Vice President Mike Pence didn’t discuss investigations into Democrats during his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 1, according to the testimony of two witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry.
Tim Morrison, deputy assistant to the president for National Security, and Jennifer Williams, special adviser on Europe and Russia in the Office of the Vice President, told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that the two leaders didn’t discuss several topics pertinent to the impeachment inquiry, including investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Pence and Zelensky also didn’t discuss Burisma or Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the witnesses said.
President Donald Trump’s request for Zelensky to look into the Bidens and issues related to the 2016 U.S. election is at the core of the Democrat-run impeachment inquiry. The Democrats allege Trump’s request was motivated by personal political interest because Biden was the frontrunner in the Democratic primary race at the time of the July 25 call with Zelensky.
Democrats allege that Trump may have leveraged a hold on security assistance to force Zelensky to comply. However, Ukrainian officials and U.S. State Department personnel have said Ukraine wasn’t aware the aid was put on hold for review at the time, undercutting the claim. Zelensky has said on multiple occasions that he wasn’t pressured on the call and that there was no quid pro quo tied to the aid.
Williams told lawmakers that she included a transcript of the July 25 call in Pence’s nightly briefing book, but said she doesn’t know whether the vice president read the transcript.
Williams and Morrison both attended the bilateral Pence–Zelensky meeting in Warsaw, with a dozen representatives attending from both Kiev and Washington. Williams and Morrison responded in the negative when asked if specific terms such as “Crowdstrike,” “Biden,” and “Burisma” came up in the conversation between Pence and Zelensky. Burisma is the Ukrainian gas firm that paid Hunter Biden to serve on its board of directors from April 2014 to April 2019. Crowdstrike is the cybersecurity company Trump mentioned on the call with Zelensky in reference to investigating Ukraine’s involvement in interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
According to Williams, once the media were ushered out of the room, Zelensky brought up the issue of the delay in the release of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. The aid delay became public days earlier via a leak to the media. In response, Pence assured Zelensky of the U.S. commitment to the alliance and promised to relay a positive message from the meeting to Trump, Williams said.
Morrison told lawmakers that during the meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told him that Sondland relayed a message to Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak tying a public announcement about the investigations Trump had requested to the hold on U.S. aid.
“[Sondland] walked across the space and he briefed me on what he said he had said to Mr. Yermak,” Morrison said. “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 go to the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation.”
Sondland’s message to Yermak was part of what some witnesses called an “irregular channel” on Ukraine policy. During a White House meeting in May, Trump told Sondland and others that he was skeptical about Ukraine. The president told Sondland and others to speak about the issue with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. A group of three officials took the lead on speaking with Giuliani: Sondland, special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
The Democrats allege that Volker and Sondland worked to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. The evidence from testimonies to date shows that the two merely worked to get Ukrainians to issue a public statement, an effort which ultimately fizzled out. Notably, Morrison specifically recalled that Sondland suggested “the prosecutor general would go to the mike,” a reference to a push for a public statement.
The White House lifted the hold on Ukraine aid on Sept. 11. The Democrats say the lift took place only after they publicly announced an investigation in the matter on Sept. 9.
According to the anonymous whistleblower complaint that triggered the impeachment inquiry, U.S. officials first learned of the hold on aid on July 18. Williams told lawmakers she learned of the hold on July 3, two weeks prior to the date alleged in the complaint.
According to the whistleblower complaint and some of the witnesses, the reason for the hold on aid remained unclear until the aid was released. Williams told lawmakers she learned early on that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was withholding the aid to “determine whether the aid was still in line with administration priorities.”
After the impeachment inquiry started, Mick Mulvaney, the head of OMB, said the aid was on hold to determine if the money was going to be wasted by corrupt officials and whether European allies are contributing enough to help Ukraine. Mulvaney told reporters that Trump had also mentioned “the corruption related to the DNC server” as part of the aid hold discussion. Crowdstrike, the company Trump mentioned on the call with Zelensky, conducted forensic analysis of the Democratic Nation Committee (DNC) server after it was allegedly hacked by Russia operatives. The FBI never examined the physical server.