Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council aide who has been criticized by President Donald Trump and his allies, told lawmakers Tuesday that Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden on a July call was “inappropriate,” and he knew “without hesitation” that he had to report it.
“It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government to investigate a US citizen and political opponent,” Vindman said in his opening remarks on the third day of public impeachment hearings. “It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play.”
Vindman told the committee, which is leading House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Trump, that he believed the US President’s request constituted a demand of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and he was concerned in particular about an investigation from a foreign power where there was “at best, dubious belief that this would be a completely impartial investigation.”
“The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it’s polite and pleasant, it’s not to be taken as a request, it’s to be taken as an order,” Vindman said. “In this case, the power disparity between the two leaders, my impression is that in order to get the White House meeting, President Zelensky would have to deliver these investigations.”
The testimony before the House Intelligence Committee from Vindman and Jennifer Williams, a State Department aide detailed to Vice President Mike Pence, represents the first public hearing from officials who listened into the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky.
Vindman reported his concerns about Trump’s call, which is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, out of a “sense of duty” and defended his fellow witnesses from what he described as “reprehensible” attacks.
Vindman, testifying in his Army uniform as an active-duty soldier, invoked his father’s decision to leave the Soviet Union and come to the US, noting that the testimony he was giving Tuesday would likely get him killed in Russia.
“Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth,” Vindman said.
Tuesday’s hearing kicks off a marathon week where impeachment investigators will hear publicly from nine witnesses at five impeachment hearings over the next three days, as Democrats race to collect public testimony this week about Trump’s role in pushing Ukraine to open investigations and the withholding of US security aid and a one-on-one meeting.
On Tuesday afternoon, former US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, a former a top Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council, will testify.
Vindman testified that he reported his concerns to National Security Council lawyers through proper channels about both the July 25 call and a July 10 meeting in which a US ambassador proposed opening investigations to the Ukrainians in attendance. He said he raised these concerns privately “because they had significant national security implications for our country.”
Williams did not tie any motives to the President’s request to Zelensky to investigate Biden, but explained why she believed it was unusual.
“I can’t speak to what the President’s motivation was in referencing it, but I just noted that the reference to Biden sounded political to me,” Williams said.
Vindman and Williams face attacks from Trump
Vindman testified alongside Williams, who, like Vindman, also raised concerns about the July call and has been attacked by the President after testifying. Williams said in her opening statement that she found the call “unusual” because it involved “discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.” But she said she did not discuss the call with the vice president.
Vindman pushed back at the attacks on his colleagues who have appeared as part of the impeachment inquiry, saying that the “character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible.”
“It is natural to disagree and engage in spirited debate, this has been our custom since the time of our Founding Fathers, but we are better than personal attacks,” Vindman said.
In the wake of their previous private testimony, both Vindman and Williams have also been attacked by the President as “never Trumpers.”
Vindman in particular has faced numerous attacks from Trump’s allies, and Vindman’s judgment was also questioned by Morrison in his testimony. Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson — who has been in the middle of several key Ukraine episodes — sent Republicans a lengthy letter Monday about Ukraine that included an attack on Vindman, suggesting he was part of the executive branch that resents Trump and reacts “by leaking to the press and participating in the ongoing effort to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office.”
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, criticized the attacks from Trump and others against Vindman and Williams in his opening statement.
“I hope no one on this committee will become part of those vicious attacks,” Schiff said. “Today’s witnesses, like those who testified last week, are here because they were subpoenaed to appear, not because they are for or against impeachment.”
Vindman is prepared to answer questions about his judgment, according to a source close to Vindman. Vindman has printed out years of positive internal reviews and will have them on hand should he be questioned. His identical twin brother, Army Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, a National Security Council lawyer who handles ethics issues, is attending.
The role of the whistleblower
Vindman’s testimony also has the potential to lead to a clash between Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence Committee. During Vindman’s closed-door deposition, Schiff objected to a line of GOP questioning about who Vindman had spoken with that he described as a “bad-faith effort to out a whistleblower who has a statutory night to remain anonymous.”
Republicans pushed back, arguing weren’t trying to out the whistleblower and have the right to ask out who Vindman spoke to about the Ukraine matter and the call. “We can ask the questions we want to ask,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican.
Jordan wouldn’t say Monday whether Republicans would try a similar line of questioning.
“We are working on what we are going to ask,” Jordan told CNN. “Mr. Vindman has been subpoenaed by Congress. That means members of Congress should get to ask the questions they want. Adam Schiff doesn’t just get to ask the questions he wants.”
Jordan added: “Whether that comes up tomorrow or not – we are still talking about the sequencing of questions and what those questions will be.”
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, raised questions about the whistleblower in his opening statement, arguing that Republicans deserve the right to cross-examine the official.
“Now that the whistleblower has successfully kick-started impeachment, he has disappeared from the story, as if the Democrats put the whistleblower in their own witness protection program,” Nunes said.
Williams, a State Department employee on loan to the vice president’s office as a foreign policy adviser, has faced less scrutiny than Vindman, but Trump lashed out at her on Twitter after her transcript was released showing she had concerns about the July 25 call.
“Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls, & see the just released ststement (sic) from Ukraine. Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!” Trump said.
Asked about the tweet, Pence’s spokeswoman said only: “Jennifer is a State Department employee.” The State Department didn’t comment.
Morrison and Volker to testify this afternoon
In the afternoon, Morrison and Volker are two witnesses that Republicans asked Democrats to bring in for public hearings, and GOP lawmakers are hopeful they will poke holes in the Democratic case. Volker, who worked with the President’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to help the Ukrainians draft a statement on investigations, testified that he did not know about a quid pro quo connecting US security aid to investigations into the President’s political opponents.
Morrison testified that he had concerns the July 25 call would leak, but he did not see anything wrong or illegal in the content of the call. But Morrison also corroborated Taylor’s testimony, saying that Sondland had said the President told him Zelensky “must announce the opening of the investigations.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.