Trump impeachment: Day 3 of public testimony
- Kurt Volker, special representative to Ukraine, said he understands now, thanks to hindsight and the testimony of other witnesses, that Trump was using aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son.
- Lt.-Col. Alexander Vindman described Trump-Zelenksy call as ‘improper.’
- Pence aide Jennifer Williams said she hadn’t heard Trump request a favour on other calls.
- Testy exchange over protecting whistleblower’s identity.
- Missed previous hearings? Watch Day 1 highlights here. Get key moments from Day 2 here.
The U.S. House Intelligence Committee has concluded a five-hour hearing with two former Trump administration officials, Tim Morrison of the National Security Council and Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine.
Both have already testified behind closed doors in House Democrats’ impeachment investigation of U.S. President Donald Trump and his dealings with Ukraine.
Volker said he should have realized — as many of his colleagues did — that Trump was holding up military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country to investigate the president’s political rival Joe Biden.
Volker said he understands now, thanks to hindsight and the testimony of other witnesses, that Trump was using the aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son, Hunter, and his role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma.
Watch: Kurt Volker explains the roots of President Trump’s negative view towards Ukraine
But he insisted he did not know of the push at the time, despite his deep involvement with Ukrainian officials on a statement — never released — that would have committed the country to investigating Burisma and the 2016 U.S. election. Nor did he make the connection after Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, mentioned the allegations against Joe Biden during a July 19 breakfast, Volker said.
“In retrospect I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections,” Volker said Tuesday in his opening statement.
Volker was the first person to testify behind closed doors in the inquiry that started in September, resigning his position shortly before he did so.
Morrison, who stepped down from the National Security Council shortly before he appeared before House investigators behind closed doors last month, has said he was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed on Trump’s July 25 call, something Republicans have repeatedly highlighted.
“As I stated during my deposition, I feared at the time of the call on July 25th how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate,” he said Tuesday. “My fears have been realized.”
He told lawmakers Tuesday that the transcript of the call was incorrectly placed in a highly secure location.
“It was a mistake,” he said, merely “an administrative error.”
Morrison has confirmed to investigators that he witnessed a key September conversation in Warsaw between Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and a Ukrainian official. Sondland told the official that U.S. aid might be freed if the country’s top prosecutor “would go to the mic and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” Morrison said in previous closed-door testimony.
‘Improper’ and ‘unusual’
Earlier, two top national security aides who listened to Trump’s July call with Ukraine’s president testified in turn on Tuesday that they found the exchange between the leaders “improper” and “unusual.”
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, his counterpart in Vice-President Mike Pence’s office, said they had concerns as Trump spoke on July 25 with Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodomyr Zelensky about a political investigation into Joe Biden.
“It was improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent,” said Vindman, who said he felt that he had to report the concerning call “without hesitation” up the NSC chain of command.
“Frankly I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he said at another point during his testimony.
When asked what he made of Trump’s asking Zelensky for a “favour,” Vindman said he believed it was clear the request came with heavier implications.
“The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it’s polite and pleasant, it’s not to be taken as a request. It’s to be taken as an order,” said Vindman, who arrived at Capitol Hill in military blue with a chest full of service medals.
Watch: Security aide testifies on the unusual nature of Trump’s Ukraine call
Utah Republican Chris Stewart later dismissed Vindman’s interpretation that it was mandatory as “nonsense,” pointing to Zelenksy’s public statements about not feeling that he was being pressured by the U.S., as well as the fact the investigations were ultimately never announced by the Ukraine president.
Williams said she had been privy to about a dozen Trump calls previously, and it was unlike the others, though she said she wouldn’t theorize about the president’s motivations.
“I found the July 25th phone call unusual because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter,” Williams said in opening remarks.
Through a whistleblower complaint and previous testimony in the House, a narrative has emerged of an “irregular channel,” as one diplomat described it, in U.S. dealings with Ukraine, led by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
It has been alleged that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of Ukraine energy company Burisma for over two years while his father was U.S. vice-president, for corruption.
