,000 miles from the congressional room where he testified that President Donald Trump tried to get a foreign government to investigate his political opponents, acting Ambassador Bill Taylor took to a stage here Tuesday and was greeted like a rock star.
Taylor was applauded by hundreds of attendees and swarmed by well-wishers at an economic conference days after his stunning testimony connected the president, his lawyer and other political appointees to an effort to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his family.
The career diplomat used the opportunity to praise Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who convened the international gathering of diplomats and international business leaders in this remote eastern city near the Russian border.
“President Zelenskiy ran on two things: One was ending the war on Ukrainian terms. And the second was defeating corruption," Taylor told NBC News. “He has done some very brave things on ending the war.”
“And this message here today on the investment in the East is an important component of ending the war, developing the confidence of people here and people in the nongovernment controlled areas.”
Asked about his testimony before Congress, Taylor smiled but declined to comment.
Zelenskiy, whose call with Trump is at the center of a widening impeachment inquiry, also brushed aside questions about the scandal roiling Washington.
“I can give you many comments about the USA,” he told NBC News at the meeting. “Great country, great people, but I don’t know what’s going on in the USA. I’m so sorry. I’m the president of Ukraine.”
Last month in New York, while in Trump’s presence, Zelenskiy appeared to deny that he had felt pressure from the American president. Asked again Tuesday on his home turf, he chose his words carefully: “It’s not the first question about Mr. Trump, and I have no new answers.”
He would not answer any questions about whether he would authorize an investigation into the Bidens, as Trump had requested in their July phone call.
But Zelenskiy’s foreign minister seemed to dangle another option.
“We are happy to take advantage of anything if it makes us closer to the United States, who is our biggest partner, let’s face it,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Vadym Prystaiko.
“Sometimes I think Ukraine is becoming much more well known to Americans for some strange reason, which has nothing to do with us, but has internally to do with you.”
The one-day conference was held in Mariupol, a port city in Ukraine's Donetsk region, nearly 90 miles away from the closest airport. The road itself was opened on Monday specifically for the conference.
Just a few years ago, the area was under the control of Russian-backed separatists. The main road had not been maintained since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It was a strikingly different environment than the scene of Taylor’s congressional testimony one week ago.
In testimony that sources say led to audible gasps, Taylor detailed a video conference call with members of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which made a direct link between Trump and the withholding of military aid to Ukraine for political purposes.
Taylor testified that one OMB official told the participants on the call that there was a hold on military aid. He also said a second OMB aide, who was not on camera, said "the directive had come from the president to the chief of staff to OMB," a source said. The call occurred one week before Trump's discussion with Zelenskiy.
Even Republicans who were present for the testimony expressed concern, a source told NBC News, because it appeared to deal a blow to Trump’s repeated denials of a quid pro quo.