Thus far, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s kangaroo court bazaar has been a pretty controlled simulacrum of an actual impeachment inquiry. All the accouterments of an actual hearing are there, just without the speed bumps of contradictory narratives or open hearings.
The California Democrat’s inquiry has been conducted without giving Republicans subpoena power or the White House legal counsel any sort of role. No transcripts are available, and leaks have been selective. Schiff has even tried to shut down lines of questioning from Republicans, according to reports.
While the rules changed a bit with House Democrats voting Thursday to endorse and expand the impeachment inquiry, including making it public, the imbalance has only been ameliorated slightly.
However, the tight control Schiff and the Democrats have exercised over the narrative slipped briefly on Thursday when National Security Council official Tim Morrison testified on Capitol Hill.
The general takeaway from Morrison’s testimony was that he corroborated previous testimony that claimed U.S. military aid to Ukraine was held up by the Trump administration contingent on the government there starting certain investigations.
Take this report from CNN: “Tim Morrison, the top Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council, also told House impeachment investigators that he was advised by then-White House official Fiona Hill to stay away from the parallel Ukraine policy being pursued by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, according to one of the sources.
“Morrison said in his closed-door testimony that he was concerned the July 25 call transcript between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would leak and could have negative ramifications, according to multiple sources and a copy of his opening statement obtained by CNN. But he also made the point that he saw nothing wrong with the July call.” (Emphasis added.)
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) October 31, 2019
That’s rather the issue with Morrison’s opening statement, at least the angle taken by Schiff and the Democrats. The NSC official contradicted several of their narratives, including that there was anything illegal about the call upon which the original whistleblower complaint was predicated.
Morrison contradicted a number of other talking points that have emerged from the hearings as well.
He said he thought the transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky was accurate — contrary to Tuesday’s testimony from NSC official Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who said there were two key parts of the transcript that were missing important words and phrases.
He said Trump was concerned about corruption in Ukraine, raising the defense that even if the president was pressing the Ukrainians to chase investigations and even if they were questionable in nature, they weren’t done specifically for his political benefit.
And, perhaps most importantly for the president and his defenders, Morrison said he thought the Ukrainians were unaware the aid was held up until the end of August, much later than the timeline being reported in the media.
On the first two counts: During his statement, Morrison said he “reviewed the Memorandum of Conversation [‘MemCon’] of the July 25 phone call that was released by the White House.
“I listened to the call as it occurred from the Situation Room. To the best of my recollection, the MemCon accurately and completely reflects the substance of the call. I also recall that I did not see anyone from the NSC Legal Advisor’s Office in the room during the call. After the call, I promptly asked the NSC Legal Advisor and his Deputy to review it.
“I had three concerns about a potential leak of the MemCon: first, how it would play out in Washington’s polarized environment; second, how a leak would affect the bipartisan support our Ukrainian partners currently experience in Congress; and third, how it would affect the Ukrainian perceptions of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed.”
It’s fairly obvious what the last sentence contradicts. As for the rest of that snippet of testimony, it raises issues about what Vindman testified on Tuesday regarding the integrity of the call transcript. While the edits that Vindman says he suggested and were refused weren’t particularly substantive, they were still seized upon with a certain gusto on both Capitol Hill and in the media. This, well, wasn’t.
Morrison also notes concerns about a leak of the transcript; again, a common narrative that’s emerged over the past few weeks has been that the transcript was moved over to a secure NSC server to prevent any scrutiny of the call. NSC Legal Advisor John Eisenberg, the individual Morrison is talking about in this part of his opening statement, is also the one who moved it there; if the administration was more concerned about a leak than about protecting the president, this doesn’t become an issue.
Morrison’s testimony was also at odds with reporting that the Ukrainians were aware of the freeze by the beginning of August.
“I have no reason to believe the Ukrainians had any knowledge of the review until August 28, 2019. Ambassador [William] Taylor and I had no reason to believe that the release of the security sector assistance might be conditioned on a public statement reopening the Burisma investigation until my September 1, 2019 conversation with Ambassador [Gordon] Sondland,” Morrison said.
“Even then I hoped that Ambassador Sondland’s strategy was exclusively his own and would not be considered by leaders in the Administration and Congress, who understood the strategic importance of Ukraine to our national security.
“I am pleased our process gave the President the confidence he needed to approve the release of the security sector assistance. My regret is that Ukraine ever learned of the review and that, with this impeachment inquiry, Ukraine has become subsumed in the U.S. political process.”
Finally, there was this bit: “I was aware that the President thought Ukraine had a corruption problem, as did many others familiar with Ukraine. I was also aware that the President believed that Europe did not contribute enough assistance to Ukraine.”
Again, if the aid to Ukraine was withheld based on the fact that Trump wanted investigations into potential Ukrainian corruption, that’s entirely valid. If he did it solely or mostly because it could be used against his political enemies — specifically, Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden — that isn’t.
If he held up the aid because he thought Europe wasn’t paying enough, valid. Ammunition against Uncle Joe and his son, not so much.
Morrison’s testimony leads toward the former conclusion in both constructions.
This aspect of Morrison’s testimony didn’t exactly get a lot of coverage, but it definitely wasn’t a good look for Adam Schiff or the Democrats. However, that doesn’t get clicks, so what the media talked about instead, in grave tones, was how this was yet another damning day for Donald Trump and his administration.
If this is damning, I imagine they’ll take all the damning they can get going forward.
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