WASHINGTON (AP) – Two top national security aides who listened to United States (US) President Donald Trump’s call with Ukraine testified in the impeachment hearings, launching a week of back-to-back sessions as Americans hear from those closest to the White House.
Lt Col Alexander Vindman, an Army officer at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, his counterpart at US Vice President Mike Pence’s office, both say they had concerns as Trump spoke on July 25 with the newly elected Ukraine president about political investigations into Joe Biden.
After they appeared yesterday morning, the House heard in the afternoon from former NSC official Timothy Morrison and Kurt Volker, the former Ukraine special envoy.
In all, nine current and former US officials are testifying in a pivotal week as the House’s historic impeachment inquiry accelerates and deepens. Democrats say Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate his Democratic rivals in return for US military aid it needed to resist Russian aggression and that may be grounds for removing the 45th president.
Trump says he did no such thing and the Democrats just want him gone.
“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a US citizen,” said Vindman, an Iraq War veteran. He said there was “no doubt” what Trump wanted from Ukrainian President VolodymyrZelenskiy.
It wasn’t the first time Vindman, a 20-year military officer, was alarmed over the administration’s push to have Ukraine investigate Democrats, he testified.
Earlier, during an unsettling July 10 meeting at the White House, Ambassador Gordon Sondland told visiting Ukraine officials that they would need to “deliver” before next steps, which was a meeting Zelenskiy wanted with Trump, the officer testified.
“He was talking about the 2016 elections and an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma,” Vindman testified, referring to the gas company in Ukraine where Hunter Biden served on the board.
“The Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens,” he said. “There was no ambiguity.”
On both occasions, Vindman said, he took his concerns about the shifting Ukraine policy to the lead counsel at the NSC, John Eisenberg.
Williams, a longtime State Department official who is detailed to Pence’s national security team, said she too had concerns during the phone call, which the aides monitored as is standard practice.
When the White House produced a rough transcript later that day, she put it in the vice president’s briefing materials. “I just don’t know if he read it,” Williams testified in a closed-door House interview.
Sondland, the wealthy donor whose routine boasting about his proximity to Trump has brought the investigation to the president’s doorstep, is set to testify tomorrow. Others have testified that he was part of a shadow diplomatic effort with the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Guiliani, outside of official channels that raised alarms.
Pence’s role throughout the impeachment inquiry has been unclear, and the vice president’s aide is sure to be questioned by lawmakers looking for answers.
The White House has instructed officials not to appear, and most have received congressional subpoenas to compel their testimony.
Trump has already attacked Williams, associating her with “Never Trumpers,” even though there is no indication the career State Department official has shown any partisanship.
The president wants to see a robust defence by his GOP allies on Capitol Hill, but so far Republicans have offered a changing strategy as the fast-moving probe spills into public view. That is likely to change this week as Republicans mount a more aggressive attack on all the witnesses as the inquiry reaches closer into the White House and they try to protect Trump.
In particular, Republicans are expected to try to undercut Vindman, suggesting he reported his concerns outside his chain of command, which would have been Morrison, not the NSC lawyer.
Those appearing in public have already given closed-door interviews to investigators, and transcripts from those depositions have largely been released.
Under earlier questioning, Republicans wanted Vindman to disclose who else he may have spoken to about his concerns, as the GOP inch closer to publicly naming the still anonymous whistleblower whose report sparked the inquiry.
GOP Sen Ron Johnson, who was deeply involved in other White House meetings about Ukraine, offered a sneak preview of this strategy late Monday when he compared Vindman, a Purple Heart veteran, to the “bureaucrats” who “never accepted Trump as legitimate.”
“They react by leaking to the press and participating in the ongoing effort to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office. It is entirely possible that Vindman fits this profile, said Johnson, R-Wis.
Vindman told the House investigators in his earlier testimony he was not the government whistleblower.
The witnesses are testifying under penalty of perjury, and Sondland already has had to amend his earlier account amid contradicting testimony from other current and former US officials.