Testimony of former National Security Council aide ties Trump closer to pressure on Ukraine

Tim Morrison, the top Russia official on President Trump's National Security Council. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Updated 17 November 2019

Testimony of former National Security Council aide ties Trump closer to pressure on Ukraine

  • Former National Security Council aide Tim Morrison recounts that Sondland told him he was discussing the Ukraine matters directly with Trump

WASHINGTON: Gordon Sondland, President Donald Trump’s emissary to the European Union, had a message when he met with a top Ukrainian official.
Sondland said vital US military assistance to Ukraine might be freed up if the country’s top prosecutor “would go to the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” a US official told lawmakers. Burisma is the gas company in Ukraine where Democrat Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board.
Sondland relayed the exchange moments later to Tim Morrison, then a National Security Council aide. In his private testimony to impeachment investigators made public Saturday, Morrison recounted that Sondland also told him he was discussing the Ukraine matters directly with Trump.
Morrison’s testimony ties Trump more closely to the central charge from Democrats pursuing impeachment: that Trump held up US military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations into Democrats and Biden’s family. Morrison’s testimony also contradicts much of what Sondland told congressional investigators during his own closed-door deposition, which the ambassador later amended.
Both Morrison and Sondland are scheduled to testify publicly next week as part of the historic, high-stakes impeachment proceedings into the nation’s 45th president. Democrats charge that Trump abused his office for personal political gain, while the president and his allies argue that the process is politically motivated and that nothing in the testimony so far meets the bar for impeachment.
Transcripts from the closed-door testimony from Morrison, a longtime Republican defense hawk in Washington, and Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence on Russia and Europe, were released Saturday as investigators accelerated and deepened the probe. They provided another window into the alarm within the government over Ukraine pressure.
Immediately after the exchange with Sondland during an international gathering in Warsaw, Morrison called his boss, John Bolton, then Trump’s national security adviser.
“Stay out of it,” Bolton told him, “brief the lawyers.”
For Morrison, Burisma was a catch-all for a “bucket” of investigations — of Democrats and the family of Joe Biden — that he wanted to “stay away from.” They had nothing to do with “the proper policy process that I was involved in on Ukraine,” he testified.
Morrison said Sondland and Trump had spoken approximately five times between July 15 and Sept. 11 — the weeks that $391 million in US assistance was withheld from Ukraine before it was released.
While some, including Trump himself, have begun to question Sondland’s knowledge of events, Morrison told House investigators the ambassador “related to me he was acting — he was discussing these matters with the President.”
Pressed by Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee leading the probe, as to whether Sondland had actually spoken to the president, Morrison said he had verified it each time.
Pence, so far, has been a more unseen figure in the impeachment inquiry, but testimony from Williams raised fresh questions about what Pence knew about Trump’s actions toward Ukraine.
Pence was also at the Warsaw gathering. For the new government of Ukraine, situated between NATO allies and Russia, the security aid Congress had already approved was a lifeline to the West.
Williams was among the staffers in the White House Situation Room who listened and took notes during Trump’s July 25 call when he asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for “a favor.” A whistleblower’s complaint about that call helped spark the House impeachment investigation.
Williams testified that Trump’s discussion on the call of specific investigations struck her as “unusual and inappropriate” and seemed to point to “other motivations” for holding up the military aid.
After the call, Williams told investigators, she put the White House’s rough transcript into the into the vice president’s daily briefing book.
“I just don’t know if he read it,” she said.
Williams corroborated the testimony of a previous witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an NSC aide on the call, who said the White House dropped the word “Burisma” from the transcript. She said in an addendum to her testimony that Zelenskiy had mentioned the word “Burisma” in the call.
Vindman and Williams at scheduled to testify together during a public impeachment hearing on Tuesday morning.
The White House’s decision to put the transcript of the July 25 call on a highly classified server has drawn keen interest throughout the probe. But Morrison said the unusual move was unintentional.
Morrison said he was concerned if the call got out it would be politically damaging. He talked to White House lawyer John Eisenberg and they agreed that access should be restricted, he testified.
But Morrison said Eisenberg later told him that he did not intend for the call summary to be placed on a highly classified server. Eisenberg’s staff apparently put it there by mistake, he said.
As the transcripts were released, impeachment investigators wrapped up a rare Saturday session interviewing Mark Sandy, a little-known career official at the Office of Management and Budget who was involved in key meetings about the aid package.
Sandy’s name had barely come up in previous testimony. But it did on one particular date: July 25, the day of Trump’s call with Zelenskiy. That day, a legal document with Sandy’s signature directed a freeze of the security funds to Ukraine, according to testimony.
Throughout Morrison’s account, he largely confirmed testimony from current and former officials about what has been described as a shadow diplomacy being run by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, often at odds with US national security interests.
A few days after the Warsaw meeting, Sondland was on the phone telling Morrison Sept. 7 he had just gotten off a call with the president.
Morrison said Sondland related that Trump assured him there were no strings being attached to the military aid for Ukraine.
“The president told him there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelenskiy must announce the opening of the investigations and he should want to do it,” Morrison testified.
Morrison had what he called a “sinking feeling” that the aid may not ultimately be released. About that time, three congressional committees said they were launching inquiries into efforts by Trump and Giuliani to investigate the Bidens.
At a Sept. 11 meeting at the White House, Pence and GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio “convinced the president that the aid should be disbursed immediately,” said Morrison, who said he was briefed about the meeting but did not attend it. “The case was made to the president that it was the appropriate and prudent thing to do.”

