2019-11-18 20:53:011 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST
Yet another official is coming forward with firsthand knowledge about Donald Trump's desire to have Ukraine conduct investigations of his political opponents in exchange for a White House visit and military aid. Tim Morrison claims the president told U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland to make deals regarding the investigations and aid.
House Democrats released another deposition transcript from closed-door testimony over the weekend, this time from Morrison who testified on October 31. He said between July 16 and September 11 that he understood Sondland to have spoken to Trump around six times. However, the president says he doesn't know Sondland very well, making it clear he's trying to keep a distance from him.
Trump is known to have put Sondland in charge of the shadow Ukraine policy along with then-special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. "His mandate from the president was to go make deals," Morrison said of the EU ambassador.
Also testifying behind closed doors was Mark Sandy, the first Office of Management and Budget employee to take the stand. As the deputy associate director for national security programs at OMB, he testified that he was directed to sign the first of several apportionment letters that showed budget officials formally freezing Ukraine aid, according to two people familiar with the testimony. He was never told why the letter was being sent out.
Others have testified that the letter that was sent out was dated July 25, the day of Trump's phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asking for investigations in exchange for the aid and White House visit. It was one week after OMB told officials they were withholding the aid, acting on orders from the White House. Sandy's boss, Michael Duffey, signed subsequent letters.
In Sandy's testimony he said when he learned aid was being withheld, Duffey told him he wanted to learn more about the budget apportionment process, which he thought was odd. He told Duffey there were other ways to go about it. Sandy added that he's never seen an OMB official take control of a portfolio like that.
Morrison testified he spoke to Sondland after the ambassador talked with Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak. This was after an early September meeting between Zelensky and Vice President Mike Pence. That meeting is one Sondland remembered as of late and amended to his testimony, admitting that military aid may be frozen unless Ukraine conducted the investigations.
Morrison said Sondland "told me that in his — that what he communicated was that he believed the — 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."
Burisma is the Ukraine energy company that Hunter Biden formerly did work for while his father, 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden, was the vice president and the point of contact for the Obama administration's Ukraine policy. Later, however, he clarified that Burisma never came up by name, nor did Hunter Biden or his father. He meant investigations in general.
Concerned, Morrison spoke with then-national security adviser John Bolton, while other times he spoke to Sondland. "I would offer him counsel on what others in the interagency were doing that he should factor into his instinct or his impulse, or I would tell him that I thought there was perhaps a more effective way to get it done that he was contemplating."
He added that Dr. Fiona Hill, whom he replaced, advised him to "steer clear of Gordon." He told her what he thought "would be more effective and the approach iI would pursue, as I'd rather have him inside the tent, you know, rather than outside the tent. And so I wanted to know what he was doing and do my best to spy, you know, problems as opposed to being ignorant."
Morrison also talked with then-envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker after an Aug. 2 meeting and discussed Sondland and Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani with him. "I think we both agreed that Ambassador Sondland was, you know, sort of a free radical. He was sort of out there, engaging when he wanted, and it was not always possible to keep track of what it is that he was doing and who he was talking to," said the official.
He reported his interactions with Sondland to Bolton and attorneys to "protect the president," testifying that "Ambassador Bolton is fond of saying that the process is your protection. So part of what I'm trying to do there in talking to the lawyers is making sure they're aware of what Mr. Sondland is doing. And he's saying the president is aware, but I'm still not entirely certain that he is."
Morrison knew the July 25 call needed to be kept on the down-low. "I recommended to them that we restrict access to the package," he said, noting it was the only time he ever made such a request, with his concern being of how the transcript would "play out in Washington's polarized environment." He "grew concerned that the call was not the full-throated endorsement of the Ukraine reform agenda that I was hoping to hear."
At the same time, Morrison does not believe anything improper happened with the call and disputed NSC Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman's testimony that he asked for edits, as he believes the original transcript was "accurate and complete."
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