White House officials fault Trump's Ukraine call

Michael D. Shear, The New York Times

Posted at Nov 20 2019 12:22 PM

NSC Director for European Affairs Vindman arrives at House impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill in Washington. Reuters

Two senior national security officials at the White House challenged US President Donald Trump’s description of his call with the Ukraine president as “perfect,” testifying Tuesday about how concerned they were as they listened in real time to Trump appealing for investigations into a political rival.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Iraq War veteran and the top Ukraine official at the National Security Council, testified that he was so disturbed by the call that he reported it to the council’s top lawyer.

“What I heard was inappropriate, and I reported my concerns to Mr. Eisenberg,” Vindman said in a halting statement, referring to John Eisenberg, the top lawyer at the National Security Council. “It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.”

Anticipating attacks from critics, Vindman, who appeared for his testimony wearing his dark blue Army dress uniform, said he expressed his concerns “in official channels” through his chain of command, adding that “my intent was to raise these concerns because they had significant national security implications for our country.”

Jennifer Williams, a national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence, said she found the president’s call unusual because it included discussion of a “domestic political matter.”

The pair is kicking off three days of testimony from nine diplomats and national security officials as Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee continue to build their case that Trump tried to extort Ukraine by withholding security aid until the government agreed to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Williams testified that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine told Pence in September that continuing to withhold military aid would indicate that U.S. support for Ukraine was wavering, giving Russia a boost in the ongoing conflict between the two countries.

Williams said that during a Sept. 1 meeting, Zelenskiy told the vice president that the security aid was a symbol of support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and told lawmakers that Ukraine’s president “was stressing that to the vice president to really underscore the need for the security assistance to be released.”

“Any signal or sign that U.S. support was wavering would be construed by Russia as potentially an opportunity for them to strengthen their own hand in Ukraine,” Williams said, relating what Zelenskiy told Pence.

The vice president underscored the administration’s strong support for Ukraine and told Zelenskiy that he would report his concerns to President Donald Trump, Williams said, adding that she was not certain whether he did so in a conversation Pence had with the president later that night.

Ukraine’s security aid was not released for another 10 days, after the White House became aware that a whistleblower had filed a complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

The top White House Ukraine expert called Trump’s call with Zelensky “inappropriate” and “improper.”

LOYALTY

Republicans questioned Vindman’s loyalty, asking about offers he rejected to become Ukraine’s defense minister.

A Republican lawyer appeared to raise doubts about Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, questioning him about the fact that a top Ukrainian official had several times asked him to consider serving as Ukraine’s defense minister.

Vindman, an American citizen and decorated Army officer who was born in Ukraine, confirmed that Oleksandr Danylyuk, the director of that country’s national security council, approached him three times to offer him the job of defense minister in Kyiv. Vindman testified that he repeatedly declined, dismissing the idea out of hand and reporting the approaches to his superiors and to counter intelligence officials.

“Every single time, I dismissed it,” he said, adding, “I’m an American. I came here when I was a toddler. I immediately dismissed these offers, did not entertain them.”

He said: “The whole notion is comical.”

Steve Castor, the Republican lawyer for the House Intelligence Committee, did not treat the subject as humorous, repeatedly pressing Vindman about whether he seriously considered the offers or had somehow left the door open to accepting Danylyuk’s offer.

The line of questioning seemed to be designed, at least in part, to feed doubts about Vindman’s commitment to the United States, the subject of a wave of character attacks on him by Trump’s allies. 

Fox News quickly picked up on the Republican line of questioning, sending out a news alert moments after Castor finished: “Vindman says Ukrainian official offered him the job of Ukrainian defense minister.”

Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the committee, sought to turn the focus away from Trump to Biden, leading the witnesses through a series of questions intended to suggest that the former vice president had intervened in Ukraine’s domestic affairs to benefit his son Hunter Biden, despite the lack of evidence.

Biden, as vice president, pressured Ukrainian officials to fire a prosecutor who was seen as tolerating corruption in keeping with the policy of the United States, European allies and international financial organizations at the time. But Nunes suggested that Biden was acting to benefit his son, who was on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that had been investigated for corruption.

