Ex-Trump aide confirms Ukraine aid was linked to Biden probe

Timothy Morrison told investigators that he did not realize the money was being withheld for the investigation of Burisma, the gas company connected to Biden. (AFP)
Updated 01 November 2019

Ex-Trump aide confirms Ukraine aid was linked to Biden probe

  • Tim Morrison, US National Security Council, stepped down from his position
  • Trump thanked Morrison for his honesty in the investigations

WASHINGTON: A former top White House official confirmed that military aid to Ukraine was held up by President Donald Trump’s demand for the ally to investigate Democrats and Joe Biden but testified that there’s nothing illegal, in his view, about the quid pro quo at the center of the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry.
Tim Morrison, who stepped down from the National Security Council the day before his Thursday testimony, was the first White House political appointee to appear and spent more than eight hours behind closed doors with House investigators.
“I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed,” Morrison said about a pivotal phone call between Trump and the Ukraine president, according to prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press.
Late Thursday, Trump tweeted about Morrison’s comment that no law was broken: “Thank you to Tim Morrison for your honesty.”
But Morrison also confirmed what diplomat William Taylor told investigators in earlier testimony — that Morrison had a “sinking feeling” when he learned that Trump was asking the Ukrainians to publicly announce an investigation of Biden and the Democrats, even as the Republican president denied it was a quid pro quo.
“I can confirm,” Morrison wrote, that the substance of the diplomat’s testimony “is accurate.”
Morrison told investigators that he and Taylor did not realize the money was being withheld for the investigation of Burisma, the gas company connected to Biden, until a conversation with European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland in September.
“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 Sept. 1, 2019, conversation with Ambassador Sondland,” Morrison testified.
A defense hawk, Morrison was the National Security Council’s top adviser for Russian and European affairs until he stepped down Wednesday. He was brought into the White House by John Bolton, the former national security adviser who was critical of Trump’s Ukraine policy and the back-channel diplomacy being run by the Republican president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Morrison testified that he was told by his predecessor, Fiona Hill, who also testified in the impeachment inquiry, that Giuliani and Sondland were trying to get Ukraine President Voldymyr Zelenskiy “to reopen investigations into Burisma.”
Bolton resigned in September, and Morrison had similarly been expected to leave for some time. “I do not want anyone to think there is a connection between my testimony today and my pending departure,” he wrote.
As a national security adviser, Morrison was among those listening to Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian leader that sparked a whistleblower’s complaint and the impeachment inquiry.
He said he asked NSC lawyers to review the call because he had three concerns if word of the discussion leaked: how it would play out in polarized Washington, how it would affect bipartisan support in Congress for Ukraine and how it would affect US-Ukraine relations.
Republican lawmakers portrayed the opening remarks of the longtime GOP policy operative as shifting the debate favorably toward Trump. They said Morrison’s opening statement contradicted other witnesses, but they did not provide details.
“It’s a very compelling witness today that is giving testimony that contradicts some of the testimony we heard,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
Another Republican, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, said, “When you all see what he had to say, it will be interesting.”
Democrats, though, have said the witnesses are largely corroborating the central argument of the impeachment inquiry — that aid to Ukraine was being withheld as the Trump administration pushed the young democracy for the political investigation.
It is against the law to seek or receive assistance of value from a foreign entity in a US election. Trump says he did nothing wrong.
Morrison had been featured prominently in previous testimony from Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine who testified before House investigators last week.
It was Morrison who first alerted Taylor to concerns over Trump’s phone call with the Ukraine president.
In fact, Morrison’s name appeared more than a dozen times in testimony by Taylor, who told impeachment investigators that Trump was withholding military aid unless Zelenskiy went public with a promise to investigate Biden and Burisma, where Biden’s son served on the board.
Taylor’s testimony contradicted Trump’s repeated denials that there was any quid pro quo.
Morrison testified Thursday that he initially knew so little about Burisma when he took over for Hill in July that he had to do a Google search but quickly understood the Biden connection.
He did clarify one difference from Taylor’s recollection of events: He said it was his understanding that “it could be sufficient” if the new Ukraine prosecutor general, rather than Zelenskiy himself, committed “to pursue the Burisma investigation.”
As the security funds for Ukraine were being withheld, Morrison told the diplomat, “President doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all.”
Their concerns deepened when Morrison relayed on Sept. 7 the conversation he had with Sondland that gave him that “sinking feeling.”
In it, Sondland explained that Trump said he was not asking for a quid pro quo but insisted that Zelenskiy “go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference,” Taylor testified last week.
Morrison told Bolton and the NSC lawyers of this call between Trump and Sondland, according to Taylor’s testimony.
The testimony came as the House took its first formal vote on the impeachment inquiry Thursday, approving the process ahead for public hearings and possible drafting of articles of impeachment.
The 232-196 tally split along partisan lines, with all but two voting Democrats supporting the package and all voting Republicans opposed. One Republican-turned-independent joined Democrats in approving the package.
Democrats said they will largely follow rules used during the impeachment proceedings of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Trump and Republicans dismiss the process as a sham, and the president has directed his staff not to testify in the House inquiry.
“This is a very solemn day in the history of the country when the president’s misconduct has compelled us to move forward with an impeachment inquiry,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee leading the probe.
The spotlight has been on Morrison since August, when a government whistleblower said multiple US officials had said Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.”
Morrison, formerly a longtime Republican staffer at the House Armed Services Committee, has been bouncing around Washington in GOP positions for two decades.

