Testimony of former National Security Council aide ties Trump closer to pressure on Ukraine

Testimony of former National Security Council aide ties Trump closer to pressure on Ukraine
Tim Morrison, the top Russia official on President Trump's National Security Council. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Updated 17 November 2019

Testimony of former National Security Council aide ties Trump closer to pressure on Ukraine

Testimony of former National Security Council aide ties Trump closer to pressure on Ukraine
  • Former National Security Council aide Tim Morrison recounts that Sondland told him he was discussing the Ukraine matters directly with Trump

WASHINGTON: Gordon Sondland, President Donald Trump’s emissary to the European Union, had a message when he met with a top Ukrainian official.
Sondland said vital US military assistance to Ukraine might be freed up if the country’s top prosecutor “would go to the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” a US official told lawmakers. Burisma is the gas company in Ukraine where Democrat Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board.
Sondland relayed the exchange moments later to Tim Morrison, then a National Security Council aide. In his private testimony to impeachment investigators made public Saturday, Morrison recounted that Sondland also told him he was discussing the Ukraine matters directly with Trump.
Morrison’s testimony ties Trump more closely to the central charge from Democrats pursuing impeachment: that Trump held up US military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations into Democrats and Biden’s family. Morrison’s testimony also contradicts much of what Sondland told congressional investigators during his own closed-door deposition, which the ambassador later amended.
Both Morrison and Sondland are scheduled to testify publicly next week as part of the historic, high-stakes impeachment proceedings into the nation’s 45th president. Democrats charge that Trump abused his office for personal political gain, while the president and his allies argue that the process is politically motivated and that nothing in the testimony so far meets the bar for impeachment.
Transcripts from the closed-door testimony from Morrison, a longtime Republican defense hawk in Washington, and Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence on Russia and Europe, were released Saturday as investigators accelerated and deepened the probe. They provided another window into the alarm within the government over Ukraine pressure.
Immediately after the exchange with Sondland during an international gathering in Warsaw, Morrison called his boss, John Bolton, then Trump’s national security adviser.
“Stay out of it,” Bolton told him, “brief the lawyers.”
For Morrison, Burisma was a catch-all for a “bucket” of investigations — of Democrats and the family of Joe Biden — that he wanted to “stay away from.” They had nothing to do with “the proper policy process that I was involved in on Ukraine,” he testified.
Morrison said Sondland and Trump had spoken approximately five times between July 15 and Sept. 11 — the weeks that $391 million in US assistance was withheld from Ukraine before it was released.
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.”
Pressed by Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee leading the probe, as to whether Sondland had actually spoken to the president, Morrison said he had verified it each time.
Pence, so far, has been a more unseen figure in the impeachment inquiry, but testimony from Williams raised fresh questions about what Pence knew about Trump’s actions toward Ukraine.
Pence was also at the Warsaw gathering. For the new government of Ukraine, situated between NATO allies and Russia, the security aid Congress had already approved was a lifeline to the West.
Williams was among the staffers in the White House Situation Room who listened and took notes during Trump’s July 25 call when he asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for “a favor.” A whistleblower’s complaint about that call helped spark the House impeachment investigation.
Williams testified that Trump’s discussion on the call of specific investigations struck her as “unusual and inappropriate” and seemed to point to “other motivations” for holding up the military aid.
After the call, Williams told investigators, she put the White House’s rough transcript into the into the vice president’s daily briefing book.
“I just don’t know if he read it,” she said.
Williams corroborated the testimony of a previous witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an NSC aide on the call, who said the White House dropped the word “Burisma” from the transcript. She said in an addendum to her testimony that Zelenskiy had mentioned the word “Burisma” in the call.
Vindman and Williams at scheduled to testify together during a public impeachment hearing on Tuesday morning.
The White House’s decision to put the transcript of the July 25 call on a highly classified server has drawn keen interest throughout the probe. But Morrison said the unusual move was unintentional.
Morrison said he was concerned if the call got out it would be politically damaging. He talked to White House lawyer John Eisenberg and they agreed that access should be restricted, he testified.
But Morrison said Eisenberg later told him that he did not intend for the call summary to be placed on a highly classified server. Eisenberg’s staff apparently put it there by mistake, he said.
As the transcripts were released, impeachment investigators wrapped up a rare Saturday session interviewing Mark Sandy, a little-known career official at the Office of Management and Budget who was involved in key meetings about the aid package.
Sandy’s name had barely come up in previous testimony. But it did on one particular date: July 25, the day of Trump’s call with Zelenskiy. That day, a legal document with Sandy’s signature directed a freeze of the security funds to Ukraine, according to testimony.
Throughout Morrison’s account, he largely confirmed testimony from current and former officials about what has been described as a shadow diplomacy being run by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, often at odds with US national security interests.
A few days after the Warsaw meeting, Sondland was on the phone telling Morrison Sept. 7 he had just gotten off a call with the president.
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 testified.
Morrison had what he called a “sinking feeling” that the aid may not ultimately be released. About that time, three congressional committees said they were launching inquiries into efforts by Trump and Giuliani to investigate the Bidens.
At a Sept. 11 meeting at the White House, Pence and GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio “convinced the president that the aid should be disbursed immediately,” said Morrison, who said he was briefed about the meeting but did not attend it. “The case was made to the president that it was the appropriate and prudent thing to do.”