“Did you know that Joe Biden called Ukrainian President Poroshenko at least three times in February 2016 after the president and owner of Burisma’s home was raided on Feb. 2 by the state prosecutor’s office?” Nunes asked, referring to Petro Poroshenko, then the president.

“Not at the time,” Williams answered. She added: “I’ve become aware of that through this proceeding.”

Nunes asked a series of similar questions and then repeated them for Vindman. Neither witness was working on the issue at the time, so neither could offer information to about it. But Nunes used the opportunity to introduce his allegations, anyway. He also tried repeatedly to extract information from Vindman about the identity of the whistleblower who filed a complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, drawing objections from the colonel’s lawyer.

At one point, things turned testy when Nunes addressed Vindman as “Mr. Vindman.”

“Ranking member, it’s Lt. Col. Vindman, please,” he shot back.

The top White House Ukraine expert denounced as “vile” attacks on impeachment witnesses.

Vindman used his opening statement before impeachment investigators to denounce the attacks leveled by Trump and his allies against those who have appeared, or are scheduled to testify, in the impeachment inquiry.

“The vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible,” Vindman said.

His remarks came after Trump has lashed out repeatedly against witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, disparaging their records and calling them “Never Trumpers” who are trying to take him down. Amid the threats, the Army has been assessing potential security threats to Vindman and his brother Yevgeny, who also works at the National Security Council. There have also been discussions about moving the Vindmans and their families on to a military base for their protection, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions.

The colonel, who came to the United States as a refugee at age 3, referred to his family’s history in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, noting that in Russia, “offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.”

“Dad, my 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,” Vindman said. “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

Vindman was one of the officials who listened in to Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy and privately expressed concerns about it. On Tuesday, he was to testify that Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, was among the “disruptive actors” who were “promoting false information that undermined the United States’ Ukraine policy.”

He said the National Security Council and other agencies, including the State Department, “grew increasingly concerned about the impact that such information was having on our country’s ability to achieve our national security objectives.”

Vindman played down the decision by White House lawyers to put the transcript of Trump’s July 25 call on a more secure server, saying, “I didn’t take it as anything nefarious” on the part of the officials.

“I think it was intended, but again it was intended to prevent leaks and to limit access,” he said.

He also discounted the importance of two words being left out of the reconstructed transcript of the call. Vindman has said that Zelenskiy used the word “Burisma” in reference to a company that employed Hunter Biden.

The word was not included, however, in the reconstructed transcript that was later released by the White House. Vindman said the transcript also did not include Trump’s use of the word “recordings,” a reference he said was to video of the former vice president.

But Vindman called the missing words “administrative errors” that “might be meaningful but it’s not that big of a deal.”

Williams declined to publicly answer questions about a Pence-Zelenskiy call, saying it is classified.

The lawyer for Williams told lawmakers that she could not answer questions about a Sept. 18 call between Pence and the president of Ukraine because the White House had determined that it was classified.

In her closed-door deposition, Williams answered questions about the call, telling lawmakers that the two had a “very positive” discussion and that there was no discussion about investigations that Trump wanted.

Williams said Tuesday that she would be willing to answer questions in a classified setting or in writing to the committee.

Kurt Volker, Trump’s special envoy for Ukraine, will testify Tuesday afternoon that he was out of the loop as Giuliani effectively sought to pressure Ukraine for investigations of the Bidens. Other witnesses, however, have challenged Volker’s testimony, describing him as a member of a trio known inside the Trump administration as the “three amigos,” who were running a shadow foreign policy on Ukraine with Rick Perry, the energy secretary, and Gordon Sondland, a Trump megadonor and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Volker will be joined on the afternoon panel by Timothy Morrison, a longtime Republican congressional aide who has previously testified about a conversation between the president and Sondland in which Trump insisted that Ukraine must publicly announce investigations.

But Republicans plan to focus on Morrison’s assessment of the president’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy. Morrison told lawmakers that he heard nothing illegal as he listened to the call, though he was concerned that it could leak and cause political problems.