Republicans' hopeful claims about a new impeachment witness suddenly collapse as his damning statement is revealed

Republicans' hopeful claims about a new impeachment witness suddenly collapse as his damning statement is revealed
President Donald J. Trump speaks on the phone in the Oval Office Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long to receive the latest update on the devastating wildfires in California. (Official Whte House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

In some ways, despite lacking the eye-popping claims and strong language that some previous witnesses employed, National Security Council official Tim Morrison's testimony on Thursday in the impeachment inquiry may be the most damning yet for President Donald Trump.

Republicans had hoped this wouldn't be the case. As Morrison's testimony proceeded on Thursday, Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York — a Trump defender often willing to make himself look ridiculous on the president's behalf — said: “It’s very telling you don’t have the opening statement." His suggestion was that, because Morrison's opening statement hadn't made its way into print as other witnesses' testimony has, it must run counter to the Democrats' narrative.

Rep. Mark Meadows was even more insistent about this claim on Fox News in a statement that Breitbart News gleefully published:

“I can tell you that much of the Democrats’ talking points are ringing hollow today because what we know is that it has not been a fair process,” Meadows stated. “It has been a closed-door process. I’ve been in almost 70 hours of testimony right now, and all that’s leaked out are the things that are damaging to the president of the United States.”

He continued, “I can tell you today’s opening testimony they aren’t going to leak it out. Some of my Democrat colleagues look like they’re sucking lemons this morning as we are starting to hear from another witness behind closed doors.”

Well, that claim quickly crumbled. (And to be clear, it's not publicly known how some of the statements have been made public — they could have been leaked by people in the committees with access, or the witnesses themselves could have legitimately made given them to news outlets of their own volition.)

CBS News obtained and published a version of Morrison's testimony on Thursday, undermining Meadows' prediction. And it paints a devasting picture for the president, confirming one of the central charges against him.

The testimony also makes clear why Morrison had given Republicans some hope. He didn't come out swinging against the president, and he's clearly not framing his testimony in an effort to do as much damage to Trump as possible. But these facts actually harm the Republicans' case more than help, because they give the damning aspects of Morrison's testimony even more credibility because there's little indication he has any vendetta against Trump or bias against the GOP.

In fact, Morrison is a partisan, but a Republican partisan. He explained: "Before joining the NSC in 2018, I spent 17 years as a Republican staffer, serving in a variety of roles in both houses of Congress."

Nevertheless, under oath and the potential penalty of criminal charges for lying, it seems he couldn't deny the truth about Trump's Ukraine scheme.

Morrison's testimony was most interesting because he was a major figure in Ambassador Bill Taylor's account of the Ukraine scandal, which described a stark and patently corrupt effort by the president and his allies to use a military aid for investigations quid pro quo to get President Volodymyr Zelensky to go after Trump's political enemies. And when it comes to those fundamental facts, Morrison said:

In preparation for my appearance today, I reviewed the statement Ambassador Taylor provided this inquiry on October 22, 2019. I can confirm that the substance of his statement, as it relates to conversations he and I had, is accurate.

He later added, discussing the military aid that Trump delayed to Ukraine:

Our initial hope was that the money would be released before the hold became public because we did not want the newly constituted Ukrainian government to question U.S. support.

I have no reason to believe the Ukrainians had any knowledge of the review until August  28, 2019. Ambassador 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 September 1, 2019 conversation with Ambassador [Gordon] Sondland. Even then I hoped that Ambassador Sondland's strategy was exclusively his own and would not be considered by leaders in the Administration and Congress, who understood the strategic importance of Ukraine to our national security.

So here's what he have: corroboration of what has been widely regarded as one of the most devastating witnesses against Trump in the impeachment case. Republicans refused to address Taylor's claims, arguing, with some merit, that it hadn't yet been confirmed. But now Morrison has helped to completely undermine the president's defense — "no quid pro quo" — even while he has no obvious motivating to do so, other than telling the truth. As Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin put it: "Tim Morrison will not be part of the Resistance."

He may not be, but in telling the truth, he could further the Resistance's aims.

Now there are some parts of Morrison's testimony that Republicans may still cling to. Morrison said that when he heard the infamous July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky, he did not think that he heard anything illegal. Now that may be true, but whether or not Trump broke the law isn't dispositive in the case of an impeachment. Abuses of power can, and often are, legal, but still impeachable. And Morrison's opinion on whether Trump broke the law is even less relevant.

Morrison did differ with Taylor's account in two key respects, but both are likewise irrelevant to the underlying question. First, Morrison said that, contrary to Taylor's claim, he believes that the Ukrainians were told that "it could be sufficient if the new Ukrainian prosecutor general — not President Zelensky — would commit to pursue the Burisma investigation." Though an interesting detail, this does not change the scope or the severity of Trump's alleged impeachable offense. The other detail where Morrison differed from Taylor, however, is not even interesting: He says that he held a meeting with a Ukrainian official not in a hotel room, but in a hotel business center.

It's also not clear whether Morrison tried to suggest that Sondland himself was responsible for the quid pro quo and that Trump wasn't responsible. But he certainly didn't state this outright, and such a claim would be implausible on its own. Taylor's testimony indicated that Sondland was acting at the president's direction, and no one has claimed that Sondland was freelancing, especially since it was the White House that canceled the aid in the first place.

In apparent contrast to testimony reported Wednesday from Alexander Vindman, Morrison said that he believed the call memo of Trump's July 25 conversation with Zelensky "accurately and completely reflects the substance of the call." But the call memo itself was damning evidence against the president. And Vindman's claims about errors in the transcription involve missing words and phrases, so it's hardly surprising that witnesses' recollections might differ somewhat on these details.

Republicans may be happy to have any witness in the inquiry that seems to be an ideological ally who is not horrified by the president's conduct. But the problem is that Morrison's facts, as he presents them, look just as damning as Democrats have suspected. They corroborate other key witnesses and round out the case Democrats have been making for weeks. And while Zeldin and Meadows suggested that the testimony wouldn't "leak" because it was bad for Democrats, they were decisively proven wrong. So even when Republicans think they've had a good day, their hopes crash face-first into reality.

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