Ex-White House aide says Ukraine aid tied to Trump impeachment probe

Tim Morrison and Gordon Sondland are scheduled to testify publicly this week. (AP pic)

WASHINGTON: A former top White House adviser told House impeachment investigators Ukrainians were advised Sept 1 that US military aid was being withheld until their president announced an investigation of a company that had hired former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

Tim Morrison, a former senior director of European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council, said Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, told him how he had informed a high-ranking Ukrainian official that release of US$400 million in aid was being linked to the investigations, according to a transcript of his closed-door testimony released Saturday.

The House committee also released testimony from Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, who said she found some of discussion on the July 25 call between the two leaders to be “unusual and inappropriate.”

Morrison also said Sondland later claimed such a statement from Ukraine’s prosecutor general wouldn’t do, because President Donald Trump had told him “there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelenskiy had to do it and he should want to do it.”

He added: “Sondland believed and at least related to me that the President was giving him instruction.”

Morrison said in closed-door testimony Oct 1 that he was among officials who listened-in on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskiy, which has become the subject of the impeachment inquiry.

He testified that it raised some concerns, but that he heard nothing illegal discussed – and that a rough transcript of the call later released by the White House was “accurate and complete.”

Contradicts Vindman

That contradicts testimony from at least one other witness, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, who has testified he also listened in on that call and that the memo summary left out some phrases, edits he tried to put back in – including a mention, by name, of Burisma, the energy company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter Biden served.

Morrison also said NSC lawyer John Eisenberg told him the transcript of that call was not intended to end up in a highly classified system. “It was a mistake,” Morrison said Eisenberg claimed.

Pence’s aide Williams, who also was on the call, kept notes and told investigators the energy company was mentioned.

“My notes did reflect that the word Burisma had come up in the call, that the president had mentioned Burisma,” she testified, her recall more in line with Vindman.

She also said she felt “the mention of these specific investigations” into the Bidens and the 2016 election was “unusual and inappropriate.”

“I believe I found the specific references to be — to be more specific to the President in nature, to his personal political agenda, as opposed to a broader foreign policy objective of the United States,” she said.

It is Sondland who has emerged as a central figure in Trump’s alleged efforts to leverage nearly US$400 million in US military assistance in return for Ukraine investigations of Biden, a potential Trump 2020 presidential campaign opponent, and other Democrats.

Warsaw Meeting

Morrison recalled that following a Sept 1 meeting in Warsaw between Zelenskiy and Vice President Mike Pence, Sondland told him that he informed Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak that American military aid was conditioned on the investigations.

“He walked across the space and he briefed me on what had said to Mr Yermak,” said Morrison.

“What he communicated was that he believed the — what could help them move the aid was if the prosecutor general would to go the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation.”

Morrison said he was not “comfortable with the idea of Zelenskiy being involved in US politics and relayed his concerns to then National Security Advisor John Bolton.

He advised Morrison to “Stay out of it; brief the lawyers,” according to Morrison, referring to NSC lawyers.

Morrison’s first-hand recollection of what Sondland told him was important because it confirmed what William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, has said he was told by Morrison.

In fact, knowledge of their testimonies led Sondland in early November to amend his own story.

He previously had denied to the impeachment committees any effort to connect the US aid to investigations that Trump was seeking from that country. Taylor already testified publicly this week.

Morrison and Sondland are scheduled to testify publicly, on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

Morrison’s recollections of what Sondland told him of his Sept 1 talk with Yermak, including about required investigations, differ only slightly from what Taylor says he was later told by Morrison.

Taylor’s recall was that Morrison said Sondland told Yermak the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskiy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation.

“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 Zelenskiy – would commit to pursue the Burisma investigation,” testified Morrison.

The transcript released Saturday shows Morrison has provided differing views and interpretations on several events from some other witnesses, including Vindman.

Next week, he also could be asked questions by Republicans – as he was in his closed-door deposition – about who might have been sources for the whistle-blower’s complaint that triggered the impeachment probe, a topic the transcript also shows they tried to raise with Morrison.

In some of these respects, Republicans on the impeachment committees consider Morrison a witness beneficial in the president.

They submitted his name to Democrats who control the impeachment proceedings as among witnesses they wanted to testify in public.

He provides a different view on several matters from other officials, such as on that July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy, in which a rough transcript shows Trump saying, “I would like you to do us a favour” and noting that the US has been “very, very good to Ukraine.”

When Morrison appears to testify on Tuesday, Republicans will likely stress his views from his closed-door testimony that there was nothing wrong or illegal about the call, despite the alarm it set off with others.

He did express concern, according to the transcript, about how a written version of that call would look like if leaked, including how it would impact the impressions of Ukrainians on the US-Ukraine relationship.

Williams and Vindman also are scheduled to testify in public on Tuesday.