NSC Official Faults Sondland's Role In 'Shadow' Ukraine Policy

Nov 17, 2019
Originally published on November 19, 2019 10:44 am

Tim Morrison, the former top Russia official on President Trump's National Security Council, testified to House investigators that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador of the European Union, was leading an effort to get Ukraine to reopen an investigation into a company with ties to the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Morrison said Sondland had repeated contact with Trump and believed he had a mandate from the president to work on a second channel involving Rudy Giuliani, president Trump's personal attorney, outside the normal interagency process pressing for the investigation. But Morrison also raised several questions about whether Trump, himself, did anything wrong.

He recalled being warned by his predecessor, Fiona Hill, to stay away from the alternative track and anything to do with the investigation of the Ukraine energy company, Burisma, where Biden's son, Hunter, sat on the board.

"The way I recall processing it was when I went out and I googled 'What is Burisma?' and I saw Hunter Biden, I said, okay, yeah, that sounds night, I'll stay away," Morrison testified.

Morrison is the latest witness to put Sondland at the center of the House investigation into whether President Trump withheld nearly $400 million in U.S. military assistance to pressure Ukraine to help Trump politically.

House investigators released the transcript Saturday of the Oct. 31 closed-door deposition just days before Morrison is set to testify at the request of Republican lawmakers.

In a joint statement, the three chairs of the House committees leading the inquiry, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Eliot L. Engel and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, said the testimony provides a first-hand account "that U.S. military assistance, not just a White House meeting, was conditioned on their public announcement of political investigations that the President wanted."

Morrison is one of the few witnesses with direct knowledge of the president's interaction with his Ukrainian counterpart. The arms-control expert was listening in on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Almost immediately after the call, Morrison suggested to NSC lawyers to restrict access to the transcript. But he also said he did not think anything illegal or improper took place on the call. Instead, Morrison was concerned that the transcript would be leaked and ultimately could harm bipartisan support of Ukraine.

Morrison told Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., that he was so concerned about Sondland's actions at the time — and uncertain of any involvement by the president — that he felt the need to keep a record in order to "protect" Trump.

"Congresswoman, I'm still not completely certain that this was coming from the President," Morrison testified. "I'm only getting this from Ambassador Sondland."

Republicans, such as Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, appeared to explain the holdup of aid as simply a case of the White House sizing up Zelenskiy to be sure he could be trusted. Successive U.S. administrations, including Trump's, have raised concern about Ukraine's perceived problem with corruption.

Morrison said he always hoped aid would be released, but did not expect it because of Trump's professed skepticism toward foreign aid. He said his view was based on the "President's general antipathy to foreign aid, as well as his concern that the Ukrainians were not paying their fair share, as well as his concern when our aid would be misused because of the view that Ukraine has a significant corruption problem."

Morrison did say, however, that the mention of the investigations during the July 25 call between the president and his Ukrainian counterpart "seemed unusual" compared to other presidential conversations.

Morrison said he was very concerned about the alternative channel of foreign policy led by Sondland. He tried to keep himself and his office away from it.

"At some point I became concerned that this parallel process was going to turn into something — and here we are," he said. "So I wanted to keep my people focused on their mission and not dragged into anything if they could help it."

Sondland will testify publicly next week.

Earlier this month, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, revised his earlier testimony acknowledging to investigators that he had told a high-ranking Ukrainian official that Zelenskiy's government would have to commit to an investigation in order to receive millions in allocated military aid.

On Friday, a State Department official, David Holmes, testified that he was with Sondland in Ukraine the day after the July 25 call. The two were at a restaurant when Holmes overheard a phone conversation between Sondland and Trump where Trump asked about the status of investigations. He also testified that Sondland said Trump cared more about an investigation into the Bidens than about Ukraine.

Morrison said former National Security Adviser John Bolton also was frustrated with Sondland's role. At Bolton's urging, Morrison suggested William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, tell the Ukrainians not to make the investigations statement.

Morrison said he also spoke twice with top White House lawyer, John Eisenberg, about his concerns, including about a possible leak of the July 25 call. But Morrison said the rough transcript of Trump's call was put on a highly classified system by mistake. Eisenberg agreed that access to the call should be restricted, but Morrison said Eisenberg later told him he did not ask for the call to be put on the special server, but others misunderstood his request.

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