'There was no ambiguity': What Alexander Vindman told House impeachment investigators

By Natasha Bertrand and Andrew Desiderio

Impeachment investigators on Friday released the much-anticipated deposition transcript of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer and Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council staff.

Vindman, a participant in the now-famous July 25 phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky, told lawmakers in his Oct. 28 testimony that he was troubled by what he saw as political considerations impinging on U.S. national security — and that he was told by a top White House lawyer to keep quiet about the call.

“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine,” Vindman said, referring to Trump's demand that Zelensky investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival, and his son Hunter.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where the gain would be for the president in investigating the son of a political opponent," Vindman said.

Throughout his testimony, Vindman emphasized the importance of the relationship between the two countries, as Ukraine continues to feel the brunt of Russia’s malign influence in the region. Withholding the military aid, Vindman said, “damaged” and “undercut” the relationship, and was detrimental to U.S. national security.

Democrats' highlights of Vindman's testimony | Full transcript

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Vindman implicates acting White House Chief of Staff Mulvaney

During a July 21 meeting in the Ward Room at the White House, U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland began discussing how a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky was contingent upon Zelensky launching the investigations Trump demanded, Vindman testified. That “deliverable” had been coordinated with acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, he said.

Vindman is the third witness to tie Sondland directly to Mulvaney, who defied a subpoena seeking his testimony on Friday, denying Democrats a key witness for the impeachment inquiry.

George Kent, a senior State Department official, told lawmakers that Sondland and Mulvaney had an independent relationship that facilitated Sondland’s presence in high-level meetings with both Trump and the Ukrainians, and that Mulvaney was the one who placed a hold on U.S. military aid to Ukraine at the president’s direction.

And Fiona Hill, the NSC’s top Europe and Russia adviser at the time, testified that during the July 21 meeting with the Ukrainians, Sondland “was talking about how he had an agreement with Chief of Staff Mulvaney for a meeting with the Ukrainians if they were going to go forward with investigations."

Sondland describes the ‘deliverable’: an investigation of Biden

Vindman described a subsequent meeting in the Ward Room of the White House during which Sondland detailed, with “no ambiguity,” the so-called “deliverable” that was required in order for the Ukrainians to secure a White House meeting.

“He was calling for something, calling for an investigation that didn’t exist into the Bidens and Burisma,” Vindman said, referring to the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden once sat.

When asked what Sondland specifically said, Vindman replied: “That the Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens.”

In addition to the military aid, the Ukrainians viewed a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky as critical for the relationship between the two leaders. When pressed further, Vindman said it was clear what Sondland was trying to do.

“My visceral reaction to what was being called for suggested that it was explicit. There was no ambiguity,” Vindman said.

Vindman added: “When the Ukrainians raised this issue of trying to figure out what the date would be for the presidential meeting, Ambassador Sondland proceeded to discuss the deliverable required in order to get the meeting, and he alluded to investigations.”

Giuliani was a ‘live hand grenade’

Fiona Hill, the NSC’s top Europe and Russia adviser, told Vindman that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was a liability for the White House — a “live hand grenade,” as she put it — because he was calling for Ukraine to launch investigations of Trump’s political rivals.

The discomfort Hill felt was apparently shared by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, who “abruptly” ended a July 21 meeting when Sondland began discussing the investigations, Vindman said.

Hill then instructed Vindman to relay his concerns to John Eisenberg, a top White House lawyer, about what had occurred in the meeting. Vindman told Eisenberg at that point, he testified, that he thought it was “wrong” to “organize a situation in which you're asking a foreign power to investigate a matter.”

Within an hour after listening in on the infamous July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, Vindman again visited Eisenberg — this time along with his twin brother, a fellow NSC official — to express his discomfort. Shortly thereafter, Eisenberg told Vindman that he “shouldn’t talk to any other people” about the content of the call, as POLITICO first reported last week.

Vindman: Trump was clear, too

As Vindman describes his reaction to hearing Trump ask Zelensky for a “favor,” he notes that the president did not need to explicitly demand something in order for Zelensky to understand what Trump wanted. American presidents have unmatched leverage over foreign leaders, Vindman explained.

“[T]he power disparity between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine is vast, and, you know, in the president asking for something, it became—there was—in return for a White House meeting, because that’s what this was about,” Vindman told investigators. “This was about getting a White House meeting. It was a demand for him to fulfill his—fulfill this particular prerequisite in order to get the meeting.”

Trump’s Republican allies have argued that Trump did not explicitly demand that Zelensky open an investigation into Biden — but Democrats have pushed back, noting that Ukraine relies on the U.S. for its safety and security in the region, meaning that Zelensky would consider an ask from the American president to be a demand.

