Two witnesses who listened in on President Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky kicked off a packed week of impeachment hearings Tuesday by testifying of their concerns at the time about Trump’s pursuit of political investigations from Kiev — as House Republicans railed against the hearings as a “partisan frenzy.”
“I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate,” Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official, testified, saying he reported his concerns to the NSC lawyer. He also said, “It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent.”
Suspicion over a possible link between military aid to Ukraine and investigations sought by Trump arose after a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky led to a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump was trying to pressure Ukraine into helping him.
Vindman told lawmakers he believed if Ukraine pursued the investigations, it “would be interpreted as a partisan play.” He also emphasized that he reported his concerns “out of a sense of duty.”
The other morning witness, Vice President Pence aide Jennifer Williams, said, “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.” Williams, a State Department official assigned to Pence’s office, said she inserted the White House’s readout of the call in Pence’s briefing book.
Both Vindman and Williams testified Tuesday they never learned why the hold on the military aid to Ukraine was eventually lifted.
Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, are sworn in before they testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Under questioning from Republicans, Vindman acknowledged speaking with two people outside the White House about the July 25 call, including State Department official George Kent and an unnamed individual in the intelligence community. Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., interjected to express concern that Republicans were trying to out the whistleblower through the questioning. Vindman told lawmakers, “I do not know who the whistleblower is.”
The tension between Vindman and Republicans was evident: at one point, when California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, called him “Mr. Vindman,” the witness replied, “it’s Lt. Col. Vindman.”
In his opening remarks, the top Democrat on the panel, Schiff, defended both witnesses against recent attacks, telling Williams “we all saw the president’s tweet about you on Sunday afternoon” accusing her of being a “Never Trumper.”
Addressing Vindman — who wore his Army uniform to Tuesday’s hearing — Schiff said, “I note that you have shed blood for America, and we owe you an immense debt of gratitude.” Vindman referenced his family’s history of moving from the Soviet Union to the United States 40 years ago, saying appearing for testimony in Russia would “surely cost me my life.” But addressing his father, Vindman said today, “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Nunes, meanwhile, dismissed the Democratic-led inquiry in his opening remarks as a “partisan frenzy,” while highlighting GOP calls for the anonymous whistleblower who ignited the impeachment probe to testify to lawmakers. “Now that the whistleblower has successfully kickstarted impeachment, he has disappeared from the story—as if the Democrats put the whistleblower in their own witness protection program,” Nunes said.
He blasted media coverage over what he called a “fevered rush to tarnish and remove” Trump. Nunes also referenced recent media reports that Democrats have shifted the wording they use to describe the allegations against the president from “quid pro quo” to “bribery” after conducting focus groups with voters.
Later Tuesday, two other witnesses will appear before lawmakers: former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker and NSC outgoing senior director of European and Russian affairs Tim Morrison.
Questioning throughout the impeachment hearings so far has focused on whether Trump made the release of military aid to Ukraine contingent on an agreement to help investigate his political opponents including former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Hunter Biden was a board member of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings, which had been under investigation before then-Vice President Biden pressured Ukraine to fire the prosecutor in charge.
Williams testified during her deposition that Burisma was not mentioned by name on the July phone call. Vindman said Tuesday that the word “Burisma” was represented as “the company” in the partial notes of the call, and said “it is not a significant omission.”
Vindman is viewed as key witness for Democrats. In a previous deposition, Vindman said he recalled U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland saying during White House meetings on July 10 that Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens to receive the aid.
But Sondland told a different version of the day. He said he didn’t recall mentioning Ukraine investigations or Burisma. The only conflict he described from that day was a disagreement on whether to schedule a call between Trump and Zelensky promptly. He was in favor.
Sondland also previously testified behind closed doors that Trump directly told him there were to be “no quid pro quos of any kind” with Ukraine, and that he didn’t recall any conversations with the White House about withholding military assistance in return for Ukraine helping with the president’s political campaign.
Then, William Taylor, the U.S. chargé d’affaires for Ukraine, told lawmakers that Sondland himself said “everything” — a White House visit for Ukraine’s new leader and the release of military aid to the former Soviet republic — was contingent on a public announcement of investigations into the 2016 election and into Ukraine gas company Burisma.
Weeks later, after testimony from Taylor and Morrison placed him at the center of key discussions, Sondland suddenly amended his testimony and claimed his recollection had been “refreshed.” Sondland said he now could recall a September conversation in which he told an aide to Zelensky that military aid likely would not occur until Ukraine made public announcements about corruption investigations. Sondland said he came to “understand” that arrangement from other sources.
Morrison previously told lawmakers during his own a closed-door session that he was not concerned that Trump’s phone calls with Zelensky were connected to political interests, and that the president did not want taxpayers funding Ukrainian corruption.
Thus far, none of the witnesses who have testified at the public hearings have had first-hand knowledge of the president’s thinking, which Republicans have used to cast doubt on Democrats’ allegations. Vindman, Williams, and Morrison all listened in on Trump’s July 25 phone call.
Meanwhile, Trump on Monday indicated he may testify himself.
“Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!” Trump tweeted, referencing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion that Trump testify, and that he could do so in writing.
Fox News’ Gregg Re contributed to this report.