Election meddling, an ‘improper’ call, and twins: What we learned in Vindman and Williams’ testimony
So he reported Trump’s July 25 comments to Eisenberg “without hesitation,” he testified. “It was my duty to report my concerns to the proper people in the chain of command.”
“It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play,” Vindman added. “This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermine U.S. national security, and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region.”
His statement was one of many during the more than four hours of testimony.
Jump to see some of the top moments from this morning’s testimony: Vindman warns Ukraine’s president| White House blocks Williams | Vindman spars with Rep. Devin Nunes | Williams responds to being called a “Never Trumper”
Vindman says he told Zelensky not to meddle in U.S. politics
Vindman revealed that he directly gave Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky some blunt advice while visiting for his inauguration: Stay out of U.S. politics.
Asked why he felt it was necessary to warn Zelensky, Vindman told House impeachment investigators that it had become clear to him by March of this year that “there were public actors, non-governmental actors that were prompting the idea of investigations into 2016 Ukrainian interference.”
The revelation was jarring because it suggests that Zelensky was made aware by a U.S. official as early as May that there might be efforts to use him as a political pawn, shedding new light on recent reports that Zelensky raised concerns internally, with his staff, about the pressure he was feeling from Rudy Giuliani and other unofficial actors.
Vindman testified that he gave two pieces of advice during a bilateral meeting: “To be particularly cautious with regard to Russia and its desire to provoke Ukraine, and to stay out of U.S. domestic” politics.
Vindman: It was ‘pretty funny’ he was offered Ukrainian defense minister position
Under questioning from the Intelligence committee’s Republican counsel, Vindman testified that Alexander Danyliuk, Zelensky’s national security adviser, on at least three occasions offered him the role of Ukrainian defense minister.
Vindman said he repeatedly rejected Danyliuk’s entreaties, and notified his “chain of command and the appropriate counterintelligence folks” about the proposal. “I’m an American. I came here when I was a toddler, and I immediately dismissed these offers — did not entertain them,” he said.
“The whole notion is rather comical that I was being asked to consider whether I would want to be the minister of defense. I did not leave the door open at all,” Vindman added. “But it is pretty funny for a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, which really is not that senior, to be offered that illustrious a position.”
GOP attorney Steve Castor’s interest in the overture from Kyiv called to mind earlier, unfounded suggestions by some Republican commentators and former government officials that the foreign-born Vindman might be more loyal to Ukraine than the U.S.
‘It’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please’
Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intel panel, and Vindman tangled over Nunes’ referring to the military officer as “Mr.”
“Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistle-blower.”
“Ranking member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” Vindman interjected.
“Lieutenant Colonel Vindman,” Nunes corrected. “You testified in the deposition that you did not know who the whistle-blower was or is?”
The scuffle followed a back and forth exchange about the whistleblower before Schiff interjected to warn the witness to not reveal any identifying information on the whistleblower.
Castro’s twin humor
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) kidded with Vindman about also being an identical twin, offering a light reprieve to an otherwise tense hearing.
“It’s nice to talk to another identical twin,” Castro said to Vindman.
“I hope your brother is as nice to you as he was to me and didn’t make you grow a beard,” he joked, eliciting a laugh from Vindman and the media present. Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, is also a lieutenant colonel in the Army and an ethics lawyer on the NSC. He attended Tuesday’s hearing.
Castro’s brother is former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, a candidate vying for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential race. The two have often been confused in the media and Congress, and Joaquin Castro ultimately grew a beard to distinguish himself from his brother.
Williams surprised by Trump broadside
Jennifer Williams, a State Department official on loan to the Vice President’s office as a special adviser for Russia and Europe, said she wasn’t expecting to be “called out by name” by Trump, who tweeted over the weekend that she’s a “never Trumper.”
She told Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) that she wasn’t a “Never Trumper” and was surprised by the president’s broadside.
Himes called Trump’s comments “witness intimidation” and an effort to “tamper” and “shape” her testimony.
He also asked Vindman if would characterize himself as a “Never Trumper.”
“I would call myself a never partisan,” Vindman responded.
Vindman doesn’t know whistleblower’s identity
As Nunes quizzed Vindman on whether he spoke with U.S. government officials outside the White House about Trump’s July call with Zelensky, Schiff interrupted the Republican congressman’s line of questioning, citing the “need to protect the whistleblower” at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry.
“If the witness has a good-faith belief that this may reveal the identity of the whistleblower, that is not the purpose that we are here for, and I want to advise the witness accordingly,” the committee chairman said.
Vindman proceeded to testify that he did not know the whistleblower’s identity, but said he had been advised by his legal counsel “not to answer specific questions about members of the intelligence community.”
A frustrated Nunes told Vindman that he “can either answer the question, or you can plead the Fifth,” before Vindman’s attorney interjected that his client was simply following the rules of the committee laid out by Schiff.
