Morrison, Volker undercut claims of 'quid pro quo,' 'bribery' and 'cover-up' in pivotal day of testimony

House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry

Republicans sounded a celebratory note as Democrats' House impeachment inquiry began wrapping up another day of public hearings on Tuesday evening, saying the day's witnesses had served only to repeatedly highlight fundamental problems in the case against President Trump.

“Did anyone ever ask you to bribe or extort anyone at any time during your time in the White House?" House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., asked at one point in Tuesday's hearing.

Former National Security Council aide Tim Morrison: "No."

U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker: “No."

Later, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., hit the same notes in asking the witnesses about Trump's fateful July 25 call with Ukraine's leader: "Mr. Morrison, you were on that call, and there was no quid pro quo, correct? No bribery? No extortion?"

"Correct," Morrison replied in response to each question.

"And Ambassador Volker, I presume you got a readout of the call. … Was there any reference to withholding aid? Any reference to bribery? Any reference to quid pro quo? Any reference to extortion?"

"No, there was not," Volker replied, again and again.

The answers underscored a problem facing House Democrats as their impeachment inquiry continues into its second week of public hearings: As more witnesses testify, the more soundbites emerge that may help Republicans and the Trump campaign argue that the proceedings are politically motivated theater, long in the works and foreshadowed openly by Democrats for months, if not years.

Morrison, in another key moment, testified Tuesday afternoon that he understood the transcript of Trump's call Ukraine's leader wound up on a highly secured and classified computer system due to an "administrative error" — not, as Democrats have alleged, because the president wanted to hide his conversation.

And Volker testified repeatedly that he never received any indications at all that there was an improper quid pro quo with Ukraine, in which the Trump administration allegedly sought a probe of the Bidens in exchange for military aid.

The two witnesses undercut Democrats' poll-tested claims of White House "bribery" and a cover-up, but also raised new questions concerning the administration's use of the little-discussed codeword-level system that ordinarily holds sensitive national security information. In September, a senior Trump administration official acknowledged that White House lawyers directed moving the transcript of the call to the secure system, noting that several of Trump's previous phone calls with foreign leaders had leaked to the media.

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Morrison had previously testified behind closed doors that senior National Security Council (NSC) lawyer John Eisenberg had relayed to him that his secretary accidentally put the transcript in the classified system. Morrison confirmed that Eisenberg wanted to "restrict access" to the transcript, but maintained that the secretary had apparently misinterpreted that instruction.

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/J. Scott Applewhite)

"It was represented to me that it was a mistake," Morrison testified on Tuesday, saying he tried to "pull up the package in our system" but was prevented from doing so. When he asked why the transcript was unavailable, he testified that he was "informed it had been moved to the higher classification system" at Eisenberg's direction. Then, Eisenberg told Morrison that he "gave no such direction" and that it was an "administrative error," according to Morrison.

Morrison said that to the best of his knowledge, there was no "malicious intent" in the decision to move the transcript to the compartmentalized system, and that all essential personnel retained access to the transcript even after it was moved.

Later in the day, Volker made clear that he had not seen anything to support Democrats' contention that Trump improperly withheld foreign aid to Ukraine as a means of forcing an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden's dealings in the country.

Instead, Volker suggested — in a moment that was quickly touted by the Trump campaign on social media – that Trump's general hesitation to provide foreign aid, especially to corrupt countries, was the prevailing justification for temporarily holding up aid to Ukraine.

Asked about whether he saw any evidence that Trump had committed "bribery" — the term Democrats have taken to using, after focus groups indicated that it would help them sell impeachment to voters — Volker was unequivocal that he had not. In fact, Volker said, Trump never linked any probe of Burisma or the Bidens to any military aid.

"I have only seen an allegation of bribery in the last week," Volker said. "I was never involved in anything that I considered to be bribery at all, or extortion."

Volker also said that he didn't initially realize the connection between a Trump-sought investigation of "Burisma" and the Bidens, given that Burisma was seen as a symbol of Ukraine's endemic corruption problem.

Hunter Biden was a board member of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings, which had been under investigation before then-Vice President Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire the prosecutor in charge. In his call with Zelensky, Trump suggested the Ukrainians look into the circumstances of the prosecutor's termination, including Joe Biden's boast that he had the prosecutor fired by threatening to withhold $1B in critical aid. (“Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it…It sounds horrible to me," Trump said.)

In a lengthy opening statement, Volker said he didn't have any problem with pushing Ukraine to open an investigation into Burisma or corruption.

