The weekend in startling impeachment news, explained

This past weekend served as a fitting cap to a dramatic week of public impeachment hearings — and set up this week’s sessions in riveting style.

On Saturday, the House Intelligence Committee, which leads the impeachment process, released a transcript of the closed-door deposition of Tim Morrison, formerly the top Ukraine official on the National Security Council. He revealed that President Donald Trump ordered his staff to withhold military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations into Joe Biden’s family and Democrats.

Further, Morrison testified that Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 was so concerning, it merited storing the transcript on a secret server to avoid its potential leak from damaging the White House. However, Morrison maintained the president did nothing illegal.

The committee also released the transcript of the testimony of Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence on Russian and European affairs. Though not as dramatic as Morrison’s testimony, Williams’s corroborated what’s already known about the scheme and also filled in some details of Pence’s involvement.

Those releases came hours before leaks of a rare Saturday closed-door deposition with Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director for national security programs at the Office of Management and Budget. He told lawmakers that his boss, Trump appointee Michael Duffey, took a special interest in the process by which the US distributes funds to other nations. Sandy testified he had never before seen a political official take control of such a portfolio.

On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, kept Trump administration officials aware of his efforts to pressure Ukraine to launch the desired investigations. Sondland will testify in an open hearing this week, and lawmakers will surely ask him about the coordinated effort.

Also on Sunday, Trump specifically called out Williams for her cooperation with the impeachment inquiry. She and other so-called “Never Trumpers” should “work out a better presidential attack,” Trump tweeted. That message came just days before Williams is scheduled to appear in a public impeachment hearing, leading some to say the president is attempting to intimidate a witness.

If you missed any of this because you wanted to enjoy your weekend, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

Tim Morrison told leaders of the impeachment inquiry that Trump directed a Ukraine scheme

Last month, reports indicated that Morrison told Congress behind closed doors that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine. In testimony designed to avoid making Trump look bad, the former White House official confirmed what other witnesses already told investigators: Trump wanted aid to Kyiv withheld to place pressure on Zelensky to open probes into Democrats and Biden’s family.

But based on the full transcript of his deposition, Morrison told lawmakers a whole lot more.

First, Morrison noted two instances in which Sondland relayed the plot to him.

Morrison said Sondland gave him a quick readout of a September 1 conversation the envoy to the EU had with a top Ukrainian official. “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 mic and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” the former NSC official said, referencing the name of a Ukrainian gas company of which Hunter Biden — Joe Biden’s son — sat on the board.

That discussion came on the heels of a meeting between Pence and Zelensky in Warsaw, Poland.

Six days later, Sondland and Morrison spoke again, that time about a call the ambassador just had with Trump.

“He told me he had just gotten off the phone with the president,” Morrison said. “He told me … that there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelensky must announce the opening of the investigations and he should want to do it.”

Put together, the testimony showed that not only was there a plan to get Ukraine to investigate Trump’s potential 2020 rival, but that the president was also involved.

Second, Morrison admitted he worried about the potential aftermath of Trump’s troublesome July 25 call with Zelensky, in part because White House lawyers weren’t aware of what was said during the conversation.

“I was concerned about whether or not they would agree that it would be damaging for the reasons I outlined in my statement of the caII package — if the call [memorandum of conversation] on its contents leaked,” Morrison told investigators.

Tim Morrison, the former National Security Council director for Russia and Europe, escorted to a closed-door deposition October 31, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It was already known the summary of the call was stored in an ultra-secret server designed to hold information about the most sensitive intelligence. But Morrison was effectively admitting that one reason he pushed for its placement in the server was to keep its contents hidden. It corroborates the whistleblower’s charge that there was a White House effort to “lock down” access to the transcript.

This was very damaging testimony for Trump — and it came from inside the White House.

Jennifer Williams backs known evidence and adds color about Pence’s role

Morrison’s testimony is the main one to read, but the near-simultaneous release of Williams’s deposition is also worth your time. A State Department staffer assigned to Pence’s office, Williams provided investigators with more information about the administration’s Ukraine policy as well as Pence’s role in it.

About the Trump-Zelensky call on July 25, she said, “I certainly noted that the mention of those specific investigations” — meaning into Burisma and Democrats — “seemed unusual as compared to other discussions with foreign leaders.” She also said she “believed those references to be more political in nature,” that they served the president’s “personal political agenda” instead of “a broader foreign policy objective of the United States.”

That’s quite damning, as she corroborated the substance of the call and explained how it might benefit Trump more than the country he leads. She also noted that before that conversation, she had not heard anything about the Bidens, Burisma, or the Democrats, implying that the focus came from the president and his inner Ukraine circle.

Perhaps the greatest value of her commentary, though, is what she said about Pence.

The vice president fielded a question from Zelensky about the military aid during their September 1 meeting in Warsaw. Per Williams, Pence gave a canned, traditional response to the Ukrainian’s comments. “The VP responded by really expressing our ongoing support for Ukraine, but wanting to hear from President Zelensky, you know, what the status of his reform efforts were that he could then convey back to the president.”

Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, arrives at the Capitol on November 7, 2019, for a deposition related to the House’s impeachment inquiry.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

It has long been US policy to push Ukraine to solve its myriad corruption issues, and American support for the country has been conditioned, in part, on Kyiv making serious strides to curb that problem. The issue, though, is it doesn’t appear that Trump cared about corruption — he cared about probes into the Bidens.

That’s not foreign policy. That’s personal interest.

Mark Sandy, top OMB official, sheds light on the Ukraine aid freeze

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which helps compile and assess the administration’s spending, doesn’t usually get a lot of attention. But the little-known office is now at the center of the impeachment hearings.

The OMB was told during the summer to hold on to nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine, and that order — according to witness testimony and US officials — went from Trump to acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to the OMB. Some analysts say that violates the law, since the White House decided to withhold the money for non-budgetary reasons without informing Congress, which had already authorized the disbursement of funds.

It was no surprise, then, that House investigators wanted to speak to someone inside the OMB to get a clearer picture of what was going on at the time. Thanks to Sandy’s testimony on Saturday, we now have just that.

According to the Washington Post, Sandy told lawmakers that he signed the first of many letters required to freeze the aid. The letter Sandy signed is dated July 25, the same day as the troublesome Trump-Zelensky call. Sandy and others, however, weren’t given an explanation for why there was a hold in the first place.

What’s more, Sandy said that Michael Duffey — his boss and a Trump appointee — asked to learn more about the apportionment process by which the US provides aid to other countries. That was highly irregular, per Sandy, who said he never saw a political appointee care about the process during his time at the OMB.

Sandy didn’t provide any new information on the reasons for withholding the aid, but he did highlight that the decision and process to do so wasn’t routine. It’s not necessarily damning testimony, but it is curious. At a minimum, it undercuts assertions by Trump officials, especially Mulvaney, that this kind of thing happens “all the time.”

Sondland kept US officials abreast of the Ukraine scheme before the Trump-Zelensky call

In the weeks leading up to the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call, US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland kept top US officials aware of the plan to have Ukraine open investigations into the Bidens.

That’s the major takeaway from a Wall Street Journal story published Sunday. The newspaper got ahold of emails that Sondland sent to people like Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, in which he made them aware of what he was up to.

Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, arrives at the Capitol on October 17, 2019, for his deposition as part of the House’s impeachment inquiry.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

One July 13 email, for example, showed Sondland trying to organize a Trump-Zelensky meeting before Ukraine’s parliamentary elections eight days later. “Sole purpose is for Zelensky to give Potus assurances of ‘new sheriff’ in town,” the ambassador wrote to Morrison. “Corruption ending, unbundling moving forward, and any hampered investigations will be allowed to move forward transparently.” Morrison simply responded that he was “tracking.”

Then on July 19 — the day before the originally scheduled Trump-Zelensky call — Sondland relayed the message he had just heard from the Ukrainian leader. “I talked to Zelensky just now. He is prepared to receive Potus’ call,” wrote Sondland. “Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone.’”

David Holmes, a staffer at the US embassy in Ukraine, overheard Sondland and Trump discussing similar things, according to testimony he gave Congress last week.

The emails add only more flame to the fire engulfing the ambassador. Sondland is a central player in the ploy to get Ukraine to open up probes to help Trump, which text messages, these emails, and his own written testimony make clear.

Sondland’s public appearance Wednesday will no doubt be the inquiry’s main event to date.

Trump is trying to intimidate Williams before her public hearing

Williams will testify openly in the impeachment inquiry on Tuesday morning — and Trump is keenly aware of this.

“Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls, & see the just released ststement [sic] from Ukraine,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!”

It’s unclear why Trump singled out Williams, especially since he claims he doesn’t know who she is. But there are likely two reasons why.

First, per her closed-door testimony discussed above, Williams said Trump’s comments during the July 25 call with Zelensky were “unusual” and beneficial to his political aspirations. The president doesn’t like it when someone calls him out for misbehavior, especially when the person is a woman.

Second, Williams works for Pence. Any damaging comments she might make on Tuesday carry more weight because of that. It’s one thing for a NSC staffer to say something, it’s another for the vice president’s own staff to denigrate the commander-in-chief’s case.

As of now, there are no signs that Williams is rethinking testifying on Tuesday, but it’s possible she may be even more careful with her words now that Trump is openly attacking her. That possibility alone adds some heft to the argument that Trump is tampering with a witness, especially since he also tweeted an attack during Friday’s testimony by Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted US ambassador to Ukraine.

At this rate, expect Democrats to file an “obstruction of justice” article of impeachment against the president, if that moment ever comes.

President Donald Trump talks to reporters November 8, 2019, before boarding Marine One and departing the White House.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images