Both sides claim win in White House official's impeachment testimony

Lawmakers in both parties are seizing on the testimony of an outgoing top White House Russia expert to bolster their arguments about whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE inappropriately pressured a foreign government to open investigations that would benefit him politically.
 
Tim Morrison, a senior National Security Council (NSC) aide who is leaving the White House, appeared for more than eight hours behind closed doors in the Capitol on Thursday, delivering testimony in which he both verified previous witness accounts of a quid pro quo with Ukraine and asserted that he saw nothing “illegal” in Trump’s dealings with Kiev.
 
Morrison’s testimony as part of the House impeachment inquiry provided ammunition for both parties, who have clashed for weeks over the appropriateness of efforts by Trump and his allies to have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky open investigations into Trump’s domestic political opponents.
 
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Morrison told lawmakers he saw nothing illegal in Trump’s July 25 phone call, and Republicans — while declining to weigh in on specifics of the deposition — said the testimony undermined the allegations that the president withheld nearly $400 million in financial aid from Ukraine in order to receive the requested probes.
 
“In the last seven hours of testimony from Mr. Morrison, anyone who has been listening to that testimony would conclude that the impeachment effort by the Democrats has huge holes — the size of which would’ve sank the Titanic,” Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMichelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award Sondland testimony looms over impeachment hearings this week Democrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing MORE (R-N.C.), a prominent Trump defender, said towards the end of Morrison’s deposition.
 
But Democrats characterized his testimony as supporting the previous and damning accounts of other witnesses like William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, who testified last week that he believed there was a quid pro quo over releasing the Ukraine aid.
 
“If [Republicans are] suggesting he raised no red flags, then they're lying. Because he did, multiple times,” said a source familiar with the closed-door testimony. “If their great breakthrough is that a former Republican House staffer is not saying, 'I hate President Trump' — give me a break."
 
The conflicting interpretations of the same testimony highlight the degree to which the parties are digging in as the Democrats’ impeachment investigation charges ahead, with public hearings expected to be held within weeks for the televised world to see.
 
The clashing assessments are also reflective, lawmakers said, of how cautiously Morrison chose his remarks.
 
Multiple sources indicated that the former House GOP staffer was careful with his wording, expressing both concern with Trump’s actions — by corroborating key parts of Taylor’s testimony — while also side-stepping direct criticism of the president.
 
“I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed,” Morrison said about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, according to a copy of his prepared remarks obtained by The Hill.
 
But a source familiar with his deposition told The Hill that when later pressed by House investigators whether he believed what the president said on his call with Zelensky was “legal,” Morrison declined to offer a verdict.
 
The White House official appeared after being issued a subpoena by House Democrats, and as other officials refused to testify for the inquiry. On the eve of his closed-door testimony, reports emerged that Morrison would be leaving the White House.
 
Morrison told lawmakers Thursday that he "can confirm that the substance" of the prepared statement Taylor made to House investigators “is accurate,” in terms of conversations the two had together, but that his view of events differ on two minor details.
 
While Morrison didn’t elaborate in his prepared remarks, Taylor testified that in a Sept. 7 conversation with Morrison, the NSC official described a “sinking feeling” that resulted from Trump telling U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland that there was no “quid pro quo,” all while continuing to insist that Zelensky should publicly announce that he is “opening investigations of [former Vice President Joe] Biden and the 2016 election interference, and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself,” according to a copy of Taylor’s opening remarks.
 
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Morrison, though, noted that one of the details he remembered differently from Taylor’s testimony was that Sondland told a top Zelensky aide that security assistance would not come until the new prosecutor general — not Zelensky, as Taylor testified — committed to opening a probe into Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that employed Biden's son, Hunter.
 
 
“Throughout the testimony I’ve listened to there have been a lot of puzzle pieces filled in to what is like a thousand piece puzzle,” she said, “and [the] subsequent witness … drew that direct line more clearly.”
 
Morrison’s testimony landed on the same day the House approved a resolution laying out the rules governing future steps in Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. It passed by a vote of 232-196, largely along party lines.
 
House Democrats are investigating, among other things, whether the Trump administration linked military aid to Ukraine to the country's pursuit of investigations sought by Trump. The president has insisted his call was "perfect" and that there was no quid pro quo, though prior witness testimony has conflicted with his claims.
 
The only possible criminal allegation that has come up is a possible campaign finance violation, but the Justice Department dismissed the possibility and declined to investigate further.
 
Morrison, who replaced Fiona Hill as the senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council (NSC), also said Thursday that he wasn't concerned about the accuracy of a partial readout of the phone call released earlier this year by the White House.
 
“To the best of my recollection, the MemCon [memorandum of conversation] accurately and completely reflects the substance of the call,” said Morrison, a conservative political appointee and former counsel to Republicans on the Armed Services Committee.
 
Morrison, who was recruited by national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonFive bombshells from explosive Sondland testimony Chris Wallace: Sondland testimony 'took out the bus and ran over' Trump, top aides Live coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption MORE, also laid out several concerns he feared would result if the readout leaked, including how it would be received in “Washington's polarized environment” and how it would affect the U.S. relationship with Ukraine — both in Congress as well as the public perceptions of it.
 
Morrison said he learned that the nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine was being held up from his superior, Charles Kupperman, saying he initially believed it was because the “President thought Ukraine had a corruption problem” and that he wanted Europe to contribute more money. But he said he later learned that Sondland was pushing for the investigations into the 2016 election and Burisma.
 
“Even then I hoped that Ambassador Sondland's strategy was exclusively his own and would not be considered by leaders in the Administration and Congress, who understood the strategic importance of Ukraine to our national security," he said.
 
Before that conversation, Morrison recalled that he and Taylor were concerned Ukraine would start asking questions about the aid holdup, and they were concerned how to respond to such inquiries because they did not want the foreign country to doubt the U.S.’s commitment to Ukraine.
 
He added that he did not have reason to believe Ukrainians knew the aid was withheld until late August.
 
Morrison also stated to members on the three House committees that his departure from the White House is not related to his closed-door testimony with House investigators.
 
"I have not submitted a formal resignation at this time because I do not want anyone to think there is a connection between my testimony today and my impending departure. I plan to finalize my transition from the NSC after my testimony is complete," he wrote, pointing to his 19 years in service.