Several White House officials raised alarms internally about Trump undermining the U.S.’ official policy of support for Ukraine in exchange for political favors, with former national security adviser John Bolton instructing Hill to inform White House lawyers about backchannel efforts he compared to a “drug deal.”
The official who replaced Hill in early September, Tim Morrison, formally held the Ukraine portfolio at the NSC. Testimony before House lawmakers has depicted Morrison, a Bolton acolyte, as similarly unnerved by Trump’s desire to withhold all assistance from Ukraine. Morrison also kept the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, abreast of developments inside the White House.
But Patel’s involvement demonstrates that the president had at least some support for the scheme from within the NSC, and has given House impeachment investigators yet another name to add to their witness list—a name they are already familiar with, given Patel’s previous work in Congress to discredit the Russia investigation.
Patel joined the National Security Council’s International Organizations and Alliances directorate in February and was promoted to a senior counterterrorism role around the same time as Trump’s fateful call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he urged the newly elected leader to investigate Biden and “get to the bottom of” Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
The type of Ukraine work Patel was doing that Hill described would not be within his purview as a senior counterterrorism adviser, said Joshua Geltzer, who held Patel’s position early on in the Trump administration.
“If true, this sort of activity seems wildly outside the scope of anything a counterterrorism senior director at NSC should be spending their time on,” Geltzer said. “What’s more, it politicizes a piece of the NSC staff that administrations of both parties have worked for decades to keep as apolitical as possible.”
Patel’s name has been brought up in several recent depositions, according to another person with direct knowledge of the interviews, in connection with the shadow foreign policy campaign Trump allegedly directed in an effort to extract political favors from the newly elected Zelensky.
On Tuesday, Taylor — who remains the acting ambassador in Kiev — gave lawmakers one of the most detailed timelines to date of how Trump and his allies sought to leverage American military and diplomatic might to coerce Zelensky into a coordinated campaign to damage Joe Biden, Trump’s chief political rival. Taylor testified that he was told that Trump wanted to withhold security assistance to Ukraine unless Zelensky agreed to announce an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter served.
Democrats have been especially interested in Patel’s role in the Ukraine scandal given his intensive work as Nunes’ top staffer on the House Intelligence Committee to discredit the FBI and DOJ officials investigating Russia’s election interference.
As the chairman of that committee, Nunes stepped aside from the panel’s Russia investigation in April 2017 and launched a separate inquiry into the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence probe, which had zeroed in on four Trump campaign aides’ interactions with Russians during the election.
The findings of that parallel investigation were outlined in a 3.5-page memo that Patel, who also served as the panel’s senior counsel, helped write, despite warnings by the Justice Department that its release would be “extraordinarily reckless” because it included classified information and could harm ongoing investigations.
The memo alleges that the FBI used intelligence passed to them by the former British spy Christopher Steele to bolster the bureau’s application for a surveillance warrant targeting an early Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. It accused the FBI of omitting “the role of the” Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign in paying Steele for his research on the Trump campaign, and led Trump to accuse DOJ and FBI leaders of politicizing “the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.”
Democrats, meanwhile, accused Nunes and the Republicans of politicizing law enforcement and the Russia investigation in an effort to shield the president.
Prior to that, Patel circulated an internal memo urging Nunes to hold top DOJ and FBI officials in contempt for failing to turn over documents related to the warrant process undertaken during the transition period.
He also traveled to London in 2017—without the knowledge of the U.S. embassy, the British government, or Adam Schiff, then the committee’s ranking member—in search of Steele, whose lawyer denied Patel access to his client.
Patel’s ascension to the NSC staff earlier this year—and particularly his promotion to a senior counterterrorism role that was created for him within the directorate, according to a former official familiar with the matter—raised eyebrows among some in the NSC who didn’t believe he was experienced enough for the role, despite a two-year stint from 2014-2016 as a counterterrorism prosecutor at the Justice Department.
His “unique access” to the West Wing, and the ease with which he has been able to interact directly with the president without NSC leadership’s involvement, has also struck some as unusual, the former official said.
Nahal Toosi contributed reporting.