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Afghan envoy Daudzai

Updated 09 July 2020

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Afghan envoy Daudzai

  • Pakistan played positive role in US-Taliban peace talks, says diplomat

PESHAWAR: Afghanistan’s newly appointed special envoy for Pakistan has had put “mending political relations” between the two estranged nations as one of his top priorities.

Mohammed Umer Daudzai, on Tuesday said that his primary focus would be to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan and maintain strong ties with Pakistan, especially after Islamabad’s key role in the Afghan peace process earlier this year.

In an exclusive interview, the diplomat told Arab News: “Two areas have been identified to focus on with renewed vigor, such as lasting peace in Afghanistan and cementing Pak-Afghan bilateral ties in economic, social, political and other areas.”

In order to achieve these aims, he said, efforts would be intensified “to mend political relations” between the neighboring countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a 2,600-kilometer porous border and have been at odds for years. Bonds between them have been particularly strained due to a deep mistrust and allegations of cross-border infiltration by militants.

Kabul has blamed Islamabad for harboring Taliban leaders after they were ousted from power in 2001. But Pakistan has denied the allegations and, instead, accused Kabul of providing refuge to anti-Pakistan militants – a claim rejected by Afghanistan.

Daudzai said his immediate priority would be to focus on “political reconciliation” between the two countries, especially in the backdrop of a historic peace agreement signed in February this year when Pakistan played a crucial role in facilitating a troop withdrawal deal between the US and the Taliban to end the decades-old Afghan conflict. “Afghanistan needs political reconciliation which the Afghan government has already been working on to achieve bottom-up harmony,” he added.

Daudzai’s appointment Monday by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took place days after Islamabad chose Mohammed Sadiq as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for Afghanistan.

Reiterating the need to maintain strong bilateral ties with all of its neighbors, Daudzai said Pakistan’s role was of paramount importance to Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has a positive role in the US-Taliban peace talks, and now Islamabad could play a highly significant role in the imminent intra-Afghan talks. I will explore all options for a level-playing field for the success of all these initiatives,” he said, referring in part to crucial peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban which were delayed due to a stalemate in a prisoner exchange program – a key condition of the Feb. 29 peace deal.

Under the agreement, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and around 1,000 government prisoners were to be freed by March 10. So far, Afghanistan has released 3,000 prisoners, while the Taliban have freed 500. Daudzai said that while dates had yet to be finalized, the intra-Afghan dialogue could begin “within weeks.”

He added: “A date for intra-Afghan talks hasn’t been identified yet because there is a stalemate on prisoners’ release. But I am sure they (the talks) will be kicked off within weeks.”

Experts say Daudzai’s appointment could give “fresh momentum” to the stalled process and revitalize ties between the two estranged neighbors.

“Mohammed Sadiq’s appointment...could lead Kabul-Islamabad to a close liaison and better coordination,” Irfanullah Khan, an MPhil scholar and expert on Afghan affairs, told Arab News.

Daudzai said that he would be visiting Islamabad to kickstart the process as soon as the coronavirus disease-related travel restrictions were eased.

Prior to being appointed as the special envoy, he had served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan from April 2011 to August 2013.