Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
Former National Security Council official Tim Morrison testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Oct. 31. Below is a summary of his testimony, as compiled from the transcript of his deposition.
The deposition of former National Security Council (NSC) official Tim Morrison confirms the role of U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in developing a “parallel track” of Ukrainian policy and recounts Morrison’s personal efforts to restrict access to the memo recording the July 25 call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Morrison, who assumed the position of NSC senior director for European affairs following Fiona Hill’s departure from that role on July 15, previously focused on foreign military sales and arms control on the NSC. He stated during his deposition that he will be resigning from his position imminently—though, he stated, due to circumstances unrelated to his presence before Congress.
Morrison began his testimony focusing on the role of the NSC—namely, its responsibility to coordinate across departments and to abstain from making policy itself. In his role as senior director for European affairs, his objective in Ukraine was “to take advantage of the once-in-a-generation opportunity that resulted from the election of President Zelensky ... to see real anticorruption reform take root.” Critical to this, he described, was the maintenance of the United States’ “longstanding bipartisan commitment to strengthen Ukraine’s security.”
Morrison also clarified that he never briefed the president or vice president on matters related to Ukrainian security during the time relevant to the impeachment inquiry. He coordinated primarily with Ambassador William Taylor, currently serving as charge d’affaires in Ukraine, and Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, as well as other interagency stakeholders. However, in Morrison’s role as coordinator among departmental efforts, he was privy to many conversations relevant to the impeachment inquiry.
According to Morrison, as Hill was prepping him to take over her role, she related concerns regarding U.S. policy in Ukraine—both about the normal interagency process led by the NSC and the separate process of diplomatic negotiations in Ukraine, involving mainly Sondland. Hill referred to Sondland as “a problem,” Morrison said, who felt “he had a mandate to get involved based on his relationship with the President.” Hill conveyed that Sondland and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani were pressuring Zelensky to open investigations into Burisma within Ukraine. Morrison claims he was unfamiliar with the company during the conversation and had to Google it later.
Morrison had reviewed Taylor’s deposition before the House Intelligence Committee in advance and confirmed the substance of the ambassador’s testimony, aside from two details that Morrison remembered differently. First, Taylor wrote that Sondland said the funds would not be released to Ukraine until Zelensky committed to pursuing the Burisma investigation, but Morrison remembered Sondland as saying it would be sufficient if the new Ukrainian prosecutor general—rather than Zelensky himself—committed to the investigation. Morrison also clarified that he did not meet with the Ukrainian national security adviser in a hotel room, as Taylor remembered, but rather along with an NSC aide in the hotel’s business center.
Morrison listened in on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky during which Trump asks Zelensky to pursue the Burisma investigation. He testified that he became concerned about the impact of the phone call on Ukrainian diplomacy but “was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed” at the time. Morrison did not know that the White House was “holding up” security-sector assistance, he said, until Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman informed him of this after Morrison took over from Hill. He also said he has “no reason to believe” that Ukraine knew the funds were being held up until the news became public on Aug. 28. Morrison testified that he was pleased the funds have been released but regrets that “with this impeachment inquiry, Ukraine has become subsumed in the U.S. political process,” which he feared will injure relations.
Morrison tried to “stay away from” Burisma, Hunter Biden and the 2016 server, he testified; Hill had counseled him to do so, as these were all issues that “had nothing to do with our policy process.” He was not involved in the process of setting up the call between Zelensky and Trump. But he described an email he received from Sondland on the morning of July 25, before the phone call, during which Sondland informed Morrison and several other White House staffers that Sondland had spoken to Trump that morning to brief the president on the Zelensky call. Otherwise, he was unaware of any interactions Sondland, Volker, or Kupperman had with Ukrainian officials prior to the July 25 call. Morrison testified that after the July 25 call, Ambassador Taylor brought to his attention some of the conversations occurring between Ukrainian officials and U.S. diplomats like Volker and Sondland outside of normal processes. He could not recall when, exactly.
