Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President Donald Trump has done a lot of dumpster diving lately – throwing more garbage around as part of his efforts to disparage and stonewall the impeachment inquiry. He has personally attacked witnesses who testify before the House Intelligence Committee, and his supporters have tried to undercut officials’ testimony as hearsay
But, as House committees prepare to hear from current and former National Security Council (NSC) officials, reliable firsthand accounts of the President’s actions on a range of issues should be expected.
While the NSC’s work is typically done without much publicity, we may hear directly from two of its former senior officials. And if their written testimony is leaked or released, the inner workings of the primary coordinator of US national security – the NSC – may be made public.
Setting the record straight
Lawyers for former National Security Adviser John Bolton have reportedly had talks with the three House committees leading the impeachment inquiry about a possible deposition. And Bolton’s deputy, Charles Kupperman, has filed suit with a judge to determine whether he’s required to comply with a subpoena to testify. Both Bolton and Kupperman would have had extensive direct engagement with the President himself.
Previous witness testimony indicates that Bolton wanted Trump to release the hold on security assistance to Ukraine and abruptly ended a July meeting with Ukrainian officials after US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland linked investigations to a White House visit. Fiona Hill, who worked for Bolton, reportedly testified that he called Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up” and said he didn’t want to be part of the “drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.”
While Bolton allegedly went “ballistic” after a July meeting with Sondland, former US Special Representative for Ukraine negotiations Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, what we don’t know is what Bolton actually did about any of his concerns – other than tell Hill to “brief the lawyers.”
National security advisers are responsible for having more than a feeling, and the potential misuse of NSC resources on Bolton’s watch may mean that he will try to explain away his apparent failure in taking concrete steps to stop the President and his potential abuse of power. Such a move could undermine the credibility of his testimony – especially since he was responsible for the staff who moved call readouts to the codeword server and signed off on the memoranda of the President’s conversation, as well as the scheduling request for Trump’s July 25 call.
And while Bolton may try to shrug off any potential wrongdoing, Trump still has reason to be worried about Bolton potentially testifying. For starters, as a private citizen, Bolton doesn’t have to coordinate his testimony with anyone and – no longer being at the White House – probably isn’t worried about retribution.
Supercharging the inquiry
Bolton’s testimony – and similarly Kupperman’s – could supercharge the impeachment inquiry.
As national security adviser, Bolton was appointed to advise the President on all matters pertaining to national security (his deputy would have a similarly broad mandate). His role was not limited to Ukraine: his area of responsibility was the world. If he was allowed to perform his duties, he would have been involved in, listening to, or at least reviewing the readouts of all of Trump’s phone calls and engagements with foreign leaders. And this would mean that Bolton should have knowledge of whether Trump privately asked any foreign officials to investigate his political rivals.
Plus, Bolton should have spent a good deal of time with Trump, preparing him for foreign phone calls, meetings and more. In the course of his day-to-day responsibilities, if Bolton was advising the President at all, it’s likely that he heard Trump speak about the issues under investigation – like allegedly trying to blackmail Ukraine into investigating the Bidens by withholding security assistance and a White House visit. Trump continues to deny any wrongdoing.
But Bolton’s testimony could include firsthand accounts of the President’s decision-making process and thinking when it came to Ukraine.
Counting quid pro quos
According to the Washington Post, Bolton thought he knew enough about the President’s mindset to tell the US trade representative not to suggest restoring some of Ukraine’s trade privileges because, according to Bolton, Trump would oppose any action that benefited Kiev.
Bolton’s guidance to the USTR was to hold off on doing anything that would help Zelensky because, according to former US Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor’s written statement, Sondland told him that “everything” was dependent on the Ukrainians publicly announcing investigations into the Bidens and the conspiracy theory related to Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Bolton’s knowledge and advisement here would make sense, since he had a bird’s eye view across the agencies and departments working on and with Ukraine, as well as the instruments of power that may have been used to bully Ukraine.
Part of Bolton’s job was coordinating how and where US resources were applied and policy adjusted in order to advance national security. If it wasn’t just a White House visit and security assistance that were used to extort Ukraine, Bolton would know about it, and members of the House could probe Bolton on what other activities were put on ice to pressure Ukraine into doing the President’s bidding.
While Bolton reportedly said he wanted nothing to do with Giuliani’s work with the Ukrainains, Bolton did make his own trip to Ukraine in late August, weeks after a Ukrainian official had told Taylor that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t want to be a pawn in a US reelection campaign
Trump’s new conundrum
Trump has already lashed out at current State Department officials who testified, but he’ll be faced with a new conundrum this week: two officials currently working at the White House are scheduled for depositions: Tim Morrison, the current senior director for European and Russian affairs, as well as a member of his team, Alexander Vindman, a director for European affairs who covers Ukraine. Morrison’s predecessor, Fiona Hill, testified earlier this month and the substance of her testimony spoke directly to events unfolding at the White House itself.
Taylor already testified that Morrison, speaking about the hold on security assistance for Ukraine, told him that the “President doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all.” As senior director, Morrison should have direct access to the President and his conversations about Ukraine and with Ukrainian officials. Because of his rank at the NSC, it’s likely that he would have personally been a part of conversations with the President about Ukraine.
Morrison should have been responsible for briefing the President on the costs of cutting off assistance to Ukraine, and his testimony could include his recollection of what motivated the President to freeze the assistance and then, eventually, to change his mind and lift the freeze.
Morrison also listened to the July 25th call with Zelensky, so he should know what has been left out of the readout that was publicly released – including alleged attempts to cover up what was said. Plus, he met directly with Ukrainian officials who expressed concerns to him about the freeze in his assistance.
The NSC is supposed to coordinate US policy, not spend time witnessing attempts to undermine it by the President and members of his inner circle. Testimony by current and former NSC officials may provide congressional investigators with new lines of inquiry because of the depth and breadth of activities NSC officials are responsible for, as well as their unique level of access to the President himself.