National Security

Top NSC aide puts Sondland at front lines of Ukraine campaign, speaking for Trump

A senior White House official told House impeachment investigators last month that President Trump’s hand-picked ambassador to Europe had pushed — on behalf of Trump himself — for Ukraine’s president to launch two investigations that could help Trump politically.

Tim Morrison, a top aide at the National Security Council (NSC) who was expected to depart the White House after his testimony, said Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the E.U., had huddled with a top Ukrainian representative on Sept. 1, when he relayed the message that the release of U.S. military aid to the besieged country hinged on Kyiv opening the investigations Trump sought. 

“What he communicated was that he believed … what could help them move the aid was if the prosecutor general would go to the mic and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” Morrison testified privately on Oct. 31, according to the transcript released Saturday by Democrats leading the impeachment investigation.  

“Ambassador Sondland believed and at least related to me that the president was giving him instruction,” Morrison added. 

On Sept. 7, the marching orders changed, Morrison said, after Sondland spoke directly with Trump, who insisted that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself should announce the investigations into Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 elections — both of which could help Trump politically heading into 2020. 

Even while Trump was insisting vocally that there was no quid pro quo, Morrison testified, he was demanding that Sondland convey to Kyiv that very thing.

“[Sondland] related the president told him there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelensky had to do it and he should want to do it,” Morrison said.

Morrison was among the national security officials on the now-famous July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, in which Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart for “a favor” in the form of the investigations. 

And while Morrison’s opening statement asserts he was “not concerned that anything illegal was discussed” on that call — for which Trump thanked him earlier this month — the full transcript offers a more fulsome picture, particularly his concerns about Sondland, who at one point he described as a “problem.” 

“My concern was what Gordon was proposing about getting the Ukrainians pulled into our politics,” he said. 

The new details came as Democrats on Saturday released a pair of witness transcripts guiding their impeachment investigation, opening the latest window into the closed-door interviews that have dominated their examination of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. 

Jennifer Williams, a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence whose deposition transcript was also released Saturday, separately testified that during a Sept. 1 meeting between Zelensky and Pence, Zelensky emphasized that, with Ukraine at war with Russia, “the symbolic value of U.S. support in terms of security assistance that was just as valuable to the Ukrainians as the actual dollars.”

Morrison — who Republicans put on their witness list — and Williams are slated to testify at a joint public hearing on Tuesday. Sondland is scheduled to appear, by himself, the following day.  

Sondland, who also testified privately last month, had initially denied that Trump had dangled nearly $400 million in U.S. aid in exchange for the politically tinged investigations.

Sondland has since corrected his closed-door testimony to corroborate Morrisons’s account, saying that other witness testimonies refreshed his recollection about meeting with top Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak. Sondland said in an addendum that he “presumed” the security assistance to be tied to Ukraine making a public statement about investigations sought by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. 

Trump’s Republican allies have largely dismissed Sondland’s revisions, arguing they’re merely the ambassador’s interpretation of Trump’s intentions, while some have also suggested that he may have carried this policy out on his own volition.

But Morrison’s transcript appeared to pull the knot tying Trump and Sondland together even tighter.

Morrison described how Sondland would brag about his access to Trump, including being the one to help set up the July 25 phone call between the two foreign leaders.

“He bragged that he could call the President whenever he wanted,” said Morrison, who was brought on to the NSC by former White House national security adviser John Bolton.

And where NSC officials typically brief the president ahead of a call with a foreign leader, Sondland took hold of that process and notified NSC and White House officials he briefed Trump in advance of the Zelensky call.

Morrison listened in on the July 25 call with Zelensky and said that he became concerned about it in particular when Trump brought up the DNC server. He said that the call reaffirmed fears expressed by Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia expert, about a “parallel process” regarding U.S. policy making towards Ukraine. 

“I heard issues related to the server. And I was concerned that Dr. Hill was correct about this parallel process. And I grew concerned that the call was not the full-throated endorsement of the Ukraine reform agenda that I was hoping to hear,” Morrison told investigators.

Morrison also said that he approached NSC lawyer John Eisenberg because he wanted them to “have eyes” on the call and he was afraid that leaks about it could be “damaging.” 

“I was concerned about whether or not they would agree that it would be damaging for the reasons I outlined in my statement if the call package — if the call mem-con or its contents leaked,” Morrison said, using shorthand to describe the memorandum of conversation.

Morrison said he became aware that the call transcript was placed on a system reserved for highly-classified material  — against normal protocol — but that he was told by Eisenberg that it was done by “mistake.” 

Morrison said that Trump’s discussion of DNC server and the Bidens was not consistent with U.S. official policy toward Ukraine. 

Rather, Morrison said Hill had also “advised” him to stay away from the issue of Burisma, which he said he had to Google in order to understand her meaning. 

“I googled ‘What is Burisma?’ and I saw Hunter Biden, I said, okay, yeah, that sounds right, I’ll stay away,” he testified.

–This report was updated on Nov. 17 at 8:08 a.m.

Tags Adam Schiff deposition transcripts Donald Trump Gordon Sondland Impeachment Joe Biden John Bolton Mike Pence Rudy Giuliani
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