WASHINGTON — With each witness, the House impeachment investigation moves closer to the president and the July 25th call between Trump and Ukraine’s new president in which Trump asked the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens and a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 presidential election.
Four witnesses testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council; Jennifer Williams, an adviser to Vice President Pence on Russia and Ukraine; Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine; and Tim Morrison, the former senior director of European affairs on the National Security Council.
Unlike previous witnesses in the impeachment investigation, three of the four individuals who testified Tuesday — Williams, Vindman, and Morrison — listened in on Trump’s July 25th call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The witnesses described the president’s request as “unusual,” “inappropriate,” and “wrong,” though they did not go so far as to say it was illegal. The witnesses testified for more than eight hours across two hearings.
Here are four things we learned from their testimony:
Lt. Col. Vindman said Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election was “improper,” and immediately reported his concerns to a superior. Vindman said he acted out of a duty when he told a senior lawyer at the National Security Council about his concerns with Trump’s demand that Ukraine effectively interfere in the 2016 election. “Without hesitation, I knew that I had to report this to the White House counsel,” he said. “I had concerns and it was my duty to report my concerns to the proper people in the chain of command.”
An expert on U.S.-Ukraine policy who advised the National Security Adviser and the president, Vindman said he feared the favor sought by Trump could damage both Ukraine’s efforts to establish itself as a free and independent nation as well as the stated policy and national security of the United States.
“It was improper for the president to request — to demand — an investigation into a political opponent,” Vindman testified. “This would have significant implications if it became public knowledge…It would undermine our Ukraine policy. It would undermine our national security.”
Ambassador Kurt Volker, the former envoy to Ukraine, debunked theories pushed by Trump, Republican officials, and Fox News about Joe Biden and the 2016 election. The crux of the impeachment investigation is whether Trump abused his power and potentially committed bribery or extortion (as Democrats have suggested) when he withheld an official White House meeting and security money for Ukraine while pressuring the Ukrainian government to announce investigations into Trump’s political rival Joe Biden.
In his testimony, Volker repeatedly shot down the theories that Joe Biden as vice president was unduly influenced by his son Hunter, who had taken a lucrative on the board of a scandal-plagued natural gas company in Ukraine, or that people in Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 presidential in an effort to damage Trump’s campaign.
Volker said these were conspiracy theories peddled by crooked Ukrainian officials who wanted to protect their own careers and reputations. Volker specifically named Yuri Lutsenko, the former top prosecutor in Ukraine, as someone who spread these unfounded theories and pushed them on U.S. right-wing media via Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.
“I don’t think that raising the 2016 election or Vice President Biden or these things that I consider to be conspiracy theories circulated by the Ukrainians — they’re not things we should be pursuing as our national security strategy with Ukraine,” Volker testified.
John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish National Security Advisor, recognized how inappropriate it was to hold back foreign aid to Ukraine while pressuring Ukraine’s leaders to investigate Joe Biden. Morrison worked directly for Bolton on the National Security Council. During his testimony, Morrison recounted several moments when he learned about elements of Trump’s pressure campaign targeting the Ukrainians.
For instance, Morrison testified about when he learned from EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a central figure in the impeachment inquiry, that the Ukrainian government had to announce an investigation into the Bidens in exchange for the release of security aid. “I reached out to [Bolton] as well as to request his availability for a secure phone call.”
Bolton’s response: “Tell the lawyers.” He gave no explanation why.
Soon afterward, Morrison spoke again with Sondland, who wanted to relay a recent conversation with the president about Ukraine. “If I recall this conversation correctly, this was where Ambassador Sondland related that there was no quid pro quo but President Zelensky had to make the statement and that he had to want to do it.”
When Morrison passed this along to Bolton, he got the same response: “Tell the lawyers.”
House Republicans stooped to new lows with their attempts to undermine the credibility of witnesses and defend the president. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, pursued a line of questioning seemingly meant to force Lt. Col. Vindman to give details that could potentially identify the anonymous intelligence committee whistleblower whose complaint helped trigger the impeachment investigation. (On the advice of his attorney and the rules of the committee, Vindman declined to provide any such details.)
Seated to Nunes’ left was Steve Castor, the lead counsel for Intelligence Committee Republicans who has questioned every impeachment witness so far. Castor used his time, in part, to ask about Vindman about having received several offers from Ukraine to serve as the country’s defense minister. (Vindman was born in the Soviet Union but came to the U.S. with his family as a small child.) Castor’s questions were dismissed by Vindman and roundly criticized as not-so-subtle attempts to question Vindman’s patriotism or loyalty to this country. Never to be outdone, the White House’s social media director directly parroted these shameful efforts to undermine Vindman, an Iraq war veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart.
“I’m an American,” Vindman testified. “I came here when I was a toddler and I immediately dismissed these offers. Did not entertain them…the whole notion is rather comical.”