Officials also said that former Bolton deputy Timothy Morrison, who is expected to testify Thursday, is leaving his post as the National Security Council’s top Russia official. Morrison — who would be one of the highest-ranking White House officials to provide evidence in the probe — could provide crucial corroboration of an alleged quid pro quo, in which other witnesses have suggested Trump held back promised military aid to Ukraine until its leaders committed to launch investigations that could help Trump politically.
As the depositions continue, the Democratic-controlled House is scheduled to vote Thursday on rules governing the next phase of the inquiry, with both parties working feverishly to ensure that there are few if any defections on their side in what amounts to the first formal approval of the impeachment effort.
White House legislative aides and other top officials have worked to solidify Republican opposition since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced there would be a vote, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy candidly. The White House plans to invite a group of GOP lawmakers to meet with Trump before the roll call in an additional move to ensure “no” votes, the official said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) have told Republicans that any vote for the inquiry would effectively be greenlighting an unfair process that doesn’t give Trump due process rights.
Democrats say they sought to craft the resolution specifically to undercut that argument, ensuring, for example, that Trump can have an attorney represent him during the proceedings. But Republicans say the process remains unfair because the House Judiciary Committee can keep the president’s attorneys out of the process if Democrats decide they are acting in bad faith.
Democrats were expected to lose at least one member — Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.) — a moderate who was elected last year to represent a longtime Republican district. Pelosi’s leadership team spent the day working a handful of Democrats who were also up in the air, with one senior Democratic official predicting they could lose two to four lawmakers.
The lobbying took place amid growing partisan tensions over the impeachment inquiry. After one witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, was vilified this week by figures on the conservative right, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday called on the Army to provide him with the same protections as official government whistleblowers.
“Although he has served our country for more than 20 years and is a recipient of the Purple Heart after being injured while serving in Iraq, he has been called a variety of derogatory terms and some have even gone so far as to call him a spy and question his loyalty to the United States,” Schumer wrote Wednesday in a letter to the Pentagon.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the just-retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also came to Vindman’s defense in a statement issued to CNN on Wednesday, calling him “a professional, competent, patriotic, and loyal officer” who “has made an extraordinary contribution to the security of our nation in both peacetime and combat.”
The potential testimony next week from Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser for 17 months, would represent the most significant step by House investigators yet in moving inside Trump’s inner circle. Democrats are eager to question him about Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose pressure campaign targeting Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, raised Bolton’s ire earlier this year.
Giuliani’s informal diplomatic channel sought to force Zelensky to launch investigations that could benefit Trump politically, according to testimony from William B. Taylor Jr., acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
“I think he’s central to a lot of this because of his position,” Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, said in reference to Bolton.
At the same time, Lynch said, Bolton “has proven to be unpredictable. He does his own thing. So I would hope that he would [testify], but I’m not sure that he will.”
It was not immediately clear whether Bolton would comply with lawmakers’ request, but a looming court decision involving another potential witness could affect his decision.
Charles Kupperman, another former Bolton deputy, filed a lawsuit last week asking a federal judge whether he should comply with a congressional subpoena to testify in the impeachment inquiry or with a White House demand not to appear. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, although both the House and the Justice Department have sought a delay.
In the meantime, Thursday’s testimony from Morrison may corroborate some of the most incriminating parts of Taylor’s detailed account of how the Giuliani-driven shadow policy on Ukraine began to undermine the objectives being pursued through regular national security channels.
Taylor testified that it was Morrison who told him in early September that nearly $400 million in congressionally approved military aid was being withheld until Zelensky publicly promised to conduct the investigations Trump wanted. According to Taylor’s testimony, Morrison told him that Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, had communicated “that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelensky committed to pursue the Burisma investigation” — referring to a Ukrainian energy company that previously employed former vice president and potential 2020 Trump opponent Joe Biden’s son Hunter on its board.
In a subsequent conversation, Morrison told Taylor that Sondland and Trump had spoken and that during their phone call, Trump allegedly told Sondland he wanted Zelensky to “go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference” — something that gave Morrison a “sinking feeling,” according to Taylor’s recollections.
Should Morrison confirm Taylor’s account, he would give it the weight of first-hand testimony – much like Vindman did, when he told investigators that Trump had insisted Zelensky commit to investigations before agreeing to meet him face-to-face. Morrison’s testimony may be even more powerful given his GOP bona fides as a former Republican congressional staffer.
Meanwhile, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) announced Wednesday that he plans to file an ethics complaint against the leader of the impeachment probe, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), whom he accused of acting in a way that was “not consistent with House rules and . . . House ethics.”
Gaetz was the leader of a group of Republican lawmakers who stormed a deposition room last week, interrupting the inquiry for several hours and breaking long-standing bipartisan rules about access to secure areas on Capitol Hill.
Two diplomats who worked on Ukraine policy testified during depositions Wednesday that Trump had a darkly pessimistic view of that country.
Christopher Anderson, a career Foreign Service officer, also told lawmakers that the White House blocked efforts by the State Department to condemn actions by Russia, including an attack by Russian forces on Ukrainian military vessels in the Sea of Azov in 2018.
“While my colleagues at the State Department quickly prepared a statement condemning Russia for its escalation, senior officials in the White House blocked it from being issued,” Anderson testified.
Catherine Croft, a career diplomat who worked at both the White House and the State Department, said she heard Trump “describe Ukraine as a corrupt country” both “directly and indirectly” during her time in the administration.
Croft also said that Republican lobbyist Robert Livingston — a former House member and a previously unknown player in the Ukraine drama — called her several times to say that then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch should be fired.
“He characterized Ambassador Yovanovitch as an ‘Obama holdover’ and associated with George Soros,” Croft said in her opening remarks, referring to the liberal billionaire donor often demonized on the right.
Also on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Trump’s nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan, implicitly broke with Trump when he said during his confirmation hearing that a president using his office to solicit investigations into his political opponents would not be “in accord with our values.”
John Hudson, Carol D. Leonnig, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner contributed to this report.