Volker, Morrison testimony an equivocal victory for Trump

WASHINGTON—Public testimony in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s alleged extortion of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky continued on Tuesday afternoon, with formernational security council staffer Timothy Morrison and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.

The testimony of the two men was not as damaging to Trump as Friday’s appearance by former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Tuesday morning hadn’t been especially good for Trump, either, with Lt. Col. Alexander Vidnman asserting that it was “improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent.” In an unusual move,the White House used its Twitter account to impugn Vindman’s personal reputation. Hours later, that same account was sharing highlights from Volker and Morrison.

 Republicans on the committee appeared generally pleased with the day’s testimony. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Oh.—known for his slashing cross-examinations—praised the witnesses, accusing Democrats of driving them out of government service.

Democrats have charged that Trump ordered military aid from Ukraine withheld throughout the summer of 2019 in an effort to coerce Zelensky to announce an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The younger Biden sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company accused of corruption. Trump also wanted an investigation into Ukrainian interference into the 2016 election. No such interference is known to have occurred.

Though they had been called by the impeachment panel’s Republican minority, Volker and Morrison by and large confirmed the Democratic narrative. That they did so without personally implicating Trump could be seen as a victory of sorts for the White House.

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First public hearings of Trump's impeachment inquiry features two veteran diplomats testimony
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First public hearings of Trump's impeachment inquiry features two veteran diplomats testimony
Career Foreign Service officer George Kent, left, and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, right, are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearings on President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, and career Foreign Service officer George Kent, both to the right, are sworn in before they testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. Committee members are seated left. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)
Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, left, and Career Foreign Service officer George Kent are sworn in prior to testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Photo via AP)
Top US diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie US aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Ranking Member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) (L), speaks with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) (C), and Republican Counsel Steve Castor during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images)
Democratic Counsel Daniel Goldman asks questions of witnesses US Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Top US diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie US aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Democratic Counsel Daniel Goldman questions top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. as Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) (R), Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) (L) and Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) listen during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images)
Chairman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, speaks during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump, with witnesses Ukrainian Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent testifying, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by JIM LO SCALZO / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Republican Representative from California Devin Nunes (L) and legal counsel Steve Castor (R) listen to Charge d'Affaires at the US embassy in Ukraine Bill Taylor during the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC,on November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by JIM LO SCALZO / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
US Representative Jim Jordan (R), Republican of Ohio, attends the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump, with witnesses Ukrainian Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent testifying, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Shadows cover a Boston Globe front page headline stating "THE CASE TO IMPEACH, FOR ALL TO HEAR" posted at the Newseum on November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) listens during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump, with witnesses top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William B. Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent testifying, on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images)
Chairman Adam Schiff (L), Democrat of California, and Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R), Republican of California, during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump, with witnesses Ukrainian Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent testifying, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr. (C) listens to opening statements before providing testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are making a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate political rivals in exchange for military aid and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs looks on during the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Charge d'Affaires at the US embassy in Ukraine Bill Taylor (L) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia George Kent (R) are sworn in to testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald J. Trump, on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump.(Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs looks on during the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Members of the media work as top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent testify before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Ukrainian Ambassador William Taylor (C-L from back) and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent (C-R from back) testify during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 13, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs and Ukrainian Ambassador Bill Taylor(front), the top diplomat in the US embassy in Ukraine arrive in the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019. - Donald Trump faces the most perilous challenge of his three-year presidency as public hearings convened as part of the impeachment probe against him open under the glare of television cameras on Wednesday. (Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
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Volker tried to distance himself from the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani—who assiduously pressed Trump’s demands throughout the spring and summer of 2019—by drawing a distinction between an investigation of Burisma, which he considered legitimate, and a politically motivated investigation into a potential rival for the presidency. Volker’s testimony called into question the truthfulness of assertions made under oath by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. 

Neal Katyal, the former U.S. solicitor general under President Obama, captured how many observers regarded Volker’s testimony. “Definitely NOT the witness Republicans were hoping for,” he wrote on Twitter. “Blows apart the Trump claim Biden did something wrong.”

And while he expressed regret at his belated realization of the connection between a Burisma investigation and the effort to harm Biden, Volker insisted he had no part in the alleged “quid pro quo” that made the investigation a prerequisite for Ukraine to receive the military aid Trump had held up. “I was never involved in anything I would consider to be bribery at all,” he said in response to questioning from Steve Castor, the lead counsel for the House Intelligence Committee’s Republican minority.

Similarly, Morrison agreed with the committee’s ranking member, Devin Nunes, R-Ca., that he had not been asked to “bribe or extort anyone.” Republicans seized on that answer as bolstering their defense of the president. “Maybe Dems should base their allegations on actual evidence, not focus groups,” tweeted House minority whip Steve Scalise. “Dems have no case.”

Both witnesses said Ukrainian officials did not realize that military aid had been placed on hold in mid-July until late August, when it was reported in Politico. Republicans consider that a crucial point because the impeachment inquiry is based on a whistleblower complaint about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky in which Trump, by their account, implied a link between the aid and the investigations he sought. But, the Republican argument goes, if the Ukrainians did not know the aid was being withheld, how could they be extorted over its release?

Volker said that he spoke on the phone with Zelensky on July 26, and that Zelensky was “very positive about the phone call.” According to Volker’s limited recollection of the phone call, Zelensky did not perceive the call as coercive or a form of extortion. 

Former State Department special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In addition, Volker said that the 55-day delay in the release of military aid to Ukraine, which was finally lifted on September 11, without Zelensky acceding to Trump’s request, was not abnormal. “Somebody had an objection,” he said. “We had to overcome it.” 

This was one of several instances in which Volker subtly shifted the narrative in his favor. In fact, officials at the Pentagon and members of Congress thought something was amiss about the hold. But by asserting a measure of plausible deniability, Volker appeared to help Trump’s case. 

Democrats have pointed out that that hold was lifted just two days after the existence of a whistleblower complaint was made known to Congress in a letter from the inspector general of the intelligence community.

Increasingly, it seems that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, will prove crucial in determining just how much traction impeachment has with the America public. Along with previous witnesses, Morrison and Volker portrayed Sondland as working in concert with Giuliani to push for an announcement of an investigation into Burisma. investigation. Morrison mentioned that his predecessor at the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, had referred to “the Gordon problem.”

A problem it does appear to be. Volker, for his part, said that during a July 10 meeting, he heard Sondland try to pressure the Ukrainians into opening an investigation. Volker deemed that demand “inappropriate.” And in response to questioning by majority counsel Daniel Goldman, Morrison said that Sondland told him that he had informed Andriy Yermak, a close adviser to Zelensky, that the Ukrainian inspector general would have to “make a statement with respect to the investigations as a condition of having the aid [hold] lifted.” 

Sondland testifies on Wednesday morning. Unlike the other witnesses who have faced the House Intelligence Committee this week, he will testify alone. 

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