Bolton and Trump Met Privately Over Withheld Aid, White House Official Testified – The New York Times17 Novembre 2019
John R. Bolton, who left the White House in September, has emerged as perhaps the most conspicuous witness who has evaded House Democrats as they build their case.
By Nicholas Fandos and
WASHINGTON — John R. Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, met privately with the president in August as part of a bid to persuade Mr. Trump to release $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine, a senior National Security Council aide told House impeachment investigators last month.
The meeting, which has not been previously reported, came as Mr. Bolton sought to marshal Mr. Trump’s cabinet secretaries and top national security advisers to convince the president that it was in the United States’ best interest to unfreeze the funds to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. But Mr. Bolton emerged with Mr. Trump unmoved, and instructed the aide to look for new opportunities to get those officials in front of Mr. Trump.
“The extent of my recollection is that Ambassador Bolton simply said he wasn’t ready to do it,” said the aide, Timothy Morrison, referring to Mr. Trump, according to a transcript of his testimony released by House Democrats on Saturday.
Mr. Bolton, who left the White House in September, has emerged over weeks of interviews as perhaps the single most important witness who has evaded House Democrats as they build a case that Mr. Trump abused the powers of the presidency by withholding vital military assistance and a coveted White House meeting from Ukraine until it delivered investigations he wanted. The new disclosure only makes clearer the significance of his potential testimony.
It also underlines the dilemma that House Democrats face over their decision to press ahead with proceedings without his testimony. Last week, Mr. Bolton’s lawyer told House investigators that his client could discuss “many relevant meetings and conversations” of interest to their inquiry, but he has so far refused to appear without a subpoena and a court order. Democrats have said that Mr. Bolton should show up as is, and that they would not waste their time in court.
The outpouring of public testimony and growing political pressure could push Mr. Bolton to change his mind. But for now, there are no signs that either he, or House Democrats, will budge.
The release of the transcript was part of a flurry of activity by House Democrats on Saturday, including a rare weekend of closed-door deposition where investigators questioned for the first time a senior budget official about the aid freeze.
Mr. Trump unexpectedly withheld the aid in July, despite overwhelming support in Congress and his own administration for its allocation. He only released the money in September, after Mr. Bolton departed and in the face of intense political pressure from Republicans.
In addition to Mr. Morrison’s transcript, House Democrats released the transcript of a November interview with Jennifer Williams, a longtime State Department employee with expertise in Europe and Russia who is detailed to Vice President Mike Pence’s national security staff.
Earlier in the day, lawmakers and their staffs privately questioned Mark Sandy, a senior budget official, who told investigators that political appointees above him did not provide a rationale for the hold and that he had never encountered a similar situation in his time at the agency, according to two people familiar with his testimony.
Mr. Sandy also said that he had sought guidance on the legality of the move, echoing testimony from a Defense Department official who said that she had raised legal concerns.
What Happened Yesterday
Nov. 15, 2019
- Ms. Yovanovitch described how it felt to be bad-mouthed by Mr. Trump on the July 25 call: “shocked, appalled, devastated that the president of the United States would talk about any ambassador like that to a foreign head of state. And it was me. I mean, I couldn’t believe it.” A person who saw her reading the transcript told her that the color drained from her face, she said. Asked what the words “going to go through some things” sounded like to her, she said, “It sounded like a threat.”
- As Ms. Yovanovitch testified, Mr. Trump posted a tweet attacking her record as a diplomat in many troubled regions of the world, saying that “everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.” Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the committee holding the hearings, read the tweet back to her in real time. “It’s very intimidating,” she said. “The effect is to be intimidating.” Our television critic wrote that it was a “remarkable fourth-wall-breaking moment” and a “real-time meta-confrontation.”
- Ms. Yovanovitch was unsparing in her criticism of the Trump administration. “Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me,” she said. “What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them and, working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador.” She went on: “How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”Sign up for updates: Get the latest developments from the House impeachment inquiry in your inbox.
Many of the most significant elements of testimony by Mr. Morrison and Ms. Williams have already been publicly reported, including Mr. Morrison’s account of how a top diplomat close to Mr. Trump informed a top Ukrainian official that the country would probably need to publicly announce investigations Mr. Trump sought before the security money would be released.
Still, the transcripts filled in many new details, some of them colorful, about the events under scrutiny by the House and clarified the set of facts both parties were working with as they prepared for another week packed with public hearings.
In her hourslong interview, Ms. Williams helped explain why Mr. Pence, who had been scheduled to attend President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inaugural in late May, abruptly canceled his trip: She said an assistant to the vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told her that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Pence to stay home. That fact was included in an anonymous whistle-blower complaint about the Ukraine matter that helped prompt the impeachment inquiry.
