Taylor’s remarkable Oct. 22 testimony, mostly delivered behind closed doors, already seems bound to find a place in national history: It is considered a key corroboration, and a needed filling-in-of-blanks, of what now appears to be an extended campaign by Trump administration to extract a major concession from Ukraine — an investigation of alleged corruption by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter in exchange for release of long-promised military aide to a struggling nation of key geopolitical importance.
From a journalistic standpoint, Taylor’s statement is also worth studying both as a compelling, insider narrative in its own right — and as a lubricant for news pieces that brought the affairs central to the current impeachment fight into full context for the first time.
While other public testimonies have since and will continue to consume news cycles, Taylor is likely to be a star witness in pubic impeachment hearings promised later this month. But his initial entrance onto the stage — and the fast-turnaround, deadline journalism that his appearance made possible — is worth noting as a remarkable reshaping of the gravity of the matter.
Before Taylor even took a seat before Congress, his pre-released testimony swept weeks of piecemeal reporting about whistleblowers and quid pro quo right off the table, replacing it with a critical narrative that had never really taken up residence there at all: a realization of the victims of Trump’s alleged transgressions, and the potential geopolitical calamity that might yet result.
It also enabled a number of swift, effective pieces by reporters no doubt relieved to have finally found a real, and demonstrably credible, human being to serve as a vehicle for contextual stories about what now appeared to be a months-long, concerted pressure campaign by Trump’s emissaries pushing for a ‘favor” from Ukraine — long before that ballyhooed phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25.
For journalists, Taylor’s testimony was of dual benefit: It gave the rapidly unrolling story the face and voice of an authoritative political noncombatant — something most coverage about Trump has previously lacked. And it served as vital connective tissue for a broad range of news pieces already uncovered by reporters.Taylor’s message that day: While you are dithering, Ukraine is dying. The nation state’s very existence, in fact, had been hanging in the balance. Ukraine for five years has been in a real shooting war for survival — an ongoing battle between government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. More than 13,000 people have died; another estimated 2 million have been displaced.
And the $391 million military aid promised months ago to the nation — including, notably, anti-tank weapons — had remained on hold all summer while America’s elected leaders exchanged taunts in what must have been seen in Eastern Europe as laughably picayune political dithering, largely via Twitter taunts.
In his prepared remarks, Taylor cut quickly to the matter at hand, spending less time and energy on the alleged Trump offenses than the gravity of same. The first few moments of his testimony are likely to be fast-tracked into U.S. political history.
His “sole purpose,” he said, was to emphasize Ukraine’s strategic importance to the United States — something he implied seemed to have been lost in the jet wash of impeachment finger-pointing.
Ukraine, he reminded, is a key strategic partner of the U.S., “important for the security of our country as well as Europe.” Further, “Ukraine is, right at this moment, while we sit in this room — and for the last five years, under armed attack from Russia.”
The military assistance package held up by the U.S. government, apparently at Trump’s direction, was described by Taylor as “crucial to Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression.” Delivering it sends a message to the Russians that the U.S. is a “reliable strategic partner,” he said. He left it unsaid, but clear, what message was sent by failure to deliver.
Taylor, a decorated Vietnam veteran and lifetime civil servant of multiple administrations, then went further, noting that he had, indeed, told Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, (as disclosed in previous text messages released by Congress) that withholding the aid in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign would be “crazy.”
“I believed that then,” he wrote in the remarks. “And I still believe that.”
He assessed the stakes in stark terms that would hardly surprise national security experts, but might have landed like a cold slap across the face to an American lay person:
If Ukraine succeeds in breaking free of Russian influence, it is possible for Europe to be whole, free, democratic, and at peace. In contrast, if Russia dominates Ukraine, Russia will again become an empire, oppressing its people, and threatening its neighbors and the rest of the world.