Morrison stated that Trump was also prepped for the call through the normal NSC process. When asked by Chairman Adam Schiff him whether Burisma was included in the call package as a topic to discuss on the call with Zelensky, Morrison’s counsel instructed him not to answer the question, citing U.S. v. Miers in support of the proposition that there is presumptive presidential privilege vis a vis the call package that is not Morrison’s to waive. Schiff agreed to revisit the subject during a break to explore workarounds to that line of questioning.
Morrison listened to the July 25 call from the White House Situation Room, where he was joined by White House staffers Rob Blair and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and aides to the vice president Jennifer Williams and Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg. At the time, Morrison said, he knew that Situation Room personnel would be listening to the call to generate the call memo; he learned long after the fact from open source reporting that Kupperman and Pompeo were listening to the call remotely but did not know about this at the time.
Morrison became concerned about the contents of the call when he heard discussion of “the server,” at which point he grew worried that Hill had been right to be concerned about U.S.-Ukraine policy, as “the call was not the full-throated endorsement of the Ukraine reform agenda that [he] was hoping to hear.” He recalled “an oblique reference” to U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch as well as discussion of the Bidens and said that, immediately after the call, he brought his concerns to the NSC Legal Office asking them to review the call. His primary concern was not illegal activity, Morrison said, but rather what could happen if the call memo was leaked.
When asked by Schiff whether he thought the call was appropriate, Morrison claimed to have no view on the matter. Following up, Schiff asked whether Morrison was specifically concerned about how the mention of the Bidens would play politically. Morrison stated he did not think mentioning the Bidens was especially significant and was worried primarily that the call memo could erode bipartisan support for Ukraine in Congress. In response to majority questions, Morrison also said he was not concerned about Trump’s suggestion that Zelensky meet with Giuliani: He did not know at the time, he said, about Giuliani publicly advocating for investigations in Ukraine.
In sum, Morrison claimed he did not sense political ulterior motives behind the call at all. Schiff pressed him on this, asking whether it was unusual for him to go immediately to legal counsel after a call. After being asked several times, Morrison ultimately stated that this was not his usual practice.
After Morrison’s first conversation with NSC legal counsel, he recommended that access to the call package be restricted in order to prevent it from leaking. Eventually, he learned that the call transcript had been placed in a highly classified system—Morrison had tried to access the call transcript to help prepare the president for a planned meeting with Zelensky in Warsaw when he saw it was not there. He checked with NSC Legal Counsel John Eisenberg, who told him this was “a mistake.” After Morrison told Eisenberg to restrict access, Eisenberg had passed this instruction along to the executive secretary staff in the White House but that they must have incorrectly classified it. Morrison said he had envisioned restriction access to “by name” access, which does not involve a high level of classification.
The minority questioned whether Morrison knew that Vindman, who served directly under him, had gone separately to legal counsel after the call—and Morrison said he did not. Republicans also probed into the transcript editing process, asking whether Vindman or other individuals who were on the call offered edits to the transcript to fill in ellipses at certain junctures or add in words such as “Burisma.” (Vindman previously testified that he proposed this edit for purposes of accuracy.) Morrison accepted all Vindman’s proposed edits regarding the translation from Ukrainian, Morrison testified, but he did not recall any edits to add content where there were ellipses. In response to minority questions, Morrison said he knew Vindman was concerned about the “fidelity of the transaction” based on conversations he had with Vindman after the July 25 call. When asked about why he did not include Vindman in certain meetings, he said he was trying to protect his team from what he thought would become a “partisan political issue.”
The minority also inquired which other departments Vindman may have spoken to about the July 25 call. Schiff intervened, concerned that these questions were intended to identify and out the whistleblower. Morrison’s counsel instructed him not to answer these questions, which he argued were well beyond the scope of his deposition testimony.
