National security official set to testify in inquiry stepping down
Tim Morrison, the top Russia and Europe adviser on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, is expected to provide one of the most revelatory testimonies to date in the House Democrat led impeachment inquiry on Thursday, one day after it became clear he will soon be leaving his job, according to a source familiar with the situation and a senior administration official.
On the eve of his testimony, Morrison told his colleagues of his plans to leave the administration, a decision that was his and has been “planned for some time” given that he was an ally of former national security adviser John Bolton, who was fired by Trump in September, the source familiar said.
Morrison appeared before investigators Thursday, and he is expected to corroborate key elements of a top US diplomat’s account that Trump pressed for Ukraine to publicly announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, using military aid the country sought to fight back against Russian aggression as leverage, sources told CNN. There is not evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden.
The House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena Thursday morning for Morrison’s testimony after an attempt by the White House to direct him not to appear, an official working on the impeachment inquiry told CNN.
Morrison will also become the second White House official to testify who was on the July 25 phone call when Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate the Bidens, according to a rough transcript of the conversation released by the White House and witness testimony of officials familiar with the situation. It was one of Morrison’s deputies, Alexander Vindman, who was the first official on the call to testify on Tuesday, telling lawmakers he raised concerns about the call to White House lawyers.
Morrison, a lawyer, joined the administration last July as the senior director of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Biodefense where he was intimately involved in the Russia and North Korea portfolios.
This summer, he was tapped by Bolton to replace Fiona Hill, who had been the White House’s top official on Russian affairs. Hill testified before the committees earlier this month.
Creature of process
Morrison’s hawkish views align with those of Bolton and he has been described as a creature of process by some close to him.
Bolton always told those who worked for him that process was their protector and sometimes you have to listen to the person elected — advice Morrison adopted, sources said.
Morrison is a lifelong Republican described as a Reaganite and is referred to as “‘Bolton’s Bolton,’ he is really hard right,” according to one source familiar with Morrison.
A Baltimore native, Morrison attended law school at George Washington University and was planning to head to the Department of Justice when he graduated until an offer came in from former Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl’s office.
Morrison was impressed by Kyl’s record so accepted the offer. He spent more than 17 years on the hill — working for Kyl and the House Armed Services Committee — before joining the NSC.
Bolton brought Morrison on at the NSC as a political appointee. The two men met over a decade ago when Morrison was working for Kyl and Bolton was Ambassador to the United Nations.
When Bolton was fired, Morrison kept his job. The two old allies have been in touch on a personal basis but it is unclear if they have discussed the Ukraine probe specifically, according to a source close to Morrison.
‘It could have gone better’
After the July 25 call took place, Morrison informed Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, that it “could have gone better.” He told Taylor that Trump suggested Zelensky and his staff meet with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr, according to Taylor’s testimony last week.
Taylor meticulously documented how he believed the White House had conditioned releasing security aid to Ukraine and providing a one-on-one meeting with Zelensky on Kiev publicly announcing an investigation that could help the President politically. He said that Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, had told him that “everything” depended on the investigation being announced.
His opening statement mentioned Morrison 15 times by name.
Vindman, one of Morrison’s deputies at the NSC, told lawmakers that he raised concerns about that phone call — which lies at the heart of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry — with lawyers at the White House. CNN has reported that multiple NSC officials could have raised concerns on the discussion, and Morrison could be one of them.
Morrison is also an integral player because he was serving in the top NSC role when security assistance to Ukraine was put on hold in mid-July due to a review announced internally by the Office of Management and Budget — a review that CNN has reported never actually happened.
While Morrison is expected to corroborate parts of Taylor’s account, he is also expected to paint a picture of the NSC keeping the train on the tracks and not carrying out any illegal actions.
“The NSC process does not allow anything that isn’t legal. It just, it would never get to the President. Certainly not any process that Tim was ever a part of,” said a source close to Morrison. “A piece of paper does not get to the national security adviser without first going through the lawyers, much less to the President.”
It is also unclear what Morrison will say when asked if there was a quid pro quo.
Morrison has been “completely aligned with the end result of all the administration’s decisions,” the source said, without getting into the key details of all the elements of the administration’s process to reach decisions.
He is not likely to say there was a quid pro quo, another source close to Morrison said, adding that Morrison will stay in the lanes of the policy process that he was following and directing.
But Morrison will be asked to detail what he meant when he told Taylor, according to Taylor’s testimony, that he had a “sinking feeling” after learning about a conversation between Trump and Sondland. During that conversation Trump said he was not asking for a “quid pro quo” but he still “insisted” that Zelensky “go to a microphone” to announce investigations into Biden and 2016 election interference.
Democrats seized on the information Taylor laid out as showing that there was a quid pro quo, but Taylor would not explicitly say that himself during his closed-door testimony, according to multiple sources familiar with what he said.
Taylor said that was a legal definition lawmakers should decide on, and he was just there to provide the facts.
One-on-one with Trump
Unlike Taylor, Morrison has had one-on-one conversations with Trump throughout his 15-month tenure at the NSC, according to the source close to him. The fact they have interacted directly means Morrison will have to decide how he handles the constraints of executive privilege.
In technical terms executive privilege is defined by interactions with the President — meaning there will be other ways Morrison handled or did his job that do not directly tie to Trump, which he will be able to reveal.
Morrison views Trump as the same on TV as he is in person. “He’s not acting,” the source familiar with Morrison’s thinking said.
He has grown to believe that Trump often has a long-term vision for where he wants policy to go, though he does not necessarily share his thinking with anyone and frequently encounters potholes along the way, sources said.
Barbara Van Gelder, Morrison’s lawyer, told CNN that privilege issues are fact specific and they will be handled in accordance with the House rules if they come up during the deposition. Van Gelder would not provide comment further on Morrison’s testimony.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.