‘No ambiguity’ about investigating Bidens
As well, Trump requested that Zelensky investigate unproven allegations that entities in Ukraine were allied with the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 presidential election and involved in the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails. A Republican-led Senate committee, among others, has concluded that Russian cyberactors were involved in the DNC operation.
Watch: Key U.S. national security adviser testifies at Trump impeachment hearing
The overriding question is whether nearly $400 million US in military and security aid to Ukraine was held up for two months until Zelensky committed to doing Trump’s bidding.
Vindman, responding to Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley, said he was unaware of any official in the NSC and the Department of Defence vocally supporting withholding aid.
Republicans say the aid was eventually given and that Trump’s administration has been more friendly and muscular in their support for Ukraine than predecessor Barack Obama, pointing to the sale of Javelin missiles that Obama’s White House declined to approve.
Opening the second week of live televised hearings, the Democratic chairman leading the probe, Adam Schiff, noted that Trump tweeted against Williams over the weekend, while Vindman had seen “far more scurrilous attacks” on his character by the president’s allies.
The top Republican on the intelligence committee, Devin Nunes, began the hearing with an extended attack on the media and dismissed last week’s testimony as “second-hand and third-hand conversations.” He blasted the hearing as a “hoax.”
Vindman, a 20-year military officer, said Tuesday he brought his concerns forward because of the “national security implications,” expressing surprise it led to having to appear before a congressional committee.
He added that Trump did not bring up Ukraine’s corruption problem in either an April congratulatory call or the now-infamous July call, despite talking points provided by NSC staff beforehand on the subject.
Vindman said he was not aware of any credible information to support the so-called Ukraine server theory, and that it was a theory promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The transcript of the July call was put into a secure system even though it didn’t contain sensitive national security information. Vindman refused to ascribe anything “nefarious” to that decision but acknowledged it could prevent leaks and limit access to the call.
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 Biden’s son Hunter served on the board.
“The Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens,” he said. “There was no ambiguity.”
Pence went to Canada, not Ukraine
Williams, a State Department employee detailed to Pence’s office, said the vice-president did not request the investigations in his own conversations with Zelensky.
New York Republican Elise Stefanik got Williams and Vindman to agree that the younger Biden’s sinecure on the Ukrainian board while his father was U.S. vice-president had the potential for a conflict of interest.
Williams also said she had understood that Pence was to lead the U.S. delegation at Zelensky’s inauguration, but the vice-president was ultimately told to stand down even before Ukraine officials set a date for the swearing-in. She wasn’t clear on the reasons why, and the U.S. ultimately sent a group led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Canada mention — instead of going to Ukraine for the inauguration of the new president, VP Mike Pence went to Ottawa for an event to promote the USMCA. (Pence met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland).
Nunes asked the witnesses who else they talked to about their concerns, bearing down once Vindman acknowledged one was from the intelligence community.
“I do not know who the whistleblower is,” Vindman said. He has previously said it is not him.
Nunes pressed: “You can plead the fifth [amendment], but you’re here to answer questions.”
“These proceedings will not be used to out the whistleblower,” Schiff said.
Watch: Nunes, Schiff, Vindman scuffle over questions of whistleblower’s identity
At one point when Nunes called Vindman “Mr. Vindman,” the colonel reminded him to address him by his rank.
Republican Steve Castor got Vindman to admit that he had received offers of employment in the Ukrainian government on three occasions. Vindman said he notified the appropriate U.S. officials that the offers had been made. He dismissed the notion he had any divided loyalties.
“I’m an American, I came here when I was a toddler, and I immediately dismissed these offers,” he said.
The line of questioning angered Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes.
“That was designed exclusively to give the right-wing media an opportunity to attack your loyalties,” said Himes.
“It’s the kind of thing you say when you’re defending the indefensible,” he added.
Sondland is set to give testimony on Wednesday.
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