MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today's headline witness in the impeachment inquiry corroborated many aspects of the now-infamous July phone call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine. But Tim Morrison said he did not think anything illegal was discussed. Morrison is a top official on the National Security Council, and he is one of the final witnesses that lawmakers will hear from behind closed doors.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The House voted today, largely along party lines, to make impeachment proceedings public next month. So let's hear now from a lawmaker who was in the room as Morrison spoke. Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont is a member of the House intelligence committee. Welcome, Congressman.
PETER WELCH: Thank you.
CHANG: So I want to zoom in right in on that sentence from Morrison's opening statement. He said, quote, "I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed." What do you make of that interpretation of the July 25 phone call?
WELCH: Well, he's a Trump loyalist. But bottom line, it's illegal to solicit foreign assistance to participate in a domestic campaign. That's the whole Mueller investigation report about Russian interference. And, in fact, that call that the president made and he released the transcript has him, in his own words, asking the president of Ukraine for a favor. And the favor is to dig up dirt on a potential political opponent, Vice President Biden, and to go back to the 2016 campaign on the discredited theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia that was interfering.
CHANG: That said, the transaction would've been illegal, but Morrison concluded that there was nothing illegal that he heard or that he saw in that phone call. Doesn't that undercut the argument that the phone call was impeachable conduct?
WELCH: No, it doesn't. I mean, that's his opinion. And the fact of the president requesting an illegal act, that is campaign assistance from a foreign power. And, of course, we have all the other evidence that the president was using the authority of his office to withhold congressionally approved military aid to defend - help Ukraine defend itself from Russia aggression.
CHANG: So am I hearing from what you're saying - that this overall picture that's been coalescing from all these different witnesses, do you believe that President Trump has committed impeachable offenses?
WELCH: Well, I voted to proceed with the inquiry today, so yes. I mean, there's really two major questions that are coming together amidst all of the conflict back-and-forth. One is, is a president above the rule of law? That's a basic question. And it's - that has been asked as a result of the president, in his own phone call, making a request of a foreign power for campaign assistance and then immense evidence to show that he was withholding foreign aid and was running a sidebar "Three Amigos" foreign policy in Ukraine.
So that is a very, very serious concern. And if the president - if the Congress comes to the conclusion that he did that, it's a question of whether it will hold him accountable. But there's a second question.
CHANG: I want to...
WELCH: Go ahead.
CHANG: No, go ahead. There's a second question.
WELCH: I was going to say there's a second question, and it's about whether Congress is going to defend what has been our constitutional system of checks and balances, where we have coequal branches of government. And nobody has exclusive power.
And what you've seen from the president in response to the impeachment inquiry is something that neither Nixon, nor Bill Clinton did. He has repudiated the notion that Congress has any authority whatsoever to even ask the question about what his conduct was and whether he should be held accountable. Go ahead.
CHANG: Let me jump in on this issue of exclusive power. I mean, I want to talk about how this whole inquiry has been behind closed doors for weeks. Let me ask you this - by giving Republicans the opportunity to dig in and argue that so much has been withheld from the public so far, are Democrats eroding the possibility of some bipartisan support for impeachment?
WELCH: I think that President Trump's done a good job of eroding any bipartisan support because, you see, he was encouraging those folks in the Freedom Caucus who came in and interfered with that witness who was there to testify. And, in fact, it wasn't about a transparent process. This was about their effort to stop the process.
But the bottom line here is that standard investigations are done initially in private so that you can get the most information. And, in fact, I've been in all of these hearings, and Republicans are there sitting next to me. All Republicans who are serving on one of three committees in Congress are entitled to be there - some are, many of them aren't. Now we go to the...
CHANG: But how do you make this whole process credible to the general public if half of Congress just isn't onboard with how the process has been going so far?
WELCH: Well, you're getting to the heart of what is a real - a reality that there's no escaping. Impeachment, by definition, is a very divisive process. And as you remember, Speaker Pelosi was really reluctant to go down this road. And it was only as a result of the release of that transcript and the information that came out about Ukraine that what was politically unpalatable became constitutionally essential to stand up for the rule of law and the separation of powers and equal branch authority of Congress.
CHANG: That's Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont.
Thanks very much for joining us.
WELCH: Thank you.
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