Leading British Imam urges caution during Eid celebrations

Leading British Imam urges caution during Eid celebrations
Updated 20 min 52 sec ago

Leading British Imam urges caution during Eid celebrations

Leading British Imam urges caution during Eid celebrations
  • Qari Asim urged Muslims to “not drop the ball before restrictions are eased”
  • British Muslims have now celebrated two Ramadans while adhering to social distancing measures

LONDON: One of Britain’s leading imams has urged British Muslims to exert caution and continue to observe coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions on personal contact and indoor gatherings during Eid celebrations.

Qari Asim, chairman of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, said it would be “excruciatingly painful” to celebrate Eid without gathering in numbers and embracing loved ones — but that everyone should “take that extra step” to keep people safe before restrictions are lifted.

Thursday marks the end of the second Ramadan Muslims in Britain have spent adhering to restrictions on personal contact and large gatherings — both of which are hallmarks of traditional Ramadan and Eid celebrations.

Asim said: “This Eid will be very different in the sense that we will not be able to greet each other in the traditional way of embracing each other, hugging and handshaking with each other.

“But I’m really hopeful that next Eid we will be able to be with each other and embrace each other and share a meal with our extended family and friends.”

He added: “It’s excruciatingly painful because the easing of restrictions is taking place next week when we will be able to hug each other and we will be able to embrace each other.

“We just have to take that one extra step to get us through this pandemic and make sure that we do not drop the ball before the restrictions are completely eased.”

On May 17, Britain will see a raft of pandemic-related restrictions to social life relaxed — including a cap on the number of worshippers allowed into mosques and other places of worship.

Asim said: “It’s been extremely challenging to follow the restrictions that have been in place but people have made incredible sacrifices and the Muslim community has strictly followed the guidelines given by the government.”

Instead of the traditional shared iftar meal, mosques in the UK have chosen to share food with vulnerable members of their local communities.

His own mosque, Asim said, has handed out more than 7,000 food parcels in the local area throughout Ramadan.


Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests
Updated 13 May 2021

Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests
  • German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days
  • Two synagogues were attacked and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since violence erupted in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