The rest of his testimony provided what still stands as one of the most detailed, insider tick-tocks of the Ukraine affair, which the public now knows began months ago. With cringeworthy detail, he describes his own slow realization that a sort of shadow foreign policy gang, with Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and Sondland as its front men, working at cross purposes with efforts by other U.S. diplomats to help stabilize Zelensky’s fledgling administration.His transcript was not a piece of journalism, but evoked similar empathy of a well-crafted piece of storytelling due to its personal nature: Readers could feel the confusion and anger Taylor must have felt upon realizing that elements in his own government were at cross purposes with what he saw as the clear, best path to Ukrainian — and American — security. Readers could imagine his shock at discovering that what he assumed to be a policy of common sense and bipartisan agreement had been turned on its head, perhaps to a point of no return.
The account sewed together bits and chunks of the Ukraine story already provided to the public through leaks or diligent reporting. And it lent significant, arguably unimpeachable credibility to contemporaneous reporting by about the broadening scandal by the national press.
Taylor’s closing remarks seemed to aim squarely at the nation’s news-cycle navel gaze.
There are two Ukraine stories today. The first is the one we are discussing this morning and that you have been hearing for the past two weeks. It is a rancorous story about whistleblowers, Mr. Giuliani, side channels, quid pro quos, corruption, and interference in elections. In this story Ukraine is an object. But there is another Ukraine story — a positive, bipartisan one. In this second story, Ukraine is the subject.
That’s a pretty direct poke to the midriff of national media. But they were happy to take it in trade for the nuance that Taylor delivered along with it. By the time Taylor’s remarks were delivered, national reporters were using the content as a framework to connect formerly disparate threads of the story to present a broader tapestry of a scandal involving multiple administration officials, tying together former pieces of loose string gathered by political reporters.Two pieces produced on the same daily news cycle as the Taylor testimony illustrate the degree to which traditional, source-based reporting, coupled with the instant dissemination of what historians would consider gold-standard, “primary” material — the sworn testimony of a participant in the story itself — can combine to provide a clear grasp of a complex subject in remarkably short order.
The day after Taylor’s long testimony, the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Greg Miller posted what stood as one of the most complete accounts of the Trump/Ukraine affair, using Taylor as a central character to provide, at long last, a detailed narrative to a story that previously had emerged primarily either as leaked or released partial accounts, often with little or no context.
Jaffe and Miller let readers see and feel the urgency of the Ukraine aid through the seasoned, empathetic eyes of Taylor. In the visually impactful opening lines of their story, in fact, they placed him within sight of the actual frontlines of Ukraine’s ongoing battle with Russian separatists. What had seemed a purely political fight gained instant gravitas, in geopolitical terms. Here is their lede, published just a day after Taylor’s testimony:
Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. looked out over the front lines of Ukraine’s long war with Russian-backed separatists last July, taking in a damaged bridge and then, farther in the distance, an “armed and hostile” enemy.
Taylor had taken the job of acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine reluctantly, he said in congressional testimony Tuesday. His decision came only after assurances from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in late May that President Trump was committed to helping Kyiv hold off forces, armed and funded by Moscow, that had besieged the country for nearly five years.
Now it was July and Taylor was already doubting both his decision and his country’s intentions.
The piece served the valuable purpose of not just repeating Taylor’s account, but employing it as a framework to contextualize previous reporting about both the Trump scandal and the fight for Crimea. Where Taylor had, in keeping with his nonpartisan demeanor, declined to go in his testimony, Jaffe and Miller quickly leapt, emphasizing the gravity of the Taylor testimony in terms of impeachment:
Perhaps most troubling, the ambassador couldn’t get a readout of a call that had taken place one day earlier on July 25 between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That conversation would trigger an extraordinary whistleblower complaint as well as a House impeachment inquiry that would threaten Trump’s presidency.
The Post account used Taylor’s most recent stint as ambassador to Ukraine as a timeline for the slow-drip realization of what now appears to be Trump emissaries working at cross purposes with Taylor and others to implement what they believed to be agreed-upon measures to bolster the Ukrainian government, resisting Russian aggression.
