Impeachment testimony by Volker and Morrison doesn't totally contradict White House narrative, a partial victory for Trump

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Public testimony in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s alleged extortion of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continued on Tuesday afternoon, with former National Security Council staffer Tim Morrison and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.

The testimony of the two men was not as damaging to Trump as Friday’s appearance by Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Tuesday morning hadn’t been especially good for Trump, either, with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman asserting that it was “improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent.” In an unusual move, the White House used its Twitter account to impugn Vindman’s personal reputation. Hours later, that same account was sharing highlights from Volker and Morrison.

Republicans on the committee appeared generally pleased with the day’s testimony. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio — known for his slashing cross-examinations — praised the witnesses, accusing Democrats of driving them out of government service.

Democrats have charged that Trump ordered military aid from Ukraine withheld throughout the summer of 2019 in an effort to coerce Zelensky into announcing an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The younger Biden sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company accused of corruption. Trump also wanted an investigation into Ukrainian interference into the 2016 U.S. election. No such interference is known to have occurred.

Though they had been called by the impeachment panel’s Republican minority, Volker and Morrison by and large confirmed the Democratic narrative. That they did so without personally implicating Trump could be seen as a victory of sorts for the White House.

Kurt Volker, left, former special envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council official, are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Volker tried to distance himself from the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani — who assiduously pressed Trump’s demands throughout the spring and summer of 2019 — by drawing a distinction between an investigation of Burisma, which he considered legitimate, and a politically motivated investigation into a potential rival for the presidency. Volker’s testimony called into question the truthfulness of assertions made under oath by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. 

Neal Katyal, an acting U.S. solicitor general under President Barack Obama, captured how many observers regarded Volker’s testimony. “Definitely NOT the witness Republicans were hoping for,” he wrote on Twitter. “Blows apart the Trump claim Biden did something wrong.”

And while he expressed regret at his belated realization of the connection between a Burisma investigation and the effort to harm Biden, Volker insisted he had no part in the alleged “quid pro quo” that made the investigation a prerequisite for Ukraine to receive the military aid Trump had held up. “I was never involved in anything I would consider to be bribery at all,” he said in response to questioning from Steve Castor, the lead counsel for the committee’s Republican minority.

Similarly, Morrison agreed with the committee’s ranking member, Devin Nunes, R-Calif., that he had not been asked to “bribe or extort anyone.” Republicans seized on that answer as bolstering their defense of the president. “Maybe Dems should base their allegations on actual evidence, not focus groups,” tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise. “Dems have no case.”

Both witnesses said Ukrainian officials did not realize that military aid had been placed on hold in mid-July until late August, when it was reported in Politico. Republicans consider that a crucial point, because the impeachment inquiry is based on a whistleblower complaint about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky in which Trump, by the whistleblower’s account, implied a link between the aid and the investigations he sought. But, the Republican argument goes, if the Ukrainians did not know the aid was being withheld, how could they be extorted over its release?

Volker said that he spoke on the phone with Zelensky on July 26, and that Zelensky was “very positive about the phone call.” According to Volker’s limited recollection of the phone call, Zelensky did not perceive it as coercive or a form of extortion. 

Former State Department special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In addition, Volker said the 55-day delay in the release of military aid to Ukraine, which was finally lifted on Sept. 11, without Zelensky acceding to Trump’s request, was not abnormal. “Somebody had an objection,” he said. “We had to overcome it.” 

This was one of several instances in which Volker subtly shifted the narrative in his favor. In fact, officials at the Pentagon and members of Congress thought something was amiss about the hold. But by asserting a measure of plausible deniability, Volker appeared to help Trump’s case. 

Democrats have pointed out that the hold was lifted just two days after the existence of the whistleblower complaint was made known to Congress in a letter from the inspector general of the intelligence community.

Increasingly, it seems that Sondland will prove crucial in determining just how much traction impeachment has with the American public. Along with previous witnesses, Morrison and Volker portrayed Sondland as working in concert with Giuliani to push for an announcement of an investigation into Burisma. Morrison mentioned that his predecessor at the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, had referred to “the Gordon problem.”

A problem it does appear to be. Volker, for his part, said that during a July 10 meeting he heard Sondland try to pressure the Ukrainians into opening an investigation. Volker deemed that demand “inappropriate.” And Morrison, in response to questioning by majority counsel Daniel Goldman, said Sondland told him that he had informed Andriy Yermak, a close adviser to Zelensky, that the Ukrainian inspector general would have to “make a statement with respect to the investigations as a condition of having the aid [hold] lifted.” 

Sondland testifies on Wednesday morning. Unlike the other witnesses who have faced the House Intelligence Committee this week, he will testify alone. 

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