White House Attacks Its Ukraine Expert as He Says Trump Call Was ‘Inappropriate’

In the second week of impeachment hearings, White House national security aides recalled their concerns after the president’s conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart.




Day 3: Trump Impeachment Hearing Highlights

Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday were Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, Jennifer Williams, Tim Morrison and Kurt D. Volker.

“On July 25, along with several of my colleagues, I listened to a call between President Trump and President Zelensky, the content of which has since been publicly reported. I found the July 25th phone call unusual because in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, It involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.” “Dad, I’m sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected professionals — talking to our elected professionals, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth. It was improper for the president to request an — to demand an investigation into a political opponent, especially a foreign power where there is at best dubious belief that this would be a completely impartial investigation.” “What is it about the relationship between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine that leads you to conclude that when the president of the United States asks a favor like this, it’s really a demand?” “Chairman, 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 — it’s not to be taken as a request. It’s to be taken as an order. 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.” “In no way shape, or form in either readouts from the United States or Ukraine did you receive any indication whatsoever or anything that resembled a quid pro quo — is that correct?” “That’s correct.” “And the same would go for this new allegation of bribery?” “I’ve only seen an allegation of bribery in the last week.” “It’s the same common set of facts — it’s just instead of quid pro quo, now it’s bribery.” “I was never involved in anything that I considered to be bribery at all.” “O.K. Or extortion?” “Or extortion.” “O.K.” “Ambassador Volker thinks it’s inappropriate to ask a foreign head of state to investigate a U.S. person, let alone a political rival. But you’ve said you had no concern with that. Do you think that’s appropriate?” “As a hypothetical matter, I do not.” “Well I’m not talking about a hypothetical matter. Read the transcript — in that transcript, does the president not ask Zelensky to look into the Bidens?” “Mr. Chairman, I can only tell you what I was thinking at the time. That is not what I understood the president to be doing.” “But nonetheless, this was the first and only time where you went from listening to a presidential call directly to the national security lawyer, is it not?” “Yes, that’s correct.” “Ms. Williams, on Sunday the president personally targeted you in a tweet. This is after he targeted Ambassador Yovanovitch during her hearing testimony. I’d like to show and read you the tweet. It reads: ‘Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read both transcripts of the presidential calls and see the just-released statement from Ukraine. Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know and mostly never even heard of, and work out a better presidential attack.’ Did that tweet make an impression on you when you read it?” “It certainly surprised me. I was not expecting to be called out by name.” “Lt. Col. Vindman, did you discuss the July 25 phone call with anyone outside the White House on July 25 or the 26? And if so, with whom?” “Yes, I did. I spoke to two individuals.” “And what agencies were these officials with?” “Department of State, and an individual in the intelligence community.” “What agency was this individual from?” “If I could interject here. We don’t want to use these proceedings —” “It’s our time, Mr. Chairman —” “I know, but we need to protect the whistle-blower.” “Lt. Col. Vindman, you testified in the deposition that you did not know who the whistle-blower was or is.” “I do not know who the whistle-blower is. That is correct.” “So how is it possible for you to name these people and then out the whistle-blower?” “Per the advice of my counsel, I’ve been advised not to answer specific questions about members of the intelligence community.” “You’re here to answer questions and you’re here under subpoena. So you can either answer the question or you can plead the Fifth.” “Excuse me. On behalf of my client, we are following the rule of the committee, the rule of the chair with regard to this issue. And this does not call for an answer that is invoking the Fifth or any theoretical issue like that. We’re following the ruling of the chair.” “What — counselor, what ruling is that?” “If I could interject: Counsel is correct. The whistle-blower has the right, statutory right to anonymity. These proceedings will not be used to out the whistle-blower.”

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Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday were Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, Jennifer Williams, Tim Morrison and Kurt D. Volker.CreditCredit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Nicholas FandosMichael D. Shear

WASHINGTON — Two White House national security officials testified before the House’s impeachment inquiry on Tuesday that President Trump’s request to Ukraine’s president to investigate Democratic rivals was inappropriate, and one of them said it validated his “worst fear” that American policy toward that country would veer off course.

Hours later, two more witnesses — another former White House national security official and a former top American diplomat — charted a more careful course but said under oath that the president’s requests on a July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine were not in line with American national security goals.

