Nov. 19 (UPI) — The National Security Council’s top Ukraine specialist, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, told impeachment investigators Tuesday he worried President Donald Trump’s conduct in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “improper” and ill befitting for the president of the United States.
He made the remarks at the start of the second week of public impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill.
Vindman’s concerns reinforce Democrats’ suspicions that Trump conditioned the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid on whether Zelensky agreed to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Trump wanted to know about Ukrainian ties to Hunter Biden, who occupied a lucrative position at Ukrainian oil and gas company Burisma for five years.
His testimony centered on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, in which the U.S. leader asked for the Bidens to be investigated as a “favor.” The call spawned a whistle-blower report and ultimately the House investigation.
“I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate,” Vindman said in his opening statement Tuesday. “It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent.
“It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 elections, the Bidens and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermining U.S. national security and advancing Russia’s strategic objectives in the region.”
The investigation is trying to determine whether Trump leveraged Congress-approved aid in exchange for a personal, political favor — conduct Democrats say is grounds for removal from office.
Vindman, a career U.S. Army officer whose family fled oppression in the Soviet Union, said he reported his concerns to the proper channels.
“My intent was to raise these concerns because they had significant national security concerns for our country.”
The other witness testifying in Tuesday’s early session was Jennifer Williams, a Russia specialist and aide to Vice President Mike Pence. She said she’d heard Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, mention the call. Giuliani has been accused of running a “shadow” foreign policy in Ukraine on Trump’s behalf.
“It was the first time that I had heard internally the president reference particular investigations that previously I had only heard about through Mr. Giuliani’s interviews and press reporting,” Williams said. “I can’t speak to what the president’s motivation was in referencing it but I just noted that the reference to Biden sounded political to me.”
For Zelensky, a visit to the White House to meet with Trump would lend the new Ukrainian president credibility, Vindman said. Especially since the United States is Zelensky’s “most significant benefactor.”
Investigators released transcripts last weekend that detail private depositions given by Williams and White House aide Tim Morrison. They showed the phone call “immediately set off alarm bells” in the White House.”
Vindman said Trump ordered Zelensky to speak publicly about the investigation in exchange for a visit to the White House.
“The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it’s polite and present, it’s not to be taken as a request,” Vindman said. “It’s to be taken as an order. In this case, the power disparity between the two leaders — my impression is that in order to get the White House meeting, President Zelensky would have to deliver these investigations.”
In his deposition, Vindman also described an earlier call between Trump and Zelensky in April. He said he’d prepared talking points for that call and they included rooting out corruption — an issue he said Trump never raised with Zelensky. Also, Pence was supposed to attend Zelensky’s inauguration but Williams said she was told Trump had ordered him not to go. Williams said Pence didn’t go due to scheduling conflicts.
In her deposition, Williams confirmed an account by Vindman that Zelensky specifically mentioned Burisma during the call — contrary to a transcript of the call released by the White House.
“My notes did reflect that the word Burisma had come up in the call, that the president mentioned Burisma,” she said.
Vindman said he declined an offer to become Ukraine’s defense minister and notified the appropriate chain of command.
“I’m an American. I came here when I was a toddler and I immediately dismissed these offers,” he said. “It is pretty funny for a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army … to be offered that illustrious of a position.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, interrogated Vindman and intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff for their refusal to identify the whistle-blower. Jordan wanted to know who Vindman spoke to about the call.
“The one thing they didn’t count on was the president releasing the call transcript and letting us see what he said,” Jordan said. “Transcript shows no linkage. The two individuals on the call have both said no pressure, no pushing the security assistance dollars to an investigation.”
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., asked Williams for her thoughts about Trump’s tweet last weekend that called her a “Never Trumper.” She said it surprised her because she wouldn’t classify herself that way.
“It surprised me, too,” Himes said. “It looks an awful lot like witness intimidation and tampering in an effort to shape your testimony today.”
“I’d call myself ‘never partisan,'” Vindman said when asked.
Himes attacked Republicans for trying to discredit Vindman when he’s served in a tactical combat unit and has been awarded the Purple Heart.
2:30 p.m. hearing
The second hearing will feature Volker, who the chairmen identify as having “played a direct role” in arranging meetings between Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani and Zelensky aides.
The whistle-blower’s complaint stated that Volker flew to Ukraine with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland to advise Ukrainian leadership about how to “navigate” the demands Trump had made of Zelensky.
The committee chairmen said Voker’s Oct. 3 deposition showed the progression of Trump and Giuliani using the State Department to pressure Ukraine into conducting investigations of the Bidens to advance the president’s personal and political interests.
Volker told the committees he found the decision to withhold funding to Ukraine “unusual” and was unable to receive an explanation for why it was held. The aid was ultimately released on Sept. 11.
Morrison said in his deposition last month Sondland told a Ukrainian official the United States would release the military aid if Kiev investigated the Bidens. He said he didn’t feel Trump’s actions were inappropriate or illegal — but he also acknowledged the release of aid was dependent on Ukraine investigating the Bidens, a claim Trump has denied.
“It was the first time something like this had been injected as a condition on the release of the assistance,” Morrison said.
Sondland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor have also said Trump leveraged the aid to obtain investigations.
Investigators are scheduled to publicly question two witnesses on Thursday — David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Ukraine, and former National Security Council aide and Russia expert Fiona Hill. That hearing will begin at 9 a.m. EST.
Holmes told investigators last week in his deposition he heard Trump ask Sondland about Zelensky’s willingness to cooperate and investigate the Bidens. He also noted the administration’s entire approach to Ukraine shifted in March.
“Our diplomatic policy, that has been focused on supporting Ukrainian democratic reform and resistance to Russian aggression, became overshadowed by a political agenda being promoted by Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel the White House,” he said, according to a transcript of his testimony, released Monday.
Holmes also addressed Trump’s removal of former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in May. He said said Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko had complained Yovanovitch “destroyed him” by refusing to support him until he followed through on reform commitments and stopped “using his position for personal gain.”
Trump referenced Yovanovitch during his July call with Zelensky, saying she’s “bad news” — and tweeted as she testified publicly last week everywhere she went “turned bad.”