By Erin Woo
Key impeachment witness William Taylor, a former top diplomat in Ukraine, called diplomacy’s official channels “a defense against tyranny” in a Tuesday talk that ranged from his time in Ukraine to his lasting support for its president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“The regular channel is the institution, the conscience of foreign policy,” Taylor told a sold-out room at Encina Hall.
In his talk, Taylor contrasted his “regular channel” diplomacy with the “irregular channel” through which, Taylor testified during the impeachment hearings, President Donald Trump attempted to leverage $391 million in aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
Taylor, a decorated veteran and career diplomat, was working in the nonpartisan think tank U.S. Institute of Peace last spring when his former colleague at the State Department George Kent called him to ask him if he would “hypothetically” like to return to Ukraine, where Taylor had served as ambassador from 2006-2009.
The next day, Taylor said, Kent called back: “It’s no longer hypothetical.”
Against his wife’s advice, Taylor decided to take the position, with assurances from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Ukraine still enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
“I just heard from the Vindmans’ wives that there is a hashtag for wives whose husbands don’t listen to them: ‘We are all Mrs. Taylor,’” Taylor said, referring to the brothers Alexander and Yevgeny Vindman, who were fired in a post-impeachment purge earlier this month. Alexander testified in the impeachment hearings against the President.
He arrived in Ukraine in June to take over an embassy reeling over the loss of its ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted after resisting Giuliani’s shadow foreign policy campaign. As the summer wore on, Taylor said, he realized that there was an “irregular channel” led by Giuliani, operating separately from the diplomacy he was conducting.
“The Ukrainian government … was confused,” he said. “They heard one message from me in the regular channel and all of the work that we were doing with them and then they also heard something a little bit dissonant, a little bit unusual, a little bit odd, in the irregular channel.”
“I don’t have to tell this group all the details of that,” he added. “If anyone wants to know the details of that, I can refer you to some testimony.”
In the aftermath of the impeachment hearings — during which Taylor was treated as a star witness for House Democrats — he stepped down from his post at the beginning of this year, telling The New York Times in December that he was leaving because his temporary appointment was set to expire.
Since Taylor’s departure, Kristina Kvien has served as the interim charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Though Taylor expressed his support for her, he emphasized the need for a permanent ambassador to Ukraine.
“Ukraine’s on our front line of our freedom,” he said.
Taylor told his audience at Encina Hall that Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president — the 42-year-old former star of the sitcom “Servant of the People,” in which he had played the president of Ukraine — was a “smart, charming, engaging, focused person,” but that “he doesn’t have a deep background or deep bench.”
Taylor praised Zelensky’s success in changing Ukraine’s constitution to eliminate parliamentary immunity, which had previously protected members of the parliament from criminal charges.
Now, Zelensky needs to focus on getting Russian forces out of the Donbass region of Ukraine and on fighting corruption at home, Taylor said.
When an attendee asked him what advice he would give to Zelensky during the 2020 campaign, Taylor said that Zelensky should “recognize that [his] most valuable strategic asset in Washington, D.C. is bipartisan support.”
“You, Mr. President, should not do anything to jeopardize that bipartisan support,” Taylor said. “You should stay out of our election totally, and we’ll stay out of your election.”
Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.