Donald Trump’s “improper” efforts to push Ukraine to investigate his political opponents set off alarm bells among national security staff in the White House this summer, one official told the congressional impeachment inquiry into the U.S. President Tuesday.
Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman said that when he and other staffers reported Mr. Trump’s demands to White House lawyers, the transcript of a key telephone call between Mr. Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart was moved into a secure vault where fewer people in government could read it.
Lt. Col. Vindman, the National Security Council’s point-man on European affairs, listened in on Mr. Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He testified alongside Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy advisor to Vice President Mike Pence, on the third day of public testimony in the inquiry.
Lt. Col. Vindman said he became concerned when Mr. Trump asked Mr. Zelensky to launch investigations into Joe Biden, one of the President’s potential rivals in his re-election campaign next year, as well as a baseless conspiracy theory involving Ukraine and a Democratic Party computer server.
“It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a United States citizen and a political opponent,” Lt. Col. Vindman testified to the House intelligence committee.
Lt. Col. Vindman said he reported Mr. Trump’s demand to White House lawyers, and they took the transcript out of the normal computer system and secured it in a different system used for sensitive information. The purpose was to “prevent leaks and to limit access” to the document, he said.
Ms. Williams, who was also on the call, with Lt. Col Vindman said the conversation was “unusual” because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter,” which had not happened on previous such diplomatic phone calls she had listened in on.
The two officials’ testimony undermined one defense of Mr. Trump: That he had legitimate anti-corruption reasons to ask Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden and the Democrats. Rather, they said, Mr. Trump was using his office as president to advance his own political interests. Under questioning from Dan Goldman, a lawyer for committee Democrats, Lt. Col. Vindman and Ms. Williams said they knew of no credible evidence Mr. Biden had done anything wrong in Ukraine.
Mr. Vindman, a career soldier who was wounded in the Iraq War, wore his military uniform and medals to the hearing. He fought back against efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies to discredit inquiry witnesses, saying such “personal attacks” were “reprehensible.” Mr. Trump’s supporters have questioned Lt. Col.. Vindman’s loyalty to the U.S. because he was born in Ukraine. The attacks on social media have become so bad, Reuters reported, that the military has considered moving Lt. Col. Vindman and his family onto a military base for their safety.
Lt. Col. Vindman, who immigrated to the U.S. as a child with his family, pointedly contrasted the American democracy that allowed him to testify before a congressional committee with the autocracy of Russia, where people who criticize President Vladimir Putin are frequently killed.
“Dad, that I am sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials 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,” Mr. Vindman said in his opening statement. His twin brother Yevgeny Vindman, who is also a military officer and National Security Council staffer, sat behind Lt. Col. Vindman during his testimony.
Two weeks before the call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky, Lt. Col. Vindman said, one of Mr. Trump’s emissaries to Ukraine also raised the investigations in a meeting. At a sit-down between then-national security advisor John Bolton and his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksandr Danyluk, U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland said Mr. Zelensky would not get a White House meeting until he announced the investigations into Mr. Biden and the Democrats.
Mr. Bolton abruptly ended the meeting, Lt. Col. Vindman said, and told Fiona Hill, another security council official, to report Mr. Sondland’s demand to White House lawyers. Lt. Col. Vindman said he also reported the comments, and directly warned Mr. Sondland.
“This was inappropriate and had nothing to do with national security,” Lt. Col. Vindman said he told Mr. Sondland, an Oregon businessman who received his diplomatic appointment after donating $1-million to Mr. Trump’s inauguration.
Both Lt. Col. Vindman and Ms. Williams said the call transcript, which Mr. Trump ultimately released in September, omitted an explicit reference by Mr. Zelensky to Burisma, a company for whom Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden had worked. Lt. Col. Vindman said Mr. Zelensky referring to the company by name suggested he was well aware of what Mr. Trump wanted even before he brought it up in the call.
Ms. Williams also testified that Vice-President Mike Pence was originally supposed to attend Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration in May, but Mr. Trump then ordered him not to go. Ms. Williams said she did not know the reason why.
Steve Castor, the lawyer for Republican members of the committee, suggested Mr. Pence’s plans changed because it was more important he go to Canada during that time to promote the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a renegotiated NAFTA. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had already committed at the time to ratifying the USMCA; the pact remains held up by negotiations in the U.S. Congress. Mr. Pence and Mr. Trudeau discussed Huawei, the Chinese high-tech company that has raised security concerns in the U.S., during their May meeting in Ottawa.
Ms. Williams confirmed that there had been a further telephone call between Mr. Pence and Mr. Zelensky, but the contents of the discussion are classified and could not be revealed in an open hearing.
Republicans on the committee attempted to undercut Lt. Col. Vindman’s character. Under questioning from Mr. Castor, Lt. Col. Vindman confirmed that Mr. Danyluk had approached him about becoming Ukraine’s defence minister. But Lt. Col. Vindman said he “immediately dismissed these offers” and reported them to the White House.
In other exchanges, Republicans questioned why Lt. Col. Vindman wore his military uniform to the hearing. He responded that this was standard protocol. At one point when Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, called Lt. Col. Vindman “Mr. Vindman”, Lt. Col Vindman corrected him.
“Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” he said.
Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, described the inquiry as an “impeachment coup” and said “it is sad, it is scary, it is wrong.” Mr. Nunes asked Lt. Col. Vindman about his decision to inform someone in the intelligence community about Mr. Trump’s demand of Mr. Zelensky. Democratic committee chairman Adam Schiff interrupted to accuse Mr. Nunes of trying to out the whistle-blower who first alerted the committee to the call.
Democrats, for their part, played up Lt. Col. Vindman’s record as a combat veteran and asked him to explain why he told his father he would be safe testifying.
“This is America, this is the country I’ve served,” Lt. Col. Vindman said. “And here, right matters.”
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