White House Russia expert defends Trump-Ukraine call: Nothing 'illegal'

Tim Morrison, the outgoing top White House Russia expert, testified behind closed doors that he doesn't believe anything illegal was discussed during President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.

“I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed,” Morrison said in the remarks.

Trump's GOP allies in Congress quickly framed Morrison's testimony as evidence that there was no quid pro quo surrounding Trump's interactions with Ukrainian leaders, while Democrats argued that his testimony only underscored their concerns about the call.

"I don't think you'll get any opening statements leaked from the Democrats today," said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsHouse Republicans prepare for public impeachment proceedings with mock hearing Live updates on impeachment: Schiff fires warning at GOP over whistleblower Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE (R-N.C.), who characterized Morrison's remarks as "very damaging to the Democrats' narrative."

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Democrats maintained that Morrison, by corroborating key elements of previous testimony heard by investigators, only further validated the initial allegations that Trump pressured a foreign government to provide a "favor" that could benefit him politically at home.

"I guess they have to try to put a spin on it," said Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiImpeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Warren doubles down — to Democrats' chagrin, and Trump's delight Hillicon Valley: Google buying Fitbit for .1B | US launches national security review of TikTok | Twitter shakes up fight over political ads | Dems push committee on 'revenge porn' law MORE (D-N.J.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. "But awhile ago they were saying, 'There's nothing here because there's no quid pro quo.' Take a look at the opening statement. It's crystal clear. ... It's overwhelming."

Scrutiny of Trump's July 25 call with Ukraine's president has been largely focused on whether Trump did something improper by asking Kiev to launch investigations involving former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, and the 2016 election.

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 testimony has conflicted with his claims.

Several witnesses have testified that they were concerned about Trump's demands, including Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who this week said he didn't think it was right for the president to pressure Ukraine under those circumstances. Vindman and other witnesses also worried that this would undermine bipartisan support for Ukraine.

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 Bolton, 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 perceptions of it.

Morrison also said he "can confirm that the substance" of a statement Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, made to House investigators “is accurate” in terms of conversations the two had together, but that his view of events differ on two details including a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.

Taylor testified earlier this month that in a phone conversation on Sept. 7, Morrison described a “sinking feeling” that resulted from Trump telling Sondland there was no “quid pro quo,” all while continuing to insist that Zelensky should publicly announce that he is “opening investigations of Biden and the 2016 election interference, and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself.” 

In another conversation on Sept. 1, Taylor testified that Sondland told top Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak that security assistance aid would not come until Zelensky committed to opening a probe into Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy company that employed Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report Giuliani pens op-ed slamming 'unprecedented' impeachment inquiry MORE's son Hunter Biden.

“My recollection is that Ambassador Sondland's proposal to Mr. Yermak was that it could be sufficient if the new Ukrainian prosecutor general — not President Zelensky — would commit to pursue the Burisma investigation,” Morrison's opening statement reads.

Morrison said he learned that the nearly $400 in U.S. aid to Ukraine was being held up from his superior, Charles Kupperman, after he took over his NSC role from Hill, who has also testified behind closed doors.

“I was aware that the President thought Ukraine had a corruption problem, as did many others familiar with Ukraine. I was also aware that the President believed that Europe did not contribute enough assistance to Ukraine,” Morrison’s prepared remarks read.

He said in the Sept. 1 conversation with Sondland that he hoped that strategy was being carried out solely by the E.U. diplomat.

“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."

Before that conversation, Morrison recalled that he and Taylor were concerned Ukraine would start asking questions about the aid holdup, though he expressed confidence that the administration’s national security principals “were genuinely invested in their anti-corruption agenda.”

He added that he did not have reason to believe Ukrainians knew the aid was withheld until late August.

NPR reported news of Morrison's departure Wednesday, on the eve of his closed-door testimony.

Morrison stated to members on 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 writes, pointing to his 19 years in service.

– Mike Lillis contributed

Updated: 2:55 p.m.