WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As another key career diplomat witness appeared on Tuesday in the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, Trump called himself the victim of a “lynching,” a comment that dredged up a painful chapter in race relations and was swiftly condemned by numerous lawmakers.
William Taylor, who as the charge d’affaires is the top U.S. envoy in Ukraine, walked past journalists without answering questions as he made his way into the U.S. Capitol for closed-door testimony to the three Democratic-led House of Representatives committees leading the inquiry.
Taylor’s appearance marks another pivotal development in the political drama unfolding in Washington – focusing on Republican Trump’s request to Ukraine to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden – that threatens Trump’s presidency even as he pursues re-election in 2020.
Trump, a day after calling on his fellow Republicans to get tougher in defending him in the inquiry, inflamed the controversy by writing on Twitter, “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”
African American lawmakers and others denounced Trump here for the remark because of the past U.S. history of lynching of black people, particularly in formerly pro-slavery Southern states.
“Lynching is a reprehensible stain on this nation’s history, as is this President. We’ll never erase the pain and trauma of lynching, and to invoke that torture to whitewash your own corruption is disgraceful,” Senator Kamala Harris, a Democratic presidential contender, wrote on Twitter.
But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, whose home state of South Carolina has a large black population, defended Trump’s language, saying that “this is a lynching in every sense. This is un-American.”
Trump’s administration has not cooperated in the impeachment inquiry, seeking to block testimony and documents. The House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena to compel Taylor’s testimony after the State Department had directed him not to appear, an official involved in the inquiry said.
The House is focusing on Trump’s request during a July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that he investigate former vice president Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. Biden is a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to face Trump. Hunter Biden had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Trump made his request – described by Democrats as an improper invitation for foreign interference in an American election – after withholding $391 million in security aid approved by the U.S. Congress to help combat Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to the request. The aid was later released.
Taylor mentioned his concern about withholding U.S. aid on Sept. 9 to Kurt Volker, the State Department’s then special envoy to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in a text message provided to investigators and later made public.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote.
Taylor was tapped to serve as charge d’affaires in Kiev, where he had served as U.S. ambassador from 2006 to 2009, after Trump in May abruptly removed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani had portrayed her as resisting his efforts to push Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Yovanovitch testified in the impeachment inquiry on Oct. 11.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and accused Democrats of trying to oust him to prevent him from being re-elected.
Trump’s lynching remark was his latest racially tinged comment, coming two years after he said there were “very fine people on both sides” after clashes at a rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic caucus, urged Trump to apologize for his lynching comment.
Some Republicans denounced Trump’s language.
Senator Susan Collins wrote on Twitter, “‘Lynching’ brings back images of a terrible time in our nation’s history, and the President never should have made that comparison.”
Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger called on Trump to retract the remark, writing on Twitter, “We can all disagree on the process, and argue merits. But never should we use terms like ‘lynching’ here. The painful scourge in our history has no comparison to politics.”
Tim Scott, the sole black Republican in the Senate who like Graham represents South Carolina, told reporters he understands Trump likening the impeachment inquiry to a “death row trial,” but added, “I wouldn’t use the word lynching.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters, “That’s not the language I would use.”
If the Democratic-led House approves of articles of impeachment – formal charges – against Trump, the Republican-led Senate would then hold a trial on whether to remove Trump from office. Few Republicans have shown an inclination to remove him.
(Graphic: The impeachment inquiry – here)
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Richard Cowan, David Morgan, Doina Chiacu and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler and Grant McCool