BERLIN: Germany’s leading Jewish group on Thursday sharply condemned protests in front of a synagogue in the western city of Gelsenkirchen as “pure antisemitism.”
Several other German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days.
At least two synagogues were attacked, and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since the latest eruption of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany tweeted a video of dozens of protesters in Gelsenkirchen waving Palestinian and Turkish flags and yelling expletives about Jews.
“Jew hatred in the middle of Gelsenkirchen in front of the synagogue. The times in which Jews were cursed in the middle of the street should have long been over. This is pure antisemitism, nothing else!” the group tweeted.
The German government repeatedly condemned anti-Israeli and antisemitic attacks earlier this week and said that “the perpetrators must be found and held responsible and Jewish institutions must be protected thoroughly.”
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Funke Media Group that “there must be zero tolerance for attacks on synagogues in our country.”
“All of us are called on to make it very clear that we do not accept if Jews in Germany are made responsible for the events in the Middle East — neither in the streets nor on social media,” Maas added.
The protests in Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday were dispersed by police, German news agency DPA reported, but authorities reported further incidents in other parts of the country.
Some cities which had hoisted Israeli flags in front of their city halls on Wednesday in remembrance of the start of German-Israeli diplomatic relations on May 12, 1965, reported that the flags were torn down and sometimes burned.
An Israeli flag in front of a city hall in the western town of Solingen was torn and burnt and two Israeli flags in Berlin were also torn down late Wednesday night.
On Tuesday night, police stopped 13 suspects in the western city of Muenster near a synagogue after an Israeli flag was burned there. In the western city of Bonn, police said several people damaged the entrance of a synagogue with stones and investigators found a burned flag as well. In nearby Duesseldorf, somebody burned garbage on top of a memorial for a former synagogue.
Several cities and states in Germany have since upped their security and raised police presence in front of Jewish institutions, dpa reported.
In Berlin, some 100 people also assembled for a pro-Israel rally on Wednesday night in front of the city’s landmark Brandenburg Gate waving Israeli flags and holding a banner saying “We stand with Israel — Now and Forever.”


Muslims across Italy celebrate Eid Al-Fitr

Muslims across Italy celebrate Eid Al-Fitr
Updated 13 May 2021

Muslims across Italy celebrate Eid Al-Fitr

Muslims across Italy celebrate Eid Al-Fitr
  • Members of the Islamic community in Palermo, which numbers around 20,000, joined early-morning prayers at the Foro Italico, a vast open-air area facing the sea
  • Stewards from the community made sure that social distancing was maintained, with Sicily still recording a high number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases

ROME: Thousands of Muslims in Palermo gathered in the capital of Sicily’s waterfront to celebrate Eid Al-Fitr and pray for the victims in Palestine.

Several members of the Islamic community in Palermo, which counts around 20,000 members, joined early-morning prayers at the Foro Italico, a vast open-air area facing the sea.

Everyone was wearing a mask and carrying their own carpet. Stewards from the community made sure that social distancing was maintained, with Sicily still recording a high number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases.

Prayers were led by Mustafà Boulaalam, the imam of the mosque of Piazza Gran Cancelliere, which before 1998 was a Catholic church and was donated to the Islamic community by the late Cardinal of Palermo Salvatore Pappalardo. Imams from the city’s other mosques and Islamic centers also joined this moment of reflection.

The Mayor of Palermo Leoluca Orlando represented the city, and gave his best wishes to the Islamic community.

Orlando said: “In this moment we are all called to build fraternity in order to create peace and feel that we are children of one God. Unfortunately, this fraternity we all long for continues to be mortified by the deaths in the Mediterranean of migrants who try to reach Europe from North Africa but also from the bombs and blood that in these hours are tearing Palestine apart.”

He added: “We must all fight to defend life and pursue fraternity between individuals and peoples in the wake of peace.”

The mayor told Arab News: “Even this year Eid Al-Fitr is a feast for the entire city of Palermo and all of its citizens, not only for the Muslims who live and work here.”

Fr. Piero Magro read a message of participation from the Palermo Archbishop Corrado Lorefice, who was represented at the prayer by Biagio Conte, a lay missionary who since the late 1990s has run the “Missione di Speranza e Carità,” a charity in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Palermo.

“In our mission we have every day hundreds of Muslim brothers coming to seek for help. We try to do whatever we can to help them, especially in this particularly difficult time of the pandemic. Because we are all brothers and only if we are together we will overcome the hardship,” Conte told Arab News.

In Rome, only 1,000 were admitted for prayers in the grounds of the Great Mosque in the north of the Italian capital. 

The Islamic Cultural Center advised those over 70 and children to not attend. The center ordered everyone to bring their own disinfected Sajjada and to practice ablutions at home before reaching the mosque.

