WASHINGTON – The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump continued Saturday as the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs Committees held a closed-door deposition with Mark Sandy, a career aide inside the White House budget office.
Sandy, a former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and currently the agency’s associate director for national security programs, is the first official from OMB to testify in the impeachment inquiry.
His testimony is likely to shed light on the Trump administration’s withholding of nearly $400 million in military aid from Ukraine.
The Democratic-led inquiry is based on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump discussed military assistance for Ukraine and suggested Zelensky help with investigations into Joe Biden’s son Hunter and unsubstantiated allegations about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election.
Congressional investigators also released transcripts from the closed door depositions with National Security Council official Timothy Morrison and Pence aide Jennifer Williams.
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Morrison “not comfortable” with Zelensky being involved in American politics
National Security Council official Timothy Morrison told congressional members and staff he asked National Security Council lawyers to review Trump’s July 25 call because he thought it “would be damaging” if it “leaked.”
“I was concerned about whether or not they would agree that it would be damaging for the reasons I outlined in my statement if the call package…leaked,” Morrison said.
He also said U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told Andriy Yermak, a top Ukrainian presidential adviser, on Sept. 1 that they could “move the aid” if the Ukrainian prosecutor general “went to the mike” and announced an investigation into Burisma.
“He told me that in his—that what he communicated was that he believed the— what could help them move the aid was if the prosecutor general would to go the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” Morrison said.
After that conversation, Morrison contacted the National Security Council lawyers, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Ambassador William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, about his concerns.
“His reaction was: Stay out of it, brief the lawyers,” Morrison said Bolton told him. Morrison added that he agreed with Bolton, since his instincts were to “stay out of this parallel track” of policymaking.
Morrison said he was “not comfortable with any idea that President Zelensky should allow himself to be involved in our politics,” he explained.
Morrison: Aid withheld at “the President’s direction”
Morrison said he first learned of the hold on aid during a July conversation with Charles Kupperman, the deputy national security adviser who had failed to appear for his scheduled testimony.
Kupperman told Morrison “the chief of staff’s office had informed OMB that it was the President’s direction to hold the assistance.”
“The chief of staff’s office had informed OMB that it was the President’s direction to hold the assistance,” Morrison said of his conversation with Kupperman. “Dr. Kupperman stated that we owe the President the views of the interagency, make sure all the departments and agencies are aligned as to the importance of the aid, in order to provide the President on up through the interagency process the endorsement of the interagency behind the continuation of the aid.”
Sondland briefed Trump before July 25 call
Morrison tied Trump even more closely to Sondland’s role in the “parallel track” of Ukraine policy to pressure the country to open investigations into Trump’s political opponents.
“Ambassador Sondland believed and at least related to me that the President was giving him instruction,” Morrison explained.
And before the July 25 call, Sondland emailed Morrison and other White House staff to say “he had spoken to the President that morning to brief him on the call.”
Describing a later conversation between Trump and Sondland, Morrison said Trump told Sondland “there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelensky had to do it and he should want to do it.”
Sondland is scheduled to testify in public on Wednesday. He submitted a revised version of his original closed-door testimony that indicated he communicated a quid pro quo.
“I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” he said in a supplement released Nov. 5.
Williams called July 25 call ‘unusual and inappropriate’
Congressional impeachment investigators released new transcripts from previous closed-door depositions with National Security Council official Timothy Morrison and Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence, on Saturday.
In her deposition, Williams said she found the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky to be “unusual and inappropriate.”
“I would say that it struck me as unusual and inappropriate,” Williams said when asked what her own personal reaction to the call was.
“I guess for me it shed some light on possible other motivations behind a security assistance hold,” she added.
Earlier in her interview, she said she found the “specific references” in the July 25 call to investigations to be part of Trump’s “personal political agenda” as opposed to a “broader…foreign policy objective.”
“I believe I found the specific references to be—to be more specific to the President in nature, to his personal political agenda, as opposed to a broader…foreign policy objective of the United States,” she said.
She agreed with Ambassador William Taylor’s assessment that withholding military aid to Ukraine would be “folly,” she said.
Williams also testified that Trump had instructed Pence not to attend Zelensky’s inauguration.
“My understanding from my colleague—and, again, I wasn’t there for the conversation—was that the President asked the Vice President not to attend,” Williams said, recounting a conversation with one of her colleagues in the Vice President’s office.
Sandy arrives for his deposition
Sandy has arrived for his closed-door deposition.
On Thursday, his lawyer told USA TODAY he would come testify if subpoenaed, while other White House officials have ignored subpoenas.
“If Mr. Sandy is subpoenaed, he will appear for a deposition this Saturday,” Sandy’s attorney, Barbara “Biz” Van Gelder, told USA TODAY.
Mick Mulvaney the acting White House Chief of Staff and former head of OMB, defied his subpoena to appear before the committees on Nov. 8.
Why is Mark Sandy’s testimony important?
Sandy could provide new evidence in the impeachment inquiry about how aid was withheld to Ukraine.
Documents presented during the deposition of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper showed that Sandy signed one of the “apportionment” letters in July 2019 halting security assistance to Ukraine.
Democrats allege Trump tied the aid and a White House meeting to requests for investigations that benefited him politically.
“Based on OMB’s communication with DOD on July 25, 2019, OMB understands from the Department that this brief pause in obligations will not preclude DOD’s timely execution of the final policy determination,” said the letter read by a congressional staff member.
Contributing: John Fritze, USA TODAY; The Associated Press