In a deposition before the congressional impeachment committees Thursday, a national security council (NSC) official corroborated prior testimony describing efforts by the Trump administration to strike a suspicious deal with Ukrainians.

But the official, Tim Morrison, seemed to lay groundwork in his testimony for an exculpation of Donald Trump and suggested that Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, was unilaterally conducting a rogue foreign policy in Ukraine.

Deposed on Thursday in a closed-door session, Morrison, who is leaving his post as a top White House adviser on Russia and Europe, said that the ambassador Bill Taylor had accurately described an early September conversation between Sondland and Andriy Yermak, an assistant to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

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“Ambassador Sondland told Mr Yermak that security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskiy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation,” Taylor testified, referring to $391m in US military aid for Ukraine suspended on Trump’s orders in mid-July, and to the Ukrainian gas company that once employed Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice-president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The “substance” of Taylor’s statement was “accurate”, Morrison testified – with a quibble.

“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,” Morrison said, according to a copy of his opening statement first published by CBS News.

That basic demand by Sondland – that Ukraine announce investigations or face the loss of US military aid – is at the core of allegations that Trump used the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 US election. The House of Representatives voted Thursday, almost precisely along party lines, to advance an impeachment inquiry based on those allegations.

But in his testimony Thursday, Morrison, a former senior congressional aide, seemed to seek to exculpate Trump by suggesting the quid pro quo was all Sondland’s idea.

“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.

A lawyer for Sondland did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Lawyers for Sondland have said that he never mentioned the Bidens to the Ukrainians and suggested he was unaware of the Burisma-Biden tie.

Sondland is a hotelier with no diplomatic – or Washington bureaucratic – experience who was appointed ambassador after he gave $1m to Trump’s presidential campaign. Last week Sondland and his lawyer visited Capitol Hill to “review” a deposition Sondland gave on 17 October in which he said he took Trump at his word that there was no quid pro quo with Ukraine.

In addition to raising concerns about Sondland, Morrison defended Trump. He repeated explanations Trump has previously given for the suspension of the military aid, saying that Trump was concerned about corruption in Ukraine and concerned that Europe was not doing enough.

Morrison also echoed the Trump argument that there could not have been a quid pro quo involving military aid with Ukraine because the Ukrainians were not aware the aid had been suspended at the time of a 25 July phone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy for a political “favor”.

While it is unclear exactly when the Ukrainians realized the aid had been suspended, they knew by early August, according to a New York Times report. The issue surfaces in text messages among diplomats in late August.

Sondland’s dangling of that aid to extract the Biden investigation continued, meanwhile, into early September, when he joined the vice-president, Mike Pence, for bilateral meetings with Ukrainians in Warsaw, Poland.

“I have no reason to believe the Ukrainians had any knowledge of the review [of US military aid for Ukraine] until 28 August 2019,” the date Politico first reported on it, Morrison said.

Morrison additionally substantiated the accuracy of public summaries of the 25 July call, which he listened to at the time. Afterward, Morrison reported on the call to the top lawyer on the NSC, he testified.

Morrison said he approached the lawyer, who promptly moved the record of the call into a highly restricted archive, because Morrison was worried that the call would leak, resulting in partisan angst, confusion in Congress, and mistaken “Ukrainian perceptions of the US-Ukraine relationship”.

“I want to be clear,” Morrison testified, “I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed.”

Source :

The Guardian

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