“It is so nice to be here again, all together, to pray in respect of the precautions. This Ramadan has been more normal than the one we had last year, when the pandemic reached its peak. At least we can go to the Islamic centers, and now we can celebrate,” Hussein Garoub, 20, a student at the La Sapienza University in Rome, told Arab News after the prayer.


Protests over Glasgow immigration raid on Eid

Protests over Glasgow immigration raid on Eid
Updated 13 May 2021

Protests over Glasgow immigration raid on Eid

Protests over Glasgow immigration raid on Eid
  • 200 protesters in a largely Muslim part of Scotland's biggest city demonstrated as immigration officials raided a property on Eid al-Fitr’s first day
  • There was no immediate comment from the UK Home Office on who was targeted in the raid

GLASGOW: Around 200 protesters in a largely Muslim part of Scotland’s biggest city demonstrated as immigration officials raided a property on Thursday, the start of the festival of Eid Al-Fitr.
The raid occurred in the Glasgow constituency of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said she was “deeply concerned by this action by the Home Office, especially today in the heart of a community celebrating Eid.”
“My office is making urgent enquiries and stands ready to offer any necessary assistance to those detained,” she tweeted.
There was no immediate comment from the UK Home Office on who was targeted in the raid but Mohammad Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, indicated they were Afghans.
“The same people who run from the British and American bombs put at the back of the van right now. And they are about to be deported,” he said.
“And it’s on Eid you know... the guys are not even allowed to pray. How do you do that in a democratic society? It’s a sad day.”
Watched by a large deployment of police, protesters sat on the road in front of the property and a crowd gathered around the Home Office vehicle, chanting “Leave our neighbors, let them go” and “Cops go home.”
The three-day festival of Eid marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. It is traditionally celebrated with mosque prayers, family feasts and shopping.
“I’d ask Christians to reflect on what it would feel like to have your house raided on Christmas Day,” said Tom, a neighbor who joined the protest.


Afghan president says Pakistan will not support return of Taliban

Afghan president says Pakistan will not support return of Taliban
Updated 13 May 2021

Afghan president says Pakistan will not support return of Taliban

Afghan president says Pakistan will not support return of Taliban
  • Ghani’s remarks come days after the Pakistan army chief visits Kabul despite stalled negotiations
  • Ties between Kabul and Islamabad have been historically tense but have soured even more in the past 20 years

KABUL: Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said on Thursday that Pakistan, which Kabul has long seen as a supporter of the Taliban, is not in favor of the group’s return to power in his war-battered country.

Concerns are mounting among the current Afghan administration because the complete US troop withdrawal, expected by September, could leave the country vulnerable to a Taliban takeover 20 years after it was ousted from power in a US-led invasion.

Ghani’s remarks came days after a visit from Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, to Kabul.

“Pakistan’s army, in utter clarity, announced that the revival of Islamic Emirate is not in Pakistan’s national interest,” Ghani said in a televised speech after Eid Al-Fitr prayers, marking the end of Ramadan.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was the country’s name during Taliban rule from 1996-2001.

“Afghanistan’s peace and stability means peace and stability in the region,” the president said, adding the Pakistani general expressed his support for “the republic” — which is understood as Ghani’s government.

The Pakistani military did not immediately comment on Ghani’s statement. Its spokesperson also was not available when contacted by Arab News.

Ties between Kabul and Islamabad have been historically tense but have soured even more in the past 20 years. The Afghan government accused Pakistan of backing the Taliban which has been fighting to drive foreign troops out of the country and return to power.

While Pakistan has denied supporting the Taliban, its influence has been crucial in persuading the militants to join ongoing US-sponsored negotiations for a permanent ceasefire and power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan.

Gen. Bajwa’s visit to Kabul came as the negotiations have stalled for months and violent attacks in Afghanistan have been on the rise since the US missed a May 1 deadline to withdraw its soldiers under last year’s agreement between Washington and the Taliban.

“Pakistan is also not keen on seeing an extremist ideology taking root in Afghanistan. It represents a risk for the generals and Pakistan’s democracy as well,” Toreq Farhadi, a former adviser to the Afghan government, told Arab News.

“Pakistan wants a political settlement in Afghanistan where Taliban can be part of the governing structure and opposes a total takeover of power by the Taliban.”