Bolton and Trump Met Privately Over Withheld Aid, White House Aide Testified

Nicholas Fandos and Sheryl Gay Stolberg

WASHINGTON — John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, met privately with the president in August as part of a bid to persuade Trump to release $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine, a senior National Security Council aide told House impeachment investigators last month.

The meeting, which has not been previously reported, came as Bolton sought to marshal Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and top national security advisers to convince the president that it was in the United States’ best interest to unfreeze the funds to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. But Bolton emerged with Trump unmoved and instructed the aide to look for new opportunities to get those officials in front of Trump.

“The extent of my recollection is that Ambassador Bolton simply said he wasn’t ready to do it,” said the aide, Timothy Morrison, referring to Trump, according to a transcript of his testimony released by House Democrats on Saturday.

Bolton, who left the White House in September, has emerged over weeks of interviews as perhaps the single most important witness who has evaded House Democrats as they build a case that Trump abused the powers of the presidency by withholding vital military assistance and a coveted White House meeting from Ukraine until it delivered investigations he wanted. The new disclosure only makes clearer the significance of his potential testimony.

It also underlines the dilemma that House Democrats face over their decision to press ahead with proceedings without his testimony. This month, Bolton’s lawyer told House investigators that his client could discuss “many relevant meetings and conversations” of interest to their inquiry, but he has so far refused to appear without a subpoena and a court order. Democrats have said that Bolton should show up as is and that they would not waste their time in court.

The outpouring of public testimony and growing political pressure could push Bolton to change his mind. But for now, there are no signs that either he, or House Democrats, will budge.

The release of the transcript was part of a flurry of activity by House Democrats on Saturday, including a rare weekend closed-door deposition where investigators questioned for the first time a senior budget official about the aid freeze.

Trump unexpectedly withheld the aid in July, despite overwhelming support in Congress and his own administration for its allocation. He released the money in September after Bolton departed and in the face of intense political pressure from Republicans.

In addition to Morrison’s transcript, House Democrats released the transcript of a November interview with Jennifer Williams, a longtime State Department employee with expertise in Europe and Russia who is detailed to Vice President Mike Pence’s national security staff.

Earlier in the day, lawmakers and their staffs privately questioned Mark Sandy, a senior budget official, who told investigators that political appointees above him did not provide a rationale for the hold and that he had never encountered a similar situation in his time at the agency, according to two people familiar with his testimony.

Sandy also said that he had sought guidance on the legality of the hold, echoing testimony from a Defense Department official who similarly said that she had raised legal concerns.

Many of the most significant elements of testimony by Morrison and Williams have already been reported, including Morrison’s account of how a top diplomat close to Trump informed a top Ukrainian official that the country would likely need to publicly announce investigations that Trump sought before the security money would be released.

Still, the transcripts filled in many details, some of them colorful, about the events under scrutiny by the House and clarified the set of facts both parties are working with as they prepare for another week packed with public hearings.

In her hourslong interview, Williams helped explain why Pence, who had been scheduled to attend President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s inaugural in late May, abruptly canceled his trip: She said an assistant to the vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told her that Trump had asked Pence to stay home. That fact was included in an anonymous whistleblower complaint about the Ukraine matter that helped prompt the impeachment inquiry.

Morrison’s testimony added to a portrait of Bolton working feverishly to ensure the regular interagency policymaking of the executive branch prevailed over an irregular policy channel that appeared meant to serve Trump’s personal political interests. That channel included the United States’ ambassador to the European Union, the president’s private lawyer and a handful of others pressing Ukraine to commit to investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and a debunked conspiracy theory about Ukraine and the 2016 election.

In his testimony, Morrison said that Bolton advised him to be wary of the president’s irregular policymaking channel, including the envoy to the European Union, Gordon Sondland.

“My consistent direction from Ambassador Bolton was, ‘Do not get involved, and make sure the lawyers are tracking,’” Morrison said, referring to Sondland and the efforts he was involved in. Morrison’s predecessor as the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia and Europe told investigators that Bolton issued a similar instruction after a run-in with Sondland, who will testify publicly this week.

Morrison’s testimony made clear that he and Bolton were deeply skeptical of Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and political donor turned ambassador. He said he suspected Sondland’s stated influence with the president might be exaggerated. Following Bolton’s directions, he reported interactions he had with the ambassador to White House lawyers. But when he followed up, Sondland seemed to be telling the truth and appeared to have Trump’s ear on Ukraine matters.

“Ambassador Sondland believed and at least related to me that the president was giving him instruction,” Morrison testified.

Morrison described witnessing Sondland approach an aide to Zelenskiy during a high-level meeting in Warsaw in September. The conversation took place just after a meeting in which Pence assured Zelenskiy that the United States still fully supported Ukraine and would be making a decision on the security aid soon. The vice president did not mention the investigations during the meeting, Williams said.

Sondland was blunter, though, he later told Morrison. He told Zelenskiy’s adviser that “what could help them move the aid was if the prosecutor general would go to the mic and announce that he was opening” the investigation Trump wanted.

Morrison’s account already prompted Sondland to revise his own private testimony, but it also underscores the importance both to Trump and to Democrats of his public appearance this week as one of the few cooperating witnesses who directly spoke to Trump about his interest in Ukraine.

Both Williams and Morrison listened in on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy.

Williams told investigators she was taken aback by the mention of investigations of the Bidens and Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm that Biden’s son worked for. She found the discussion to be “more political in nature” and therefore “unusual and inappropriate.”

Morrison had a different reaction. He testified he found nothing inherently problematic about the call, but still he went to White House lawyers to express concerns that a record of the call could leak and would be unflattering for the president. He recommended that access to it be limited, and eventually a reconstructed transcript was placed on the White House’s most secure server.

Morrison testified that John Eisenberg, the council’s top lawyer, told him that had been a mistake and that he had only intended for access to the document to be restricted. He “related that he did not ask for it to be put on there but that the Executive Secretariat staff misunderstood his recommendation for how to restrict access,” Morrison said.

Republicans believe the testimony undercuts Democrats’ allegation that the White House was trying to cover up the call. But it does not explain why the call summary was not removed from the highly secure server when Eisenberg learned it was there.

The president’s allies are also likely to use Morrison’s closed-door interview to try to undercut Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the White House’s top Ukraine expert, when he testifies publicly this week about his deep alarm over the July 25 call and other matters.

Morrison told investigators that, “I had concerns that he did not exercise appropriate judgment as to whom he would say what.”

Sandy was the first budget official to speak with impeachment investigators. At least three higher-profile Trump administration officials connected to the budget office have stiff-armed the inquiry: Russell Vought, the agency’s acting director; Michael Duffey, who helped carry out Trump’s directive to freeze the aid; and Mick Mulvaney, who retains the title of budget director and is the acting White House chief of staff.

He testified that he was directed to sign paperwork July 25 enforcing the hold but that Duffey, a political appointee, signed such paperwork going forward, a highly unusual intervention by his account.

Why precisely Trump withheld the congressionally allocated funding in mid-July as he pressed Ukraine for the politically beneficial investigations and what Mulvaney told the agency about the decision remain central unanswered questions in the inquiry.

“This is a technical part of our investigation. We want to know exactly how the president translated his political objective to shake down the Ukrainian government for the favors he wanted translated into the budget process,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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