The new accounts came as the House Intelligence Committee opened a packed week of testimony, with nine witnesses scheduled to answer questions in public before the House leaves for Thanksgiving.

Democrats used Tuesday’s back-to-back hearings to move the focus of their growing case to the White House and back to the July phone call they see as the centerpiece of an abuse of power by Mr. Trump. They say he used his office to try to obtain a political advantage from a foreign power.

Taking their cues from the White House, Republicans moved aggressively to try to undercut the day’s lead witness, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert. They tried to raise questions about Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, and sought to portray the concerns expressed by Colonel Vindman and an aide to Vice President Mike Pence as merely the opinions of unelected, and even unreliable, bureaucrats second-guessing the president of the United States.

Colonel Vindman responded by invoking his sense of duty as an American and an officer to explain why he was so alarmed by Mr. Trump’s request that he reported his concerns to White House lawyers.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Colonel Vindman, an Iraq war combat veteran who testified in his deep-blue Army dress uniform covered with military ribbons. “It was probably an element of shock — that maybe, in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security.”

Sitting beside him during the morning’s hearing, Jennifer Williams, a diplomat serving on Mr. Pence’s national security staff, reiterated that she found Mr. Trump’s phone call with Mr. Zelensky “unusual and inappropriate.” She said she was struck that Mr. Trump was pressing a foreign leader about a personal domestic political issue, though she did not report any concerns at the time and spoke in more reserved terms.

On the call, Mr. Trump veered off talking points prepared by Colonel Vindman and pressed Mr. Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden and a debunked theory that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to interfere in the 2016 election.

Both witnesses testified that as the summer went on, concerns within the American and Ukrainian governments grew over Mr. Trump’s decision to withhold vital military assistance for the country — a step he took as he pressed for the investigations. National security officials in the United States unanimously supported releasing the aid, they testified, and some raised legal concerns before it was released in September.

Ms. Williams recounted a September meeting between Mr. Pence and Mr. Zelensky in which the Ukrainian president explained in dramatic terms how failing to provide the money would only help Russia.


Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

“Any signal or sign that U.S. support was wavering would be construed by Russia as potentially an opportunity for them to strengthen their own hand in Ukraine,” Ms. Williams said, relaying what Mr. Zelensky told Mr. Pence.

For Colonel Vindman in particular, the testimony amounted to an unusual act of public criticism of the president by a White House employee — and it came at an immediate cost.

The colonel, who came to the United States as a refugee at 3, referred to his family’s history in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, noting that in Russia, “offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.”

Addressing his father, who he credited with “the right decision” in leaving the Soviet Union to seek refuge in the United States 40 years ago, Colonel Vindman said, “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

But as Colonel Vindman sat in the stately House Ways and Means Committee Room, the official, taxpayer-funded Twitter account of the White House posted a critical quote in which Tim Morrison, his former boss at the National Security Council, questioned Colonel Vindman’s “judgment.”

Mr. Morrison, the council’s former senior director for Russia and Europe, testified in a second session that went well into Tuesday evening alongside Kurt D. Volker, the former United States special envoy to Ukraine. Public testimony from both men had been requested by Republicans, but they also confirmed key details of the case Democrats are building against Mr. Trump.

In carefully calibrated testimony, Mr. Morrison confirmed that he and other White House officials had continuing concerns about Colonel Vindman’s judgment, though he declined to discuss them at length. Mr. Morrison, who listened in on the July 25 call himself from the White House Situation Room, said he wished Colonel Vindman had come to him directly with his concerns.

“I think we both agreed we wanted that more full-throated support of President Zelensky and his reform agenda, and we didn’t get it,” Mr. Morrison said of the call. He reported it to White House lawyers himself, but only out of concerns it would be politically damaging if leaked.

He said in questioning that he did not view the call as illegal or improper, but added of the requests for investigations that “it’s not what we recommend that the president discuss.”

Mr. Volker was more withering.

“I don’t think that raising 2016 elections or Vice President Biden or these things I consider to be conspiracy theories that have been circulated by the Ukrainians” were “things that we should be pursuing as part of our national security strategy with Ukraine,” he testified. “We should be supporting Ukraine’s democracy, reforms, its own fight against corruption domestically and the struggle against Russia and defense capabilities.”