Morrison said that he and Taylor did not think the Ukrainians knew about the hold on funds, and noted that the president is generally skeptical of aid. In response to minority questioning as to whether, in giving aid, Trump might also expect to see European allies “also step up their aid contribution,” Morrison said that the president would hope for a European country to be “more supported by Europeans.” He also said that, to the best of his knowledge, there was no process undertaken to “reprogram” the aid originally promised—a prerequisite to a formal rescission. Minority questioning indicated that this diverged from Vindman’s testimony, given that Vindman stated the Ukrainians were asking him about a hold on funds. Morrison responded that Vindman never escalated these calls and this information up the chain of command and so Morrison was not aware of them.
Morrison then spoke to the relationship between Sondland and Trump, indicating that Sondland had a tendency to exaggerate and was not always known for being accurate. But he stated that he was able to independently confirm approximately five instances during which Sondland and Trump spoke. When read out a text message from Taylor, quoting Morrison as saying that a meeting between Trump and Zelensky was unlikely “unless Gordon turns it around like he did with the phone call,” Morrison stated he could not remember the conversation in question. Next, When asked about a text message from Sondland to Volker and Taylor that reads “Morrison ready to get dates as soon as Yermak confirms,” Morrison claimed he did not know what Sondland was referencing and cannot be sure if he knew by that point whether Sondland was communicating with Ukrainian aide Andrey Yermak.
Morrison indicated that he did not see orchestrating a meeting between Zelensky and Giuliani as a part of his portfolio, despite hearing Trump suggest on the July 25 phone call that he thought Zelensky should meet with his personal lawyer. As late as Aug. 16, Morrison’s conversations with Taylor over Ukraine focused on the poor operational security of conversation on unclassified cell phones or WhatsApp messages rather than the content of Giuliani’s agenda.
When asked by the minority whether he thought Zelensky’s government was genuinely trying to reform the country, Morrison indicated he thought that the government was susceptible to corruption, as Ukrainian governments historically have been, but that Zelensky’s government had worked hard immediately to pass legislation for reform such as a bill stripping parliamentary members of their immunity. He and National Security Adviser John Bolton conveyed their faith in the Zelensky government to the White House prior to the Warsaw meeting. It was during this visit, Morrison said, that he learned of Sondland’s visit with Yermak. He said he was not consulted on this meeting before it happened and after he learned about it from Sondland, he immediately wanted to call Ambassadors Bolton and Taylor as well as communicate the content of the meeting to NSC legal counsel. Sondland had told him his mandate from the president was to go make deals and that Hill had “thwarted him” in his earlier efforts to coordinate a meeting between Trump and Zelensky.
Morrison also recalled a Sept. 7 conversation with Sondland, during which Sondland conveyed that the president had told him that there was no quid pro quo arrangement, but that Sondland felt Zelensky should “go to the microphone and announce personally” his commitment to investigate Burisma and that a prosecutor general would be insufficient as a mouthpiece for this announcement. At this point, Morrison said, the political nature of the diplomatic efforts became clear; he had a sinking feeling because he did not think he could get the right people in the room with the president to get the aid released, and he did not think it was a good idea “for the Ukrainian President to ... involve himself in our politics.” While he strategized with Bolton on Ukraine policy, Morrison said both were aware that Sondland was a “free radical out there.”
The minority also asked about the meeting between Zelensky and Vice President Mike Pence in Warsaw on Sept. 1. Morrison confirmed that he believed Pence was given a call memo of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, but that the Bidens did not come up during the Warsaw meeting. At this point, Zelensky knew aid was being withheld; while the minority suggested that Zelensky would have raised the matter of Burisma that if he thought the aid was conditioned on a Burisma investigation, Morrison confirmed Pence did not bring up the aid or the investigations. Morrison also testified that, after the Sept. 1 meeting, Pence conveyed to Trump that Zelensky was trustworthy and that the U.S. relationship with Ukraine should be normalized.