“It has long been U.S. policy under multiple administrations to urge Ukraine to investigate and fight internal corruption,” Volker said.

In October, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent similarly testified behind closed doors that he had qualms about Hunter Biden’s lucrative role on the board of Burisma while his father spearheaded Ukraine policy as vice president.

Both Morrison and Volker were involved in the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy at the time of Trump’s momentous summer phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he suggested a Biden probe.

The testimony followed five hours of testimony earlier in the day with the NSC's Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Vice President Pence aide Jennifer Williams.

Volker, who resigned in September after becoming embroiled in the scandal, added that he didn’t “understand” at the time that an investigation of Burisma “was tantamount to investigating Vice President Biden.”

“I saw them as very different – the former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable,” Volker said. “In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections."

Until Tuesday, none of the witnesses who have testified at the public hearings had first-hand knowledge of the president's thinking, which Republicans have used to cast doubt on Democrats' allegations. But Vindman, Williams, and Morrison all listened in on Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelensky.

Amb. Kurt Volker: At no time was I aware of an effort to urge Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden

Former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Amb. Kurt Volker gives opening statement in House impeachment inquiry.

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Tim Morrison on moving of transcript to compartmentalized system

Morrison said the transcript of Trump’s call was moved in an ‘administrative error’

“I feared at the time of the call on July 25th how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate," Morrison said in his opening statement. "My fears have been realized.”

Morrison said his understanding was that Trump was generally skeptical of foreign aid, and wanted to make sure that taxpayers were "getting their money's worth."

"The president was concerned that the United States seemed to bear the exclusive brunt of security assistance to Ukraine," Morrison said. "He wanted to see the Europeans step up and contribute more security assistance."

The impeachment inquiry has focused on a possible link between military aid to Ukraine and investigations sought by Trump pertaining to the Bidens and Democrats. The questions arose after the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky led to a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump was trying to pressure Ukraine into helping him.

“As we have heard from other witnesses, when Joe Biden was considering whether to enter the race for the presidency in 2020, the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, began a campaign to weaken Vice President Biden’s candidacy by pushing Ukraine to investigate him and his son,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in his opening statement.

Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes, R-Calif., opened his remarks by welcoming people to “act two of today’s circus," dismissing the inquiry as a partisan exercise.

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“It’s an ambitious attack to deprive the American people of their right to elect a president that the Democrats don’t like,” Nunes said. He added, “The chairman of this committee claims that democracy is under threat. If that’s true, it’s not the president who poses the danger.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., center, flanked by House Democratic Counsel Daniel Goldman, left, and ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., uses his gavel as former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Both Volker and Morrison previously gave closed-door interviews to the Democratic-led inquiry: Volker provided investigators with a package of text messages with Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and William Taylor, the U.S. chargé d'affaires for Ukraine, who said he grew alarmed at the possible linkage of the investigations to the aid.

Morrison, who served as the NSC's senior director of European and Russian affairs, has told lawmakers Trump didn't want tax dollars funding Ukrainian corruption and remarked that he wasn't concerned Trump's calls with Ukraine's leader were tied to his political interests.

Morrison resigned from the NSC last month. In his testimony Tuesday, he said he left on his “own volition” and made the decision “before I decided to testify.”

Among the biggest revelations Tuesday morning came when Vindman acknowledged communications with an unnamed intelligence official — during an at-times tense exchange with Republicans, immediately raising apparent questions over whether he could have been a source of information for the anonymous whistleblower who reported the call.

Morrison also said he had heard others express concern that Vindman was a leaker, and could not be trusted with key information.

Schiff, D-Calif., interjected to express concern that Republicans were trying to out the whistleblower through the questioning. After consulting his attorney, Vindman said, "Per the advice of my counsel, I’ve been advised not to answer the specific questions about members of the intelligence community."

Still, Vindman told lawmakers, “I do not know who the whistleblower is.”

Vindman was critical of Trump's call with Zelensky, describing the investigation "demand" as "improper." At one point, Vindman described his reaction to Trump’s call as one of “shock.”

“Frankly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he testified. “In certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out.”

The other morning witness, Williams, also expressed concern about Trump's call with Zelensky, saying, “I found the July 25th phone call unusual because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.”

The White House downplayed the hearing as a debate over two individuals’ personal opinions about a call that Americans can read for themselves. “We have learned nothing new in today’s illegitimate ‘impeachment’ proceedings,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said after Vindman and Williams' testimony.

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