Trump's Russia Director To Leave National Security Council Amid Impeachment Inquiry

Oct 30, 2019
Originally published on October 30, 2019 11:37 pm

Updated at 11:25 p.m. ET

Tim Morrison, the top Russia official on President Trump's National Security Council, who is scheduled to testify in the impeachment inquiry on Thursday, is set to leave his White House post imminently, three sources familiar with the plan told NPR.

Morrison, a conservative hawk who has served as the senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council, will be replaced by Andrew Peek, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, according to the sources.

A senior administration official confirmed Morrison's departure late Wednesday evening. "After more than a year of service at the National Security Council, Mr. Morrison has decided to pursue other opportunities – and has been considering doing so for some time. We wish him well," the official said.

Morrison and Peek did not respond to requests for comment for comment by NPR.

Morrison had been working on arms control and biodefense issues at the NSC when he was elevated to the Russia portfolio by Trump's then-national security adviser, John Bolton. Morrison started in the role in July, overlapping with his predecessor, Fiona Hill — another witness in the impeachment inquiry — who had announced her plans to leave the White House in August.

Morrison is a crucial figure in the House Democratic investigation into whether Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to launch an investigation of a political rival.

Morrison had alerted NSC lawyers about alleged demands being placed on the Ukrainian government to investigate a company where the son of former Vice President Joe Biden sat on the board, according to testimony this month from William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

Taylor testified that Morrison told him that Gordon Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, had informed a top Ukrainian official that U.S. military aid hinged on Zelenskiy's committing to investigating the firm connected with Biden's son.

Morrison's attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, said he planned to appear before House investigators on Thursday if subpoenaed. Van Gelder would not discuss Morrison's job status or plans.

It was not clear whether Morrison had been asked to leave his job or was departing voluntarily, and NPR could not immediately confirm the exact timing of his departure.

Peek's out-of-office response on his State Department email notes that he has been detailed to work at the NSC.

Morrison has been described as a hawk on arms control issues who raised hackles from Republican and Democratic opponents alike during his time on the House Armed Services Committee.

"He may have more hawkish views, but he still colors within the lines of what is normally the practice of diplomacy," said Brett Bruen, who served as the White House's director of global engagement in the Obama administration. "Tim is an example, like Fiona [Hill], of serious foreign policy people who are having a seriously difficult time navigating the unethical world of Trump's national security structure."

John Gans, a former Defense Department speechwriter, said one of the ironies of Morrison being asked to testify is that officials who raised eyebrows with their hard-line views when they joined the NSC under Trump have become a source of hope for people who are concerned about the Ukraine situation.

"And Tim Morrison is one of those people," said Gans, author of White House Warriors, a book about the NSC. "But in fact now we see those who are trying to get to the bottom of the impeachment are placing a lot of hope on his testimony — that he will be willing to say, despite his sort of hard-line views and despite perhaps agreeing with President Trump on some matters, that, in fact, there was a problem here on Ukraine."

As the senior director responsible for that region, Morrison would be the person at the National Security Council with the closest relationship with that country's issues.

"If there was a quid pro quo, he would know," said one former NSC official in the Trump administration. "He would know if there is a hold on military assistance."

House investigators are expected to press Morrison to corroborate key elements of testimony from other national security officials and U.S. diplomats who testified that Trump sought to withhold military aid from Ukraine unless an investigation was announced.

It was Morrison who described having a "sinking feeling" and alerted NSC lawyers after a Sept. 7 call between Sondland and Trump about the alleged pressure, according to Taylor's testimony.

"According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a 'quid pro quo,' " Taylor wrote in his opening statement. "But President Trump did insist that President Zelenskiy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskiy should want to do this himself. Mr. Morrison said that he told Ambassador Bolton and the NSC lawyers of this phone call between President Trump and Ambassador Sondland."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

NPR has learned that a key witness in the impeachment inquiry is set to leave his post on the National Security Council. Tim Morrison is the top Russia official on the NSC, and he's set to testify before the House tomorrow. Now, Morrison was privy to the contents of that July phone call between President Trump and the Ukrainian president.

And joining us now with more is White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So briefly remind us. Who is Morrison? Why is he such an important witness here?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, as the senior director responsible for that region, Tim Morrison would be the person at the NSC with the closest relationship with Ukraine's issues. As a former NSC official told me, if there was a quid pro quo, he's the one who would know about it.

It was Morrison who alerted NSC lawyers about alleged demands being placed on the Ukraine government to investigate a company where the former Vice President Joe Biden's son sat on the board, and that was according to earlier testimony. It was also Morrison who said he had heard from Gordon Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, that Trump wanted the Ukraine president to actually go to a microphone and announce this investigation.

CHANG: OK, so have you gotten any indication of why Morrison plans to leave his job? I mean, does it have anything to do with his upcoming testimony tomorrow?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I was unable to reach Morrison, and his lawyer won't speak to me about his job status. I did speak with three sources who did confirm this. You know, he'd only been in this particular job since the summer. It's very unusual to take such an important position at NSC and to leave so soon.

CHANG: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: Details are usually about a year. They can be extended. But the White House has stopped - sought to stop current and former aides from testifying, citing that they are protected or entitled to immunity from the investigation. So while it's not clear yet whether he's leaving the post or the administration entirely, his attorney has said publicly all along that he planned to testify if subpoenaed.

CHANG: What's been really interesting so far is that staff members from the National Security Council have been sort of at the center of this whole Ukraine scandal. And the people who are proving to be the most important witnesses are these really staunch conservatives - the most important witnesses for Democrats.

ORDOÑEZ: It really is interesting. There's always been at the NSC kind of a mix of somewhat ideological and career officials there. Morrison was certainly on the ideological side of the spectrum at NSC. He's considered a hawk on foreign policy. His views are in line with National Security, John Bolton.

I spoke with John Gans, a former speech - Pentagon speechwriter about this, who told me that one of the ironies of all this is that officials who raised eyebrows with their hardline views when they joined at the NSC are now kind of a source of - a slice of hope for investigators, as you pointed out.

JOHN GANS: And Tim Morrison is one of those people. But, in fact, now we see, as those who are trying to get to the bottom of the impeachment inquiry are placing a lot of hope on his testimony, that he will be willing to say, despite his sort of hardline views and despite, perhaps, agreeing with President Trump on some matters, that, in fact, there was a problem here on Ukraine.

ORDOÑEZ: And that's what Democrats hope to hear when he comes to speak.

CHANG: Now, the person who hired Morrison in the first place was former national security adviser John Bolton. And we understand that House investigators now want to speak directly with Bolton. Is that right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. And NPR has confirmed that House investigators have invited Bolton to testify next week on November 7 as part of their impeachment inquiry. Right now, it's called a voluntary appearance, which may not be quite enough for Bolton.

CHANG: Right.

ORDOÑEZ: Let's remember; Bolton is represented by the same lawyer as former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman, who has filed a lawsuit arguing that he can't testify until a judge tells him whether he needs to adhere to the congressional subpoena or White House directive.

CHANG: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.