NSC official feared Trump-Zelensky call would be leaked. Key takeaways from Williams, Morrison testimony

Nicholas Wu, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Transcripts released Saturday provided more evidence President Donald Trump's July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president caused concern throughout his administration, even causing one staffer to consult lawyers out of the fear it would be leaked to the media.

The transcripts came from a congressional panel's closed-door interviews with National Security Council official Timothy Morrison and Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom listened to Trump's July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, which sparked the impeachment inquiry. 

Both aides are scheduled to testify publicly next week.

“The testimony released today shows that President Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky immediately set off alarm bells throughout the White House," said the chairs of the House Oversight, Intelligence, and Foreign Affairs Committees, which conducted the depositions, in a statement. "Both witnesses provided the Committees with first-hand accounts after personally listening to the call in the White House Situation Room."

Here are the key takeaways from their testimonies. 

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Morrison thought the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call would be damaging if leaked

Morrison told congressional members and staff he asked National Security Council lawyers to review Trump’s July 25 call because he thought it “would be damaging” if it “leaked.”

“I was concerned about whether or not they would agree that it would be damaging for the reasons I outlined in my statement if the call package...leaked,” Morrison said.

Trump is accused of withholding nearly $400 million of military assistance to Ukraine as well as a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky unless the Ukrainian government opened investigations into Trump's political adversaries, including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. A whistleblower complaint filed about the July 25 call, during which Trump raised the issue of investigations into his political adversaries while also discussing security assistance to Ukraine, kicked off the impeachment inquiry. 

In his opening statement, he said he was concerned about the implications of a leak of the call with regards to how it would be viewed in "Washington's polarized environment," its potential effects on the "bipartisan support" for Ukraine, and impacts on Ukrainian perceptions of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.

Read Morrison's transcript: Timothy Morrison's testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry

Read Williams transcript: Read the full impeachment inquiry testimony of Pence aide Jennifer Williams

Morrison: Aid withheld at 'the President’s direction'

Morrison said he first learned of the hold on aid during a July conversation with Charles Kupperman, the deputy national security adviser who had failed to appear for his scheduled testimony.

Kupperman told Morrison “the chief of staff’s office had informed (the Office of Management and Budget) that it was the President’s direction to hold the assistance.”

Democrats have sought evidence to directly link Trump to the withholding of aid. Saturday's testimony with OMB official Mark Sandy, who signed one of the documents halting aid, is expected to shed more light on how aid was withheld. 

'The president was giving him instruction'

Morrison's testimony gave further context to the relationship between U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Trump. 

Former top national security adviser to President Donald Trump, Timothy 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.

Trump attempted to distance himself from Sondland, telling reporters "I hardly know the gentleman," on Nov. 8 as he appeared to distance himself from the ambassador.

Morrison's account of Sondland's contacts with Trump, however, suggests close contact between Trump and Sondland on Ukraine. 

“Ambassador Sondland believed and at least related to me that the President was giving him instruction,” Morrison said of a conversation with Sondland about the "parallel" pressure campaign on Ukraine.

And before the July 25 call, Sondland emailed Morrison and other White House staff to say “he had spoken to the President that morning to brief him on the call.”

Recounting a later conversation between Morrison and Sondland, Morrison said Trump told Sondland “there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelensky had to do it and he should want to do it.”

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Hill told Morrison to stay away from Giuliani and 'parallel' channel

Morrison recounted a conversation with fellow National Security Council official Fiona Hill, who is also scheduled to testify publicly next week, in which she told him he "would be wise" to stay away from engagement with Giuliani and the "parallel" pressure campaign on Ukraine.

"She mentioned that Gordon talked with Rudy, and she mentioned that she stayed away from any conversation with Rudy and that I would be wise to do the same," Morrison said. 

Morrison added that he "tried to stay away from" any discussion of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company where Hunter Biden sat on the board.

Williams: July 25 call 'unusual and inappropriate' 

"I would say that it struck me as unusual and inappropriate," Williams said when asked what her own personal reaction to the call was. 

"I guess for me it shed some light on possible other motivations behind a security assistance hold," she added. 

Earlier in her interview, she said she found the "specific references" in the July 25 call to investigations to be part of Trump's "personal political agenda" as opposed to a "broader...foreign policy objective."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Morrison feared Trump-Zelensky call leak. Key takeaways from testimony