Two top national security aides who listened to U.S. President Donald Trump’s call with Ukraine are preparing to testify 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 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 appear Tuesday morning, the House will hear in the afternoon from former NSC official Timothy Morrison and Kurt Volker, the former Ukraine special envoy.
In all, nine current and former U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. citizen,” said Vindman, an Iraq War veteran. He said there was “no doubt” what Trump wanted from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
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.
‘There was no ambiguity’
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 Zelensky 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.
Pence’s role unclear
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 Wednesday. 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.
President wants robust defence from Republicans
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 Republican allies on Capitol Hill, but so far they 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.
Republicans expected to try to undercut Vindman
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 Republicans inch closer to publicly naming the still anonymous whistleblower whose report sparked the inquiry.
Republican 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, a Wisconsin Republican.
A ‘bucket of issues’
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 U.S. officials.
Morrison has referred to Burisma as a “bucket of issues” — the Bidens, Democrats, investigations — he had tried to “stay away” from.
Sondland met with a Zelensky aide on the sidelines of a Sept. 1 gathering in Warsaw, and Morrison, who was watching the encounter from across the room, testified that the ambassador told him moments later he pushed the Ukrainian for the Burisma investigation as a way for Ukraine to gain access to the military funds.
Sondland had conversations with Trump about Ukraine
Volker provided investigators with a package of text messages with Sondland and another diplomat, William Taylor, the charge d’affaires in Ukraine, who grew alarmed at the linkage of the investigations to the aid.
Taylor, who testified publicly last week, called that “crazy.”
A wealthy hotelier who donated $1 million US to Trump’s inauguration, Sondland is the only person interviewed to date who had direct conversations with the president about the Ukraine situation.
Morrison said Sondland and Trump had spoken about five times between July 15 and Sept. 11 — the weeks that $391 million in U.S. assistance was withheld from Ukraine before it was released.
Trump has said he barely knows Sondland.
Besides Sondland, the committee will hear on Wednesday from Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defence, and David Hale, a State Department official. On Thursday, David Holmes, a State Department official in Kyiv, and Fiona Hill, a former top NSC staff member for Europe and Russia, will appear.