Mr. Morrison’s testimony added to a portrait of Mr. Bolton working feverishly to ensure the regular interagency policymaking of the executive branch prevailed over an irregular policy channel that appeared meant to serve Mr. Trump’s personal political interests. That channel included the United States’ ambassador to the European Union, the president’s private lawyer and a handful of others pressing Ukraine to commit to investigations of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and a debunked conspiracy theory about Ukraine and the 2016 election.
In his testimony, Mr. Morrison said that Mr. Bolton advised him to be wary of the president’s irregular policymaking channel, including the envoy to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland.
“My consistent direction from Ambassador Bolton was, ‘Do not get involved, and make sure the lawyers are tracking,’” Mr. Morrison said, referring to Mr. Sondland and the efforts he was involved in. Mr. Morrison’s predecessor as the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia and Europe told investigators that Mr. Bolton issued a similar instruction after a run-in with Mr. Sondland, who will testify publicly himself next week.
Mr. Morrison’s testimony made clear that he and Mr. Bolton were deeply skeptical of Mr. Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and political donor turned ambassador. He said he suspected Mr. Sondland’s stated influence with the president might be exaggerated. Following Mr. Bolton’s directions, he reported interactions he had with the ambassador to White House lawyers. But when he followed up, Mr. Sondland seemed to be telling the truth and appeared to have Mr. Trump’s ear on Ukraine matters.
“Ambassador Sondland believed and at least related to me that the president was giving him instruction,” Mr. Morrison testified.
Mr. Morrison described witnessing Mr. Sondland approach an aide to Mr. Zelensky during a high-level meeting in Warsaw in September. The conversation took place just after a meeting in which Mr. Pence assured Mr. Zelensky that the United States still fully supported Ukraine and would decide on the security aid soon. The vice president did not mention the investigations during the meeting, Ms. Williams said.
Mr. Sondland was blunter, though, he later told Mr. Morrison. He told Mr. Zelensky’s adviser that “what could help them move the aid was if the prosecutor general would go to the mic and announce that he was opening” the investigation Mr. Trump wanted.
Mr. Morrison’s account already prompted Mr. Sondland to revise his own private testimony, but it also underscored the importance both to Mr. Trump and to Democrats of his public appearance next week, as one of the few cooperating witnesses who directly spoke to Mr. Trump about his interest in Ukraine.
Both Ms. Williams and Mr. Morrison listened in on a July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky.
She told investigators she was taken aback by the mention of investigations of the Bidens and Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm that Mr. Biden’s son worked for. She found the discussion to be “more political in nature,” and therefore “unusual and inappropriate.”
Mr. Morrison had a different reaction. He testified he found nothing inherently problematic about the call, but he still went to White House lawyers to express concerns that a record of the call could leak and would be unflattering for the president. He recommended that access to it be limited, and eventually a reconstructed transcript was placed on the White House’s most secure server.
Mr. Morrison testified that John A. Eisenberg, the council’s top lawyer, told him that had been a mistake and that he had only intended for access to the document to be restricted. He “related that he did not ask for it to be put on there, but that the Executive Secretariat staff misunderstood his recommendation for how to restrict access,” Mr. Morrison said.
Republicans believe the testimony undercuts Democrats’ allegation that the White House was trying to cover up the call. But it does not explain why the call summary was not removed from the highly secure server when Mr. Eisenberg learned it was there.
The president’s allies are also likely to use Mr. Morrison’s closed-door interview to try to undercut Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the White House’s top Ukraine expert, when he testifies publicly next week about his deep alarm over the July 25 call and other matters.
Mr. Morrison told investigators that, “I had concerns that he did not exercise appropriate judgment as to whom he would say what.”
Mr. Sandy was the first budget official to speak with impeachment investigators. At least three higher-profile Trump administration officials connected to the budget office have stiff-armed the inquiry: Russell T. Vought, the agency’s acting director; Michael Duffey, who helped carry out Mr. Trump’s directive to freeze the aid; and Mick Mulvaney, who retains the title of budget director and is the acting White House chief of staff.
He testified that he was directed to sign paperwork on July 25 enforcing the hold, but that Mr. Duffey, a political appointee, signed such paperwork going forward, a highly unusual intervention by his account.
Why precisely Mr. Trump withheld the funding as he pressed Ukraine for the politically beneficial investigations and what Mr. Mulvaney told the agency about the decision remain central unanswered questions in the inquiry.
“This is a technical part of our investigation. We want to know exactly how the president translated his political objective to shake down the Ukrainian government for the favors he wanted translated into the budget process,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland.