Trump call with Ukraine president placed on highly classified computer system due to 'administrative error,' NSC aid testifies
Former National Security Council aide Tim Morrison testified Tuesday afternoon that he understood the transcript of President Trump's July phone call with Ukraine's leader wound up on a highly secured and classified computer system due to an "administrative error" -- not, as Democrats have alleged, because the president wanted to hide his conversation.
Morrison's testimony undercut claims of a cover-up, but also raised new questions concerning the administration's use of the little-discussed codeword-level system that ordinarily holds sensitive national security information. In September, a senior Trump administration official acknowledged that White House lawyers directed moving the transcript of the call to the secure system, noting that several of Trump's previous phone calls with foreign leaders had leaked to the media.
Morrison had previously testified behind closed doors that senior National Security Council (NSC) lawyer John Eisenberg had relayed to him that his secretary accidentally put the transcript in the classified system. Morrison confirmed that Eisenberg wanted to "restrict access" to the transcript, but maintained that the secretary had apparently misinterpreted that instruction.
"It was represented to me that it was a mistake," Morrison testified on Tuesday, saying he tried to "pull up the package in our system" but was prevented from doing so. When he asked why the transcript was unavailable, he testified that he was "informed it had been moved to the higher classification system" at Eisenberg's direction. Then, Eisenberg told Morrison that he "gave no such direction" and that it was an "administrative error," according to Morrison.
Morrison said that to the best of his knowledge, there was no "malicious intent" in the decision to move the transcript to the compartmentalized system, and that all essential personnel retained access to the transcript even after it was moved.
Former top national security adviser to President Donald Trump, Tim 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. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Also on Tuesday, former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker testified at the second round of Tuesday’s impeachment hearings that he didn't initially realize the connection between a Trump-sought investigation of "Burisma" and the Bidens, as he appeared to distance himself from any efforts to investigate the latter in conversations over the summer.
Both Morrison and Volker were involved in the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy at the time of Trump’s momentous summer phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he suggested a Biden probe. The testimony followed five hours of testimony earlier in the day with the NSC's Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Vice President Pence aide Jennifer Williams.
Volker, in his opening statement, went into great detail about his understanding of efforts to seek investigations from Ukraine.
Hunter Biden was a board member of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings, which had been under investigation before then-Vice President Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire the prosecutor in charge. In his call with Zelensky, Trump suggested the Ukrainians look into the circumstances of the prosecutor's termination, including Joe Biden's boast that he had the prosecutor fired by threatening to withhold $1B in critical aid. (" “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it…It sounds horrible to me," Trump said.)
In a lengthy opening statement, Volker said he didn't have any problem with pushing Ukraine to open an investigation into Burisma or corruption. “It has long been U.S. policy under multiple administrations to urge Ukraine to investigate and fight internal corruption,” Volker said.
In October, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent testified behind closed doors that he had qualms about Hunter Biden’s lucrative role on the board of Burisma while his father spearheaded Ukraine policy as vice president.
Volker, who resigned in September after becoming embroiled in the scandal, added that he didn’t “understand” at the time that an investigation of Burisma “was tantamount to investigating Vice President Biden.”
“I saw them as very different – the former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable,” Volker said. “In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections."
Until Tuesday, none of the witnesses who have testified at the public hearings had first-hand knowledge of the president's thinking, which Republicans have used to cast doubt on Democrats' allegations. But Vindman, Williams, and Morrison all listened in on Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelensky.
“I feared at the time of the call on July 25th how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate," Morrison said in his opening statement. "My fears have been realized.”
Morrison said his understanding was that Trump was generally skeptical of foreign aid, and wanted to make sure that taxpayers were "getting their money's worth."
"The president was concerned that the United States seemed to bear the exclusive brunt of security assistance to Ukraine," Morrison said. "He wanted to see the Europeans step up and contribute more security assistance."
The impeachment inquiry has focused on a possible link between military aid to Ukraine and investigations sought by Trump pertaining to the Bidens and Democrats. The questions arose after the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky led to a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump was trying to pressure Ukraine into helping him.
“As we have heard from other witnesses, when Joe Biden was considering whether to enter the race for the presidency in 2020, the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, began a campaign to weaken Vice President Biden’s candidacy by pushing Ukraine to investigate him and his son,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in his opening statement.
Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes, R-Calif., opened his remarks by welcoming people to “act two of today’s circus," dismissing the inquiry as a partisan exercise.
“It’s an ambitious attack to deprive the American people of their right to elect a president that the Democrats don’t like,” Nunes said. He added, “The chairman of this committee claims that democracy is under threat. If that’s true, it’s not the president who poses the danger.”
Both Volker and Morrison previously gave closed-door interviews to the Democratic-led inquiry: Volker provided investigators with a package of text messages with Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and William Taylor, the U.S. chargé d'affaires for Ukraine, who said he grew alarmed at the possible linkage of the investigations to the aid.
Morrison, who served as the NSC's senior director of European and Russian affairs, has told lawmakers Trump didn't want tax dollars funding Ukrainian corruption and remarked that he wasn't concerned Trump's calls with Ukraine's leader were tied to his political interests.
Morrison resigned from the NSC last month. In his testimony Tuesday, he said he left on his “own volition” and made the decision “before I decided to testify.”
Among the biggest revelations Tuesday morning came when Vindman acknowledged communications with an unnamed intelligence official -- during an at-times tense exchange with Republicans, immediately raising apparent questions over whether he could have been a source of information for the anonymous whistleblower who reported the call.
Schiff, D-Calif., interjected to express concern that Republicans were trying to out the whistleblower through the questioning. After consulting his attorney, Vindman said, "Per the advice of my counsel, I’ve been advised not to answer the specific questions about members of the intelligence community."
Still, Vindman told lawmakers, “I do not know who the whistleblower is.”
Vindman was critical of Trump's call with Zelensky, describing the investigation "demand" as "improper." At one point, Vindman described his reaction to Trump’s call as one of “shock.”
“Frankly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he testified. “In certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out.”
The other morning witness, Williams, also expressed concern about Trump's call with Zelensky, saying, “I found the July 25th phone call unusual because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.”
The White House downplayed the hearing as a debate over two individuals’ personal opinions about a call that Americans can read for themselves. “We have learned nothing new in today’s illegitimate ‘impeachment’ proceedings,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said after Vindman and Williams' testimony.