Vindman: Nothing ‘nefarious’ about storing transcript on top-secret server
Following Trump’s July call with Zelensky, Vindman confirmed that there were talks among staff attorneys with the National Security Council regarding “the best way to manage” the readout of the leaders’ conversation, which resulted in the rough transcript being stored in a top-secret codeword system.
“My understanding is that this was viewed as a sensitive transcript, and to avoid leaks, and if I recall the term properly, something along the lines of ‘[to] preserve the integrity of the transcript, it should be segregated to a smaller group of folks,’” he told House impeachment investigators.
But Vindman said that he did not interpret the move to place the call summary on the top-secret server “as anything nefarious,” adding: “I just understood that they wanted to keep it into a smaller group.”
Vindman also testified that he was not alarmed by NSC officials’ decision not to revise the call summary with his suggested edits. “When I first saw the transcript without the two substantive items that I had attempted to include, I didn’t see that as nefarious. I just saw it as, ‘OK, no big deal.’ You know, these might be meaningful, but it’s not that big a deal,” he said.
Vindman reassures father: ‘I will be fine for telling the truth’
In his first public remarks as part of the impeachment inquiry, Vindman directly addressed his father, who fled the former U.S.S.R. four decades ago with his family “to start over” as refugees in the United States, “so that his three sons could have better, safer lives.”
That “courageous decision” led Vindman and his brothers to pursue American military service, which he said became “a special part of our family’s story” in their adopted country.
“Dad, [that] I’m sitting here today — in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected professionals — 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,” Vindman said.
“Do not worry,” the Ukraine specialist with the National Security Council added, looking into the television cameras assembled in the committee room. “I will be fine for telling the truth.”
White House blocks Williams from speaking about Sept. call
The White House blocked Williams from speaking publicly about an additional call between Trump and Zelensky on Sept. 18, identifying the call as classified.
Williams’ counsel referred the committee to review public record including testimony made on Nov. 7 and the White House transcript of the call.
Schiff asked Williams to make a classified submission of any information relevant to the inquiry, to which Williams offered to appear in a closed session. Schiff applauded her compliance, but noted it would not be necessary for Williams to appear so long as she submitted the information in writing.
Williams gave Pence a copy of Trump’s July 25 call
Williams called her appointment to the White House the “greatest honor” of her career in her opening statement on Tuesday — but she outlined her concerns about the phone call between Trump and Zelensky on July 25, and testified that she gave Pence a hard copy of the transcript to review following the call.
Williams appeared at the impeachment hearing under subpoena, she said, and did not seem rattled by Pence’s recent attempts to distance himself from her and Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that she is a “Never Trumper.”
Her most explosive claim — that she gave Pence a record of the call, in which Trump urged Zelensky to investigate the Bidens — has so far gone unchallenged by the vice president, despite the implication that Pence would’ve been aware of Trump’s demands for political investigations when he met with Zelensky on September 1 and discussed the hold on military aid to Ukraine that Trump had directed.
Williams testified, however, that she did not know whether Pence ever reviewed the call record — which she said she found “unusual” given Trump’s discussion of domestic politics — and she said she never found out why the military aid had been withheld, which she learned about on July 3.
Schiff highlights Trump’s attacks on witnesses
Schiff opened the hearing by raising Trump’s attacks on impeachment inquiry witnesses, including ousted former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
“We all saw the president’s tweet about you on Sunday afternoon and the insults he hurled at Ambassador Yovanovich last Friday,” Schiff said to Williams. He added to Vindman: “We have seen far more scurrilous attacks on your character, and watched as certain personalities on Fox have questioned your loyalty
On Friday, Trump tweeted while Yovanovitch was testifying that the she caused damage during her diplomatic tours – an unfounded allegation. And on Sunday, he tweeted that Williams was a “Never Trumper.”
Attacks on Vindman include a White House statement criticizing the war veteran’s job performance, as well as conservative commentators questioning Vindman’s patriotism. On Monday, Sen. Ron Johnson speculated without evidence that Vindman may be a part of a “deep state” rebellion that “never accepted President Trump as legitimate.”
Nunes slams last week’s witnesses and the media
Nunes used his opening statement Tuesday to blast the previous week’s impeachment witnesses as “three diplomats who dislike President Trump’s Ukraine policy.” The trio of State Department officials never spoke with the president about his foreign policy posture toward the Eastern European nation, Nunes said, and testified only about “second-hand and third-hand conversations.”
Nunes also derided media coverage of the impeachment proceedings thus far as akin to “the same preposterous reporting” that chronicled former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, proceeding to read aloud a series of news headlines related to that probe.
The congressman similarly attacked Hunter Biden and the anonymous intelligence official whose whistleblower complaint lies at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, while praising the work of John Solomon — a former columnist at The Hill who propagated unfounded allegations against Yovanovitch.