Mr. Volker called Mr. Biden “an honorable man.”

Mr. Volker played a key role in negotiations during the summer between the Ukrainian government and the Trump administration over whether Mr. Zelensky would be granted an Oval Office meeting with the president. Among the conditions put on Mr. Zelensky was that he make a public commitment to investigating the debunked theory that someone in Ukraine, rather than Russia, was responsible for a hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and Hunter Biden’s role as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma.

Much of his testimony revolved around Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, who appears to have instigated a push for investigations, and Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who put it into action. Mr. Sondland will testify publicly on Wednesday.

Mr. Volker testified that while he was aware Mr. Trump wanted an investigation of Burisma, he did not make the connection at the time between Burisma and the Bidens. He said that he misunderstood that other officials meant the Bidens when they mentioned investigations of Burisma.

“In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objection,” he said.

Mr. Volker also said he was also unaware that other officials saw a connection between the withholding of nearly $400 million in United States military aid to Ukraine and Mr. Zelensky’s willingness to commit to the investigations sought by Mr. Trump.

“I did not know of any linkage between the hold on security assistance and Ukraine pursuing investigations,” he testified. “No one had ever said that to me — and I never conveyed such a linkage to the Ukrainians.”

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a top Republican ally of the president’s, cited Mr. Morrison’s comment about Colonel Vindman and criticism from Fiona Hill, his former boss at the National Security Council, to ask why the witness’s concerns ought to be considered relevant.

“Any idea why they have those impressions?” Mr. Jordan asked. Colonel Vindman, who apparently came prepared for the criticism, pulled out a copy the performance evaluation Ms. Hill wrote about him in July, read aloud from it and pressed ahead with his account of what transpired.

Soft-spoken at first, Colonel Vindman grew more confident in addressing lawmakers who criticized him as the hearing went on.

“Ranking member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” he instructed the committee’s top Republican, Representative Devin Nunes of California, after Mr. Nunes addressed him as “Mr. Vindman.”

In another exchange that touched on Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, Steve Castor, the top Republican staff lawyer, asked him about three instances when Oleksandr Danylyuk, the director of Ukraine’s national security council, had approached him with offers to become the country’s defense minister.

Colonel Vindman confirmed the offers and testified that he repeatedly declined, dismissing the idea out of hand and reporting the approaches to his superiors and to counterintelligence officials.

“Every single time, I dismissed it,” he said, adding: “I’m an American. I came here when I was a toddler.”

Mr. Danylyuk himself said Tuesday that the offer was not a serious one.

Democrats fumed, accusing Republicans of sliming a patriot because he had a politically inconvenient story to tell.

“They’ve accused you of espionage and dual loyalties,” said Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut. “The three minutes we asked about the offer making you minister of defense — that may have been cloaked in a Brooks Brothers suit, but that was designed exclusively to give the right-wing media an opening to questioning your loyalties.”

Democrats also continued to push back against what they saw as efforts by Republicans to tease out the name of or information about the whistle-blower whose account of the July 25 call helped lead to the impeachment inquiry.

Democrats sought throughout both hearings to redirect attention back to actions by Mr. Trump, who they said withheld the $391 million in assistance earmarked for Ukraine and a coveted White House meeting to get the political advantages he thought Ukraine could deliver him.

It may be too early to fully know the effect the hearings are having on public opinion. Television ratings and opinion polls released in recent days suggest that public engagement has so far fallen short not only of hearings at the height of Watergate and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, but of earlier blockbuster Trump-era congressional hearings. But it is harder to measure the reach of proceedings online and on social media.

And after three long days of public testimony, House Republicans appeared to be holding together in Mr. Trump’s corner, either unconvinced his behavior was as the witnesses described or unconvinced that it warranted a remedy as drastic as impeachment.

“An impeachment inquiry is supposed to be clear,” said Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas. “It’s supposed to be obvious, it’s supposed to be overwhelming and compelling, and if two people on the call disagree honestly about whether or not there was a demand and whether or not anything should be reported on a call, that is not a clear and compelling basis to undo 63 million votes and remove a president from office.”

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.

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