Coupled with a link to Taylor’s full testimony and other pieces detailing the Crimean situation and other reporting over the past year, the Post piece offered two facets that had been lacking in previous reporting: a relatable, human face by an apparent nonpartisan witness, and a full picture of what now appeared to be a long, concerted campaign by Trump to use the desperation of the Ukrainians for his apparent political self-interest.The New York Times, for its part, helped pave the way for the significance of Taylor’s testimony by establishing the diplomat’s credentials as a straight-shooting patriot. On the day of Taylor’s testimony, the Times’ Michael Crowley — similarly relying on the text of the prepared — profiled the West Point graduate in a piece that focused on Taylor’s initial reluctance to accept the recent Ukraine post, in spite of the call-to-duty appeal of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Crowley noted Taylor’s substantial previous service in Ukraine under the George W. Bush administration, explaining that his wife had suggested he steer clear of the post under Trump’s government. Taylor, the story notes, ultimately accepted when a trusted friend advised: “If your country asks you to do something, you do it — if you can be effective.”
In the Times’ piece, that broadly used quote bolstered a key finding of fact — one that likely would have gone without saying by sources or reporters before the present political era in which even civil servants are now often accused of partisan monkey-wrenching: Taylor was one person mostly immune from such criticism. From Crowley’s story:
Mr. Taylor, 72, accepted the post, becoming America’s de facto ambassador in Kiev for a brief but eventful tenure that gave him a clear view of how the Trump administration approached relations with Ukraine. Now he is a key witness in the scandal engulfing the Trump administration.
Unsaid, but clearly implied: Not by his own choosing.
The biographical piece noted Taylor’s distinctive military career and long diplomatic history, quoting former associates from both parties who “described Mr. Taylor in glowing terms and suggested that his credibility would be difficult for Mr. Trump’s allies to question.” Those comments stood in contrast to a quote from Stephanie Grisham, Trump’s press secretary, about a “coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.”
Crowley’s succeeding sentence:
But few, if any, people who have worked with him see a radical in Mr. Taylor, who is soft-spoken and conservative in demeanor.
The piece ended with a quote from Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a 25-year associate, that also took on a life of its own on cable news shows in the days following the Taylor testimony:
In the big picture, it’s too soon to know if Taylor will wind up being the John Dean of what now appears likely to be articles of impeachment of Trump by the U.S. House of Representatives. But his clear, almost journalistic accounting of events, and his keen focus on what he clearly felt to be implications critical to national security, beyond the bounds of domestic politics, may ultimately make him a historical figure of even greater significance.
If Bill Taylor says it happened, it happened.
His own testimony, both supplemented and enabled by deadline-produced accounts like those summarized here, will serve as the first, rough draft of this portion of U.S. political history — and Taylor’s place therein. And it was a chapter written, edited and sent to the public with a rapidity that would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, during previous national crises, such as the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon.
This troika of direct testimony, news analysis and biographical journalism illustrates the unique, digital-age ability of a careful reader to quickly grasp the enormity of even the most-intricate, politically charged subjects. But it also suggests a pair of additional challenges to media purveyors of that message.
One is that in the telling of the Trump story, in spite of the best attempts by many, those clarifying moments have proven exceedingly rare — a phenomenon both abetted and enjoyed by administration officials working diligently to smear all critical news as not only untrustworthy, but prone to error and generally incomplete.
The other is that in spite of dogged efforts to piece together parts of the latest impeachment scandal into a narrative whole, the benefit of direct, public involvement of a real person with a real name and face can’t be overstated. Even with similar summaries of testimony from other involved civil servants emerging from House committees — with the promise of much more to come, in the short term — it took the standing up in public of a uniquely central figure such as Taylor to link disparate elements of the Ukraine story together in a credible way, accessible to a non-wonk audience.
A lesson for storytellers, perhaps, in both determination and humility: Good reporters can produce plenty of soundalike notes. But sometimes it takes the focused breath of a whistleblower to bring a major story all the way into tune.