  


Euro MPs set seal on Brexit in emotional vote

Updated 46 min 35 sec ago

Euro MPs set seal on Brexit in emotional vote

  • The UK will leave the EU at midnight Brussels time (2300 GMT) on Friday

BRUSSELS: Britain’s departure from the European Union was set in law Wednesday, amid emotional scenes, as the bloc’s parliament voted to ratify the divorce papers.
After half a century of sometimes awkward membership and three years of tense withdrawal talks, the UK will leave the EU at midnight Brussels time (2300 GMT) on Friday.
MEPs voted by 621 votes to 49 to pass the withdrawal agreement, which sees Britain leave the EU institutions but remain under most EU rules during a transition until the end of the year.
Following the vote, MEPs burst into a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” a traditional Scottish song of farewell.
The transition will see Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government try to negotiate an ambitious free trade agreement with his 27 former partners remaining in the bloc.
“Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depth of love,” EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told the chamber, quoting British author George Eliot.
“We will always love you and we will never be far. Long live Europe.”
In the Brussels parliament, many MEPs made it clear that they were voting for the withdrawal deal not out of any support for Brexit, but to avoid the disruption of a chaotic no deal divorce.
Some expressed real anguish and regret, and pointed to Britain’s role not only in the development of the European unification project but also to its historic battles against tyranny on the continent.
“If we could stop Brexit by voting ‘no’ today I would be the first to recommend it,” former Belgian premier and chairman of the parliament’s Brexit steering group Guy Verhofstadt said.
The day began with Britain’s permanent representative to the EU Tim Barrow — from Saturday to be its ambassador — handing back the withdrawal agreement signed by Johnson, to be stored in Brussels.
It was an emotional day in the chamber, steeped in a mixture of nostalgia, political carnival and historical metaphor.
Nigel Farage, veteran MEP and leader of Britain’s Brexit Party, was in triumphant mood after two decades as a thorn in Brussels’ side.
After his final speech in parliament, in which he described Brexit as a victory for populism over “globalism,” Farage and his MEPs brandished British flags, in contravention of the rules, then left before returning to vote.
Earlier, Farage said he had loved playing the “pantomime villain” in the Strasbourg assembly, feeding opposition to Europe at home with theatrical YouTube clips.
But he insisted on the seriousness of Brexit, comparing its significance to king Henry VIII taking Britain out of the Catholic church in 1534.
“He took us out of the Church of Rome, and we are leaving the Treaty of Rome,” he said, referring to the EU’s 1957 founding document.
The historic vote to incorporate the withdrawal agreement into EU law was the last legislative act of the 73 remaining British MEPs, and departure was hard for some.
Iratxe Garcia Perez, the Spanish leader of the Socialist group, choked back tears as she said farewell to her British Labour Party comrades.
After Brexit the United Kingdom will be what the EU calls a “third country,” outside the union, but the political and economic drama will continue.
Britain and Europe will apply EU rules on trade and free movement of citizens until the end of the year, while negotiating a free trade agreement.
In the face of skepticism in EU capitals, Johnson — who will make an address to the nation at 10:00 p.m. London time on Friday — insists he is optimistic that a comprehensive free trade deal can be done before the next cliff-edge.
In an online question and answer on Wednesday Johnson said he would be celebrating on Friday, but in a “dignified” way.
“It is a great moment for our country, it is a moment of hope and opportunity but it is also, I think, a moment for us to come together in a spirit of confidence,” he said.
But negotiations between the world’s sixth biggest economy and a 27-nation single market with a population of 450 million will be tricky.
Fishing rights, residency and working rights for citizens, tariff free trade, access to Europe for Britain’s huge services sector: all will be on the table.
“We are considering a free trade agreement with zero tariffs and zero quotas. This would be unique. No other free trade agreement offers such access to our single market,” von der Leyen said.
“But the pre-condition is that European and British businesses continue to compete on a level playing field. We will not expose our companies to unfair competition,” she warned, to applause.
Johnson’s government hopes more trade with the United States and Asian powers can help offset the costs of Brexit.
But the British premier was facing difficult talks on Thursday with President Donald Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
Trump backed Brexit, but Washington opposed Johnson’s decision to allow Chinese telecoms giant to work on Britain’s 5G telecoms network despite security fears.

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