House impeachment investigators were busy beavers this weekend.
In addition to conducting a closed-door deposition, Democrats also released the transcript of last month’s testimony from Timothy Morrison, the top Russia and Europe adviser on Donald Trump’s National Security Council. He resigned just hours before testifying in the impeachment inquiry on Halloween.
Americans who were still paying attention after weeks of testimony from a dizzying array of current and former officials learned that Morrison largely corroborated the highly damaging testimony of Ambassador Bill Taylor. Essentially, he detailed the extent to which Trump and Gordon Sondland tied the disbursement of security assistance and a White House visit for Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky to a public announcement of investigations into Democrats and Joe Biden.
Although most of the notables from Morrison’s account were revealed around the time he was questioned, the transcript released this weekend provided some new details, including a previously unknown private meeting between John Bolton and Trump.
In August, Bolton attempted to convince the president to release the $391 million in military aid to Ukraine, arguing that it was paramount to the country’s effort to defend itself against Russia. Trump apparently didn’t care. “The extent of my recollection is that Ambassador Bolton simply said [Trump] wasn’t ready to do it”, Morrison said.
Bolton has balked at testifying, and House Democrats don’t seem particularly interested in pursuing the matter in court.
Morrison, who is set to testify publicly next week, described Sondland as problematic and underscored Fiona Hill’s account of the tension between Bolton and Trump’s “amigos” (as Sondland, Kurt Volker and Rick Perry came to call themselves). “My consistent direction from Ambassador Bolton was, ‘Do not get involved, and make sure the lawyers are tracking'”, Morrison said.
Following a meeting between Mike Pence and Zelensky in Warsaw on September 1, Morrison says Sondland spoke with a top aide to the Ukrainian president. Later, Sondland told Morrison that he informed the Ukrainians that “what could help them move the aid was if the prosecutor general would to go the mic and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation”.
On the bright side for Trump’s defenders, Morrison did express skepticism about Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the decorated US Army officer who listened to the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky and reported his concerns to White House lawyer John Eisenberg, only to be instructed to keep quiet (according to Vindman’s account). It was Eisenberg, you’re reminded, who ordered the account of the call sequestered away on a code-word server, where it remained until the transcript was released by Trump himself.
Morrison claims the call accidentally landed on the secure server. “[Eisenberg] related that he did not ask for it to be put on there, but that the Executive Secretariat staff misunderstood his recommendation for how to restrict access”, Morrison told Congress. He also says he “had concerns that [Vindman] did not exercise appropriate judgment as to whom he would say what”.
Meanwhile, lawmakers questioned Mark Sandy, a budget official involved in the hold on the Ukraine aid. He said he was never given a plausible explanation for why the military assistance was held up. Sandy told lawmakers he actively sought legal advice. He was the first OMB employee to testify in the impeachment inquiry. Other officials in the office have stonewalled Congress.
And then there was the transcript of State department aide Jennifer Williams, who, during an interview this month, elaborated on Mike Pence’s decision not to attend Zelensky’s inauguration and described the July 25 call as “political in nature”, “unusual” and “inappropriate”.
Morrison said last month he did not find the call to be illegal or necessarily problematic, although he did express some concern to White House counsel about the prospect of the details leaking to the public, something he believed could be damaging to the president.
If you’re wondering how it’s possible to reconcile the contention that a phone call isn’t problematic with telling the White House the details should probably not be allowed to leak to the public, you’ll have to ask Morrison.