WASHINGTON — Tim Morrison was billed as the Democrats’ star impeachment witness this week for his direct, firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of President Trump’s White House. And on Thursday, he delivered.
Morrison, Trump’s top adviser on Russia and Europe, confirmed that Trump’s top envoy to Europe proposed a quid pro quo to Ukraine: Investigate Trump’s Democratic enemies in exchange for hundreds of millions worth of vital military aid.
In doing so, Morrison added his voice to a growing chorus of current Trump officials confirming the central allegation in the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. Previously, the most damning account of a quid pro quo was offered by Bill Taylor, acting ambassador to Ukraine.
Morrison said he agreed with virtually every detail of a lengthy and explosive opening statement delivered by Taylor last week, according to a draft of Morrison’s opening statement to House investigators published by CBS News on Thursday.
“I reviewed the statement Ambassador Taylor provided this inquiry,” Morrison said. “I can confirm that the substance of his statement, as it relates to conversations he and I had, is accurate.”
While Morrison confirmed that Trump’s EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland offered up a quid pro quo to Ukraine, he stopped short of directly tying Trump to that outreach, saying he hoped Sondland might be essentially acting alone.
Morrison, a longtime foreign policy hard-liner who spent years as a GOP staffer on Capitol Hill, declared himself proud of his time in the Trump administration. But his allegiance to the president and party didn’t alter the problematic facts that Taylor testified to, and Morrison confirmed.
Bill Taylor was right
Morrison provided a robust endorsement of Taylor's narrative in virtually every detail, save one: which Ukrainian official was supposed to announce the investigation.
Taylor had recalled that in early September, Ambassador Sondland told Ukraine’s presidential advisor Andrei Yermak that $391 million in U.S. assistance would flow to Ukraine only after President Volodymyr Zelensky announced an investigation into a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma.
Burisma employed 2020 Democratic hopeful Joe Biden’s son Hunter for a number of years as a paid board member, and the word “Burisma” has seemingly come to be used by Trump’s circle as a euphemism for investigating the Bidens in Ukraine.
“Ambassador Sondland told Mr. Yermak that security assistance money would not come until President Zelensky committed to pursue the Burisma investigation,” Taylor told the House last week, citing Morrison as his source.
But Morrison testified he recalled Sondland saying the Ukrainian president didn’t have to make the announcement personally.
“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 said, according to his prepared remarks.
Taylor had also previously recalled Morrison saying he had a “sinking feeling” when he’d heard about a phone call Sondland had with Trump.
In that call, the president denied a “quid pro quo” — but “did insist that President Zelenskyy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskyy should want to do this himself,” Taylor said, citing Morrison.
The phone call
Morrison said he was one of several administration staffers who listened in on Trump’s now-notorious July 25 phone call with Zelensky, in which Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to “look into” the Bidens.
Morrison said that afterwards, he flagged the call to lawyers on the National Security Council, citing three specific concerns, although foremost on his mind was the potential political impact.
Morrison said his three points were:
- “How it would play out in Washington's polarized environment.”
- “How a leak would affect the bipartisan support our Ukrainian partners currently experience in Congress.”
- “How it would affect the Ukrainian perceptions of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.”
But Morrison said it didn’t occur to him in that moment “that anything illegal was discussed.”
More bad news for Sondland
Morrison becomes the latest Trump administration official to question just what the hell Sondland was doing in Ukraine, which was outside his purview as EU ambassador.
He testified that when he first came on the job, he was warned by his predecessor, Fiona Hill, that Sondland and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, “were trying to get President Zelensky to reopen Ukrainian investigations into Burisma.”
“I also did not understand why Ambassador Sondland would be involved in Ukraine policy, often without the involvement of our duly-appointed Chief of Mission, Ambassador Bill Taylor,” Morrison says in his opening statement.
Later on, Morrison made clear that he wasn’t happy that Sondland pushed Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals. He said he hoped that Sondland was freelancing rather than acting on orders from the top.
“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,” Morrison said.
House Democrats who heard Morrison’s testimony said he generally backed up what they were hearing from others who’ve addressed the inquiry.
“All of the witnesses I’ve heard are telling the same story,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “It’s another brick in the wall of evidence about the president’s efforts to shake down the Ukrainians for his desired political favors.”
Cover: Former top national security adviser to President Donald Trump, Tim Morrison, arrives for a closed door meeting to testify as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)