Each administration witness in the House’s impeachment inquiry is approaching his or her testimony differently. Kurt Volker resigned as Ukraine envoy and handed over all his documents. Acting ambassador William B. Taylor didn’t resign, delivered blistering testimony accusing President Trump of abusing his power, then returned to his post in Kyiv and received a hero’s welcome. Morrison’s former supervisor, Charles Kupperman, is declining to be deposed at all and is appealing to the courts.
Predictably, Trump is lashing out at any officials he perceives as enemies, calling them “human scum” and “Never Trumpers” while his supporters in the media follow suit. Morrison’s fellow NSC staffer Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s loyalty to this country has been questioned by Laura Ingraham and Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The Resistance and the MAGA crowd each have their reasons for praising or attacking the witnesses, who are being put in a no-win situation, stuck between the White House and the House of Representatives. If they don’t respond to congressional subpoenas, they invite legal problems that could crush them financially. If they reveal their internal conversations, they risk losing their security clearances and bringing the wrath of Trump’s Twitter feed down upon themselves. There aren’t even government lawyers in the room to help them protect classified information.
Morrison’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, refused to discuss the details of his Thursday testimony. But she explained how the dispute over process between Congress and the administration puts witnesses in a difficult position. Morrison intends to answer all the questions he can without putting himself in personal legal jeopardy.
When witnesses are testifying about things that could touch upon classified information, “in the best of all possible worlds you would have an agreement beforehand about that,” she said. “In the current impeachment inquiry, we hope there is enough open source information that he can avoid invoking the privilege.”
CNN reported that Morrison will back up the testimony of Taylor and others who have reported his involvement in the debate over Ukraine policy inside the administration. But the network also reported conflicting sources — two who claimed that he won’t contradict the White House, and another who suggested that his testimony will contain “nuance.”
In other words, he likely won’t give the Democrats the thing they want most, a full-throated endorsement of their characterization of the Ukraine scheme as a quid pro quo. Morrison will likely try to stick to the facts, be honest and not burn his bosses or the president in the process. That won’t be easy.
Morrison will have to answer for his part in the saga. According to Taylor’s testimony, when Taylor asked Morrison on July 28 how the call three days earlier between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had gone, Morrison (who was on the call) said it “could have been better.” During an Aug. 22 conversation, Taylor asked Morrison if there had been a change in the policy of strong support for Ukraine. Morrison replied that “it remains to be seen,” and “the President doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all.”
After Zelensky met Vice President Pence in Warsaw on Sept. 1, Morrison gave Taylor a readout. Zelensky asked about military cooperation and Pence mentioned both European burden-sharing and Ukrainian corruption, according to Taylor. Morrison also told Taylor about a side meeting between U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Zelensky’s adviser Andriy Yermak.
That Sondland-Yermak meeting is allegedly where Sondland delivered the ultimatum: no military aid until Zelensky announced he would pursue Trump’s investigations. Morrison also briefed Taylor on a Sept. 7 phone conversation between Trump and Sondland.
“According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a ‘quid pro quo,’ ” Taylor wrote in his opening statement. “But President Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations into Biden and 2016 interference, and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself.”
Morrison reported these events to his superiors at the National Security Council. On Sept. 12, according to emails leaked to the New York Times, Morrison advised the State Department that the holds on military aid to Ukraine had been lifted, but there would be no public announcement. “Keep moving, people, nothing to see here,” a State department official wrote, noting that the NSC was trying to maintain the fiction that the aid had been delayed on administrative grounds.
Democrats are sure to point out that in that email, Morrison was supporting a narrative he must have known was false. But Taylor’s testimony also makes clear Morrison was opposed to holding up Ukraine military aid. Morrison was just fighting it internally, while trying to protect Trump at the same time.
With Trump, no foreign policy decision is ever final. Just look at Syria, where Trump has twice now announced the full pullout of U.S. troops, only to partially walk it back both times. The internal administration struggle to convince Trump is never-ending and completely unpredictable.
Talking to Morrison’s friends and associates, the phrase “boy scout” often comes up. He is partisan, for sure, but not a rule-breaker and not a whistleblower. Morrison relishes fighting for what he thinks is right for this country. But he is someone who wants to influence the president’s agenda, not undermine it.
To the Resistance: Morrison is not going to cooperate if you try to make him into your next impeachment hero — he doesn’t want your help. To the MAGA crowd: Don’t bother waging another “deep state,” “Never Trumper” smear campaign. Save your energy; Morrison is not your problem.
Morrison is expected to leave the NSC in the coming weeks, as it transitions from the Bolton era to the leaner staff desired by new national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Can national security professionals who volunteer to work for Trump even try to influence foreign policy anymore without getting caught up in political issues far beyond their control? Tim Morrison is about to find out. For all our sakes, let’s hope the answer is yes.