Several times now witnesses before the House Select Committee were either told by their superiors or self-reported to NSC laywers. Why and what were the lawyers expected to do?

I may have missed something but the only time I've heard any action taken by "the lawyers" has been to instruct Lt. Col. Vindman to "not speak to anyone about this" and supposedly "the lawyers" moved a transcript to a more restricted access (aka the "secret server").

To be more specific:

Case #1 Lt Col Vindman testified that he told Sondland that statements that Sondland had made (at and after a meeting with Bolton, Hill, Sondland, and others) were " inappropriate, that the request to investigate the Bidens and his son had nothing to do with national security...". Following that meeting, Vindland reported his concerns to NSC's legal counsel.

Case#2. Following the 25 July telephone call between Trump & Zelinsky, to which Vindman was a witness. "I realized that if the Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be intrepreted as a partisan play, which would undoutedly result in Ukraine loing bipartisan support...this would undermine US national security" "Following the call. I again reported my concerns to NSC's legal counsel.

Case #3. Dr F. Hill "was instructed to tell the laywers" (by Bolton) after the meeting with Bolton, Sondland, Hill, Vindman and others. (refers to the same meeting as Case #1)

Q1: Why were people told to report to "the lawyers"?

Q2: What were "the lawyers" expected to do?

2 Answers 2


Tim Morrison testified, I'd say somewhat curtly, that he did not know why Bolton told him "tell the lawyers" on multiple occasions. He seemed to act as if this was just an unremarkable order and that he executed it like a drone, without question or thought. Perhaps he did.

Dr. Fiona Hill went a bit further and claimed that Bolton wanted to cover his ass and have as much record as possible that he wasn't a part of the "drug deal".

Lt. Col. Vindman never testified that he was instructed to tell the lawyers. He said he decided to do so on his own, out of a sense of duty.

Beyond that we can't know, without Bolton's testimony, as to exactly why he told Morrison and Hill to do these things.

As for what the lawyers do: lawyer things. They're tasked with providing legal advice and defense to the NSC, so anything that might seem legally suspicious or compromising is generally best brought to their attention so they can do their jobs.

  • @ I don't believe that Hill used those terms, however it is clear that Bolton wanted someone else to provide cover for his people (Hill and Vindman both work for Bolton -I think). In any event, I was getting the impression that "the lawyers" were being used to "memorialize" events that were suspicious, that is they could testify to the accuracy of an event (a la Comey's notebook). But what seemed out of place with my theory, was that Vindman's NSC lawyer circled back to instruct him to 'do not speak to anyone about' the 25 July call. That is suggestive that "the lawyer" intended to hide it.
    – BobE
    Nov 22, 2019 at 5:13
  • @BobE I'm fairly sure that those would be privileged communications so the lawyers would likely do no such thing. Although, technically, I think it is established that attorney/client privilege is not a privilege you have in Congressional testimony unless they decide to let you use it. I'd just be concerned in the current political environment, and the existing non sequitur of "muh rights!" coming from the Trump camp, that it'd be really risky to try to force it out of them. As for Vindman, that was likely more of a "you are putting NSC matters at risk with such discussions; cease them". Nov 22, 2019 at 5:17
  • And if it was at that point that the call had been moved to a more classified system, he may be mistaken about who it is that had adequate security clearance to be privy to the knowledge (or even if he was). So while maybe there's some questionable intent in that move (though I don't think anyone has testified that they felt there was any), respecting security clearances and classification levels would definitely be something an NSC lawyer would want to make sure is done. Nov 22, 2019 at 5:21
  • 1
    @BobE Dr. Hill testified: "The specific instruction was that I had to go to the lawyers, to John Eisenberg, our senior counsel for the National Security Council, to basically say, “You tell Eisenberg Ambassador Bolton told me that I am not part of this, whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up.”"
    – JJJ
    Nov 22, 2019 at 5:54

The National Security Counsil's job is as follows, as stated on whitehouse.gov:

The National Security Council (NSC) is the President's principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials. Since its inception under President Truman, the Council's function has been to advise and assist the President on national security and foreign policies. The Council also serves as the President's principal arm for coordinating these policies among various government agencies.

Since the main job of the NSC is to advise on a wide range of matters, not everyone with specific expertise in narrow policy areas will have a legal background. Furthermore, the subjects the NSC advises on can often be complex, involving national and international law.

So very generally, there are two reasons why lawyers are consulted:

  • To give good advice. You don't want to give advice that may lead the president or by extension the country to something illegal.

  • To make sure the members of the NSC don't do something illegal. For example, by withholding information from Congress. Whether that's a legally good move or not may be difficult to determine, therefore it's recommended to consult lawyers (who in turn may need the appropriate security clearances).

  • 2
    I think they also give advice on information classification. The question may be conflating several matters. Nov 21, 2019 at 23:21
  • It's not certain that either of these bulletpoints apply to the cases above. As far as the testimony given so far, it's not apparent that that the NSC lawyers gave any advice (1st bullet). As to the 2nd bullet, the actions that were reported had already occurred. Lastly, the above cited cases do not seem to be about classification. But you get a B for effort !
    – BobE
    Nov 22, 2019 at 3:31
  • @BobE yea I didn't really mean to take your question literally about these specific situations (which weren't that obviously stated in the question when I answered). I will not edit my answer to make it more specific because I don't know. I think you go to lawyers out of habit in irregular cases that you think require it, and then it's for them to decide what action if any needs to be taken.
    – JJJ
    Nov 22, 2019 at 3:34
  • @BobE as for my second point, I meant that in the general spirit too, I took the question that way. But even when they went to the lawyers, some actions may have been illegal, for example it might be illegal not to answer a subpoena or it might be illegal to do so if it's in violation of executive privilege. I guess we'll find out soon about that question.
    – JJJ
    Nov 22, 2019 at 3:36
  • Yes, I assumed it would be for similar reasons as in the commercial sector when a non-legal employee thinks there could be a potential legal problem. You tell the experts in the legal department, they have ownership of this domain and collate all such reports, they consider and try to anticipate the legal risks and in turn inform the appropriate people (e.g. head of legal, senior managment / CEO / board), they tell you not to tell anyone else and to bring anything more like this to them or they tell you don't worry, it isn't a problem but thanks for bringing it to their attention.
    – Lag
    Nov 22, 2019 at 10:47

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .