WASHINGTON — President Richard Nixon was undone by his secret White House tapes. Could President Trump be unraveled by Bill Taylor's notebooks?

On Wednesday, House Democrats announced that their leadoff witness at the start of public impeachment hearings next week will be one William Brockenbrough Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. At the same time, the House Intelligence Committee revealed why Democrats believe Taylor will be a formidable witness: He has a nearly hour-by-hour account of developments in the Ukraine scandal.

In the transcript, released Wednesday, of his 10-hour, closed-door deposition, Taylor explained how he kept meticulous notes of his every interaction since the Trump administration brought him back from retirement earlier this year to serve in Ukraine.

"I keep a little notebook where I take notes on conversations, in particular when I'm not in the office, so, in meetings with Ukrainian officials or when I'm out and I get a phone call I can keep notes," he testified, according to the now-public transcript. He also kept "handwritten notes that I take on a small, little spiral notebook in my office of phone calls that take place in my office."

He also kept the encrypted WhatsApp messages he exchanged with Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker, Rudy Giuliani and others at the center of the scandal. Together, they paint a near-comprehensive picture of the Ukraine imbroglio, from the ouster of the former ambassador to the attempts to condition U.S. aid and a presidential meeting on an announcement by the Ukrainian president that his country would investigate Joe Biden's son and the Democrats.

Trump administration officials have refused to turn over documents to the impeachment inquiry. They have persuaded a dozen top officials to defy subpoenas for their testimony. But they couldn't do anything about Bill Taylor's notes. His scribbles and texts provided the road map that congressional investigators used to confirm Taylor's account with other central participants.

As the deposition transcript reveals, Taylor's notes show that White House officials knew well in advance of the president's now-infamous call with Ukraine's president that their actions could be problematic. Taylor recounted how Sondland, before a June call with the Ukrainian president, got the State Department not to allow stenographers on the call, as was typical.

You won't hear anybody say, "read the transcript!" for that one.

Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, also rescheduled the call time but didn't tell diplomats who were supposed to be on the line, Taylor testified.

Taylor described the July 18 video conference when a disembodied voice of a budget official said U.S. aid to Ukraine had been suspended and "the directive had come from the president." It became his "clear understanding," Taylor testified, that unless the Ukrainian president pursued Trump's politically motivated investigations, he wouldn't get the military aid or a presidential audience.

Taylor recalled that Ukrainian officials "were just desperate" upon learning the aid was held up. He said the Ukrainians understood they were being presented with a "condition" -- that is, a quid pro quo -- for a meeting with Trump. He recalled the ire of national security adviser John Bolton and others when they realized what Giuliani's crew was doing.

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Taylor is a credible witness by virtue of his résumé: West Point. Infantry officer with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. A diplomat under every administration since Ronald Reagan's. He didn't want the job when Trump officials recruited him: "I was concerned that there was … a snake pit in Kyiv and a snake pit here."

But he's also effective because he wrestles the snakes with skill. From the first moments of his deposition, Republicans interrupted with procedural complaints — "This whole hearing is out of order," proclaimed Rep. Chip Roy, R-Tex. — then tried to probe him on Burisma, the Ukrainian firm that Hunter Biden advised.

Wasn't Burisma "a shady organization"?

"I don't want to say more than I know."

Was Biden "tapped for the board because his dad was the vice president"?

"I'm here as a fact witness."

He further explained that while it is acceptable for the United States to ask for help from Ukraine on possible violations of U.S. law, it's "improper" to pressure another country to investigate violations of its own law — and extraordinary to insist that they investigate a specific company.

But that is what Trump did with Giuliani's shadow — and shadowy — operation. They tried to conceal what they were doing in advance, cover it up later and stiff-arm the congressional investigation. But it's all right there, in Bill Taylor's little notebooks.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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