Sondland said he was acting on Trump’s orders, aide told investigators

By Kyle Cheney and Blake Hounshell

Tim Morrison, a top White House national security aide, told impeachment investigators that Gordon Sondland — a U.S. ambassador at the center of the Ukraine scandal imperiling Donald Trump’s presidency — claimed to be acting on Trump’s orders, and in fact was regularly in touch with him.

Though other impeachment witnesses have suggested Sondland has overstated his relationship with the president, Morrison said he was repeatedly able to confirm that the envoy did speak directly with Trump.

“Every time you went to check to see whether he had, in fact, talked to the president, you found that he had talked to the president?” one lawmaker wondered, according to a transcript of Morrison’s testimony released Saturday.

“Yes,” Morrison replied.

Sondland’s direct access to Trump is a crucial aspect of the House’s impeachment inquiry. Officially the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, he played an unofficial role in channeling and conveying the president’s demands of Ukrainian leaders.

Sondland has acknowledged informing Ukrainian officials on Sept. 1 that a $400 million package of military aid — frozen abruptly by Trump — would be easier to pry loose if their newly elected president announced an investigation into Burisma, an energy company connected to former vice president Joe Biden’s son.

Democrats launched their impeachment investigation amid mounting evidence that Trump pressured Ukraine to launch the probe into the Bidens and other political adversaries, and might have withheld military aid and a White House visit to bend Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to his will.

Trump pressed Zelensky on a July 25 phone call to open those investigations -- a conversation whose interpretation lies at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. The president says the call was “perfect”; Democrats say it amounted to extortion and bribery.

On Friday, a State Department official stationed in Ukraine, David Holmes, pulled Sondland even deeper into the scandal when he revealed that a day after Trump’s call with Zelensky, Sondland spoke to the president by phone in a Kyiv restaurant and held it aloft so others could hear the conversation.

Holmes described hearing Trump ask about the status of the investigations and heard Sondland affirm that Zelensky had agreed to his request. He also testified that Sondland, after speaking with the president, told him that Trump didn’t “give a shit” about Ukraine but was more interested in the Biden investigation.

Morrison told impeachment investigators that until he spoke with Sondland on Sept. 1, he hadn’t drawn a connection between the hold on military aid — announced inside the administration in July — and the demand to investigate the Bidens.

Morrison also testified that Sondland had briefed President Trump before the fateful July 25 call, in what amounted to a circumvention of the usual National Security Council procedures.

“Ambassador Sondland emailed me and several other White House staff to inform us that he had spoken to the president that morning to brief him on the call,” he said.

Morrison’s account adds weight to the version of events that the current top U.S. envoy to Ukraine, William Taylor, told lawmakers both in a closed door deposition and during public testimony on Wednesday. It also underscores the magnitude of Sondland’s scheduled public testimony this coming week.

Lawmakers have wondered whether Sondland lied to them about his talks with Trump.

Sondland has already amended his testimony once to indicate that he believed Trump had intended to condition military aid and a White House visit for Zelensky on the launch of his favored investigations. Sondland also made no mention of the July 26 episode described by Holmes.

Complicating the narrative

The testimony by Morrison and other senior administration officials has rounded out the story told by a CIA whistleblower who filed an official complaint to the intelligence community inspector general in August.

But Morrison’s testimony could complicate the narrative, promoted by Democrats, that senior members of Trump’s team were so disturbed by his call with Zelensky that they sought to bury records of the discussion.

One of the most explosive charges in the whistleblower’s complaint was that a partial transcript of the July 25 call had been placed in a top-secret computer system meant for highly classified information, not politically sensitive material.

Morrison acknowledged that he had recommended that access to the call record be restricted.

But he told House investigators that the partial transcript, known as a MEMCON in NSC terminology, had initially been placed in the codeword-level system, dubbed NICE, by “mistake.”

Morrison discovered the error, he said, when he went to review the record ahead of a planned meeting between President Trump and Zelensky in Warsaw, Poland. That meeting never occurred, and Vice President Mike Pence was sent instead.

Nothing in the document required that it be put into the NICE system, Morrison testified. He said that John Eisenberg, the senior legal adviser to the National Security Council, told him that the executive staff of the White House had misunderstood his instructions in doing so.

But Morrison, unlike his deputy Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, testified that he heard nothing improper in the phone call between Trump and Zelensky. “I was hoping for a more forward- leaning embrace of President Zelensky's reform agenda from the president,” he said.

Asked why, then, he consulted with Eisenberg after the call, Morrison gave two reasons.

“I was concerned about leaks,” he said, “but I also wanted to make sure that the package was reviewed by the appropriate senior-level attention.”

Morrison also said he worried that any disclosure of the call would jeopardize bipartisan support for Ukraine in Congress and could also be used as a partisan bludgeon. But pressed by lawmakers about what he thought would be damaging for Trump, Morrison did not elaborate.

“I was afraid … if it leaked it would become a partisan political issue,” he said, adding, “I wanted to essentially put myself between my staff and that issue. I was in charge. It was my responsibility to protect them from anything that would be a distraction from their mission.”

Morrison also appeared to contradict Vindman’s view of the accuracy of the edited transcript, testifying that he had accepted all of his deputy’s edits.

Vindman told investigators that the final record of the call left out Zelensky’s mention of “Burisma,” an omission he viewed as “significant” because it signaled he had been well briefed on what President Trump planned to ask him.

But Morrison said he did not recall Burisma being mentioned.

He also appeared irritated that Vindman, as his underling, had gone directly to Eisenberg to express his alarm about the call instead of informing his superior.

“My predecessor had a different style of managing her staff than I do,” he said, referring to Hill. “She did not have the same view of how reporting through the chain of command should work.”