Washington: Transcripts released Saturday in the impeachment inquiry show Ambassador Gordon Sondland playing a central role in President Donald Trump's effort to push Ukraine to conduct political investigations as a condition for receiving needed military aid.
The fresh details come from hundreds of pages of testimony from Tim Morrison, a former top official at the National Security Council. They contradict much of the ambassador's own testimony behind closed doors. Both Morrison and Sondland are expected to testify publicly before the House next week.
While some, including Trump himself, have begun to question Sondland's knowledge of events, Morrison told House investigators the ambassador "related to me he was acting " he was discussing these matters with the President."
Morrison, a longtime Republican defence hawk in Washington, largely confirmed testimony from current and former officials testifying in the impeachment inquiry. But his account also provided new insight on what others have called shadow diplomacy being run by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, often at odds with US national security interests.
As Sondland, Giuliani and others tried to persuade new Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to launch the investigations Trump wanted of his Democratic rivals, Morrison said he "tried to stay away."
Morrison called this the Burisma "bucket" " investigations into the family of Joe Biden and the role of Democrats in the 2016 election. It's a reference to the gas company in Ukraine where Biden's son Hunter served on the board
In particular Morrison described a 1 September meeting Sondland held with a top Zelenskiy aide, Andriy Yermak, on the sidelines of a summit in Warsaw.
Morrison said he witnessed the exchange and that afterwards Sondland bounded across the room to tell him what was said.
Sondland told him that "what could help them move the aid was if the prosecutor general would go to the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation," Morrison testified. The prosecutor general is Ukraine's top legal official.
"My concern was what Gordon was proposing about getting the Ukrainians pulled into our politics," Morrison said. He added: "It was the first time something like this had been injected as a condition on the release of the assistance."
Morrison, who announced 30 October he would be stepping down from the NSC, was brought to the White House by then-national security adviser John Bolton.
Within hours of the conversation in Warsaw, Morrison called Bolton and the top US official in Ukraine, William Taylor. He told them both about the conversation and his concerns about it.
Bolton told him: "Stay out of it, brief the lawyers."
For weeks, top administration aides had been struggling to understand why the $391 million in security aid for Ukraine was being delayed. There's longstanding bipartisan support for backing up the young democracy bordering an aggressive Russia.
Others have testified they were being told by officials at the Office and Management and Budget it was being stalled at the direction of the president's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
A few days later, on 7 September, Sondland was on the phone telling Morrison he had just gotten off a call with the president.
"I remember this because he actually made the comment that it was easier for him to get a hold of the President than to get a hold of me," Morrison said.
Morrison said Sondland related that Trump assured him there were no strings being attached to the military aid for Ukraine.
"The president told him there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelenskiy must announce the opening of the investigations and he should want to do it," Morrison recalled Sondland saying.
Morrison had what he called a "sinking feeling" " that the aid would may not be released.
"I also did not think it was a good idea for the Ukrainian President to " at this point, I had a better understanding " involve himself in our politics," he said.
Only days later, after three congressional committees said they were launching inquiries into efforts by Trump and Giuliani to investigate the Bidens, was the money released.
Morrison said that at a 11 September meeting at the White House that Trump was persuaded to release the money. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio "convinced the president that the aid should be disbursed immediately," said Morrison, who was briefed about the meeting but did not attend. "The case was made to the president that it was the appropriate and prudent thing to do."
Transcripts were also released from the testimony of Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Pence, that raised new questions about how much Pence knew about the alleged trade-off that's central to the impeachment inquiry.
Impeachment investigators met for a rare Saturday session with a White House official directly connected to Trump's block on military aid to Ukraine, the first budget office witness to testify in the historic inquiry.
Mark Sandy, a little-known career official at the Office of Management and Budget, was involved in key meetings about the nearly $400 million aid package.
Sandy's name had barely come up in previous testimony. But it did on one particular date: 25 July, the day of Trump's call with Zelenskiy. That day, a legal document with Sandy's signature directed a freeze of the security funds, according to testimony from Defense Department official Laura Cooper. Investigators had shown her a document as evidence.
Trump on the call had asked Zelenskiy for a "favour," to conduct an investigation into Biden and his son. The link between Trump's call and the White House's holding back of security aid is the central question in the impeachment inquiry. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called it "bribery."
Trump, who says he only wanted to root out corruption in Ukraine, says he did nothing wrong.
Sharpening the arguments, both sides are preparing for an intense lineup of public hearings in the coming week. Americans are deeply split over impeachment, much as they are over the president himself.
For Ukraine, a former Soviet republic situated between NATO-allies and Russia, the $391 million in aid is its lifeline to the West.
The money is symbolic, the ousted US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified this week, but also substantial.
It includes $250 million in Pentagon funding and an additional $141 million for the State Department, including for maritime security in the Black Sea, aimed at identifying and tracking Russian ships and aircraft.
"Supporting Ukraine is the right thing to do," Yovanovitch testified. "If Russia prevails and Ukraine falls to Russian dominion, we can expect to see other attempts by Russia to expand its territory and influence."