Kicking off the second week of public hearings of the impeachment inquiry, two White House experts testified Tuesday morning that President Donald Trump’s conduct with Ukraine was “inappropriate” and “unusual.”
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, the special adviser on Europe and Russia for Vice President Mike Pence, both listened in real time to Trump’s infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked Zelensky to do him a “favor” and investigate his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter, in connection with Hunter serving on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Vindman, a career U.S. Army officer, decorated Iraq veteran and Purple Heart recipient, testified that he was so disturbed by the call that he reported it to the council’s top lawyer, John Eisenberg.
“It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent,” Vindman said during his opening testimony. Later on, he said he couldn’t believe what he heard on the call.
“It was probably an element of shock that in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out,” he said. “This was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security.”
Williams testified that she found the call unusual because it discussed a “domestic political matter.”
The call came one week after the U.S. froze nearly $400 million in military aid to the Ukraine, a move both experts testified Tuesday was not supported by a single national security officer and raised concerns about defending Ukraine from Russian aggression. Additional testimonies demonstrated the aid freeze, as well as a potential Oval Office meeting that was communicated to the Ukraine, were understood by the Ukraine to be accessible depending on a public statement that they would investigate Biden.
While Democrats first categorized Trump’s behavior as quid pro quo, they have recently started classifying it as bribery, which is an impeachable offense in the Constitution.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who has been garnering national attention throughout the impeachment inquiry, shifted the narrative to the Bidens during her line of questioning. She criticized Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for barring Hunter Biden from being brought in to testify.
Stefanik also argued that Trump’s involvement in Ukraine was an attempt to expel corruption in the country. Democrat representatives, including fellow New York Rep. Sean Maloney, D-18, refuted Stefanik, citing a reconstructed memo of the July 25 call released by the White House in September.
“There’s no evidence of the president trying to fight corruption. The evidence points in the direction of the president inviting Ukraine to engage in the corrupt act of investigating a U.S. political opponent,” Maloney said. “If this president had such a deep interest in rooting out corruption in Ukraine, surely he would have brought it up in the call, but of course now we know he did not.”
Vindman quickly became the focus of attention throughout the hearing, particularly for Republicans and the White House, who launched attacks questioning his loyalty to the U.S. and his qualifications for his position.
In the afternoon, the White House Twitter account — funded by taxpayer dollars — tweeted a critical comment about Vindman from Tim Morrison, his former boss at the NSC, who said he “had concerns about Lt. Col. Vindman’s judgment.” Multiple Republican representatives cited the same quote to Vindman while questioning him.
Steve Castor, Republican lawyer for the House Intelligence Committee, also asked Vindman — who was born in Ukraine and immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of 3 — about a job offer he received to be the defense minister in Ukraine, and whether Vindman thought it could “create at least the perception of a conflict.”
“I’m not sure if you meant it as a joke or not, but it’s much more important what my civilian, White House National Security Council chain of command thinks, more so than anybody else,” Vindman responded. “Frankly, if they were concerned about me being able to continue my duties they would have brought that to my attention.”
Democratic representatives criticized Republicans for smearing Vindman, while many of them used their time to highlight Vindman’s honorable military career. After one such speech, Vindman wiped a tear from his eye.
Massarah Mikati covers the New York State Legislature and immigration for Johnson Newspaper Corp. Email her at email@example.com, or find her on Twitter @massarahmikati.