The Ukraine aid holdup happened earlier than previously reported

Several officials have testified that they learned about the aid holdup on July 18. But Vindman said he learned about it more than two weeks earlier, on July 3, shifting the known timeline of when the aid was held up.

The aid holdup may have been in the works as early as June, Vindman testified, because he was getting indications from the relevant departments that OMB was asking “abnormal” questions” about the aid, including how much and what kind of funding Kyiv was receiving.

The new timeline also raises questions about a July 3 meeting Special Envoy Kurt Volker had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Toronto, in which he urged Zelensky to commit to investigating “corruption.” Volker testified that he told Zelensky that the message of cleaning up corruption that the U.S. needed to hear in order to support him was getting “countermanded by a negative narrative about Ukraine.”

Vindman testified that he received a notice from the State Department on July 3 saying that the Office of Management and Budget was holding up a notification to Congress about the military aid, a required step to obligate the appropriated funds.

He didn’t understand why, initially, but sought to find out. Between July 3 and July 18, when the aid freeze was relayed to a sub-policy coordinating committee, Vindman said, the NSC was “trying to get to the bottom of why this hold was in place”—and that the reason became “quite apparent” during the July 18 meeting, when he learned that the hold came from Mulvaney’s office.

The No. 2 official in the Ukrainian embassy in Washington began asking about the aid holdup in mid-August 2019, before it was made public, Vindman testified, undermining claims by Trump and his allies that there couldn’t have been a quid pro quo because the Ukrainians didn’t know aid was being withheld.


Vindman suggested edits to the July 25 ‘transcript’ that were never included

Having listened in on the phone call from the White House Situation Room, Vindman said he ultimately suggested several edits to the memorandum of the call that the White House eventually released to the public in September — some of which he described as “significant.” He said those changes were never included in the final version that was made public.

One of those edits was the addition of a phrase in which Trump referenced “recordings” detailing the unsubstantiated allegations against Biden.

Vindman also told investigators that while the memorandum says Zelensky only mentioned “the company,” he recalls Zelensky saying instead: “Burisma that you mentioned.”

“‘He or she will look into the situation specifically to the company’—it shouldn’t be ‘the company.’ It should be ‘to Burisma that you mentioned,’” Vindman said, quoting Zelensky.

The fact that Zelensky mentioned Burisma was important, Vindman said, because it “seemed to suggest to me that he was prepped for this call,” and that he knew that Trump’s reference to Biden referred specifically to Burisma.

Hungary’s prime minister soured Trump on Ukraine and Zelensky

Giuliani was not the only one feeding Trump negative information about Ukraine. According to a readout Vindman obtained of Trump’s May 13 meeting with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister communicated information to Trump that was “not just inaccurate, but would also would undermine efforts to organize our national security policy in a more constructive manner” toward Ukraine.

Mulvaney was instrumental in setting up the Orban meeting, Vindman testified, despite reservations by Fiona Hill and John Bolton.

Vindman’s testimony here is also in line with what George Kent told lawmakers about how Orban, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Giuliani, had shaped Trump’s negative attitude toward Zelensky and Ukraine.

Kent said Trump’s conversations with Putin and Orban, on May 3 and May 13 respectively, influenced Trump’s change in tone toward Zelensky from “very positive” after their first call on April 21 to “negative” just one month later when he held a meeting about Ukraine in the Oval Office with top advisers.

Vindman implicates Eisenberg’s deputy

It’s revealed for the first time in Vindman’s testimony that Michael Ellis, a White House lawyer and John Eisenberg’s deputy, was the first to suggest placing the record of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky into a top-secret codeword system that would restrict other officials from accessing it.

According to Vindman, Eisenberg, as the NSC’s top legal adviser, made the final call to place the call record there after Ellis proposed the idea.

Ellis previously worked with GOP Rep. Devin Nunes on the House Intelligence Committee and was reportedly involved in sharing classified materials with Nunes in 2017 that showed Trump campaign officials had been swept up in routine surveillance of foreign nationals during the election.

Vindman said he didn’t believe Ellis had “malicious intent” in suggesting the call record be placed on the top-secret server, and that Eisenberg ultimately “gave the go-ahead” to do so. Impeachment investigators have sought testimony from both Eisenberg and Ellis, but the White House has barred them from testifying.

Vindman says no ‘factual basis’ for a key Giuliani claim

In addition to pushing Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, Giuliani was also hoping to spur an investigation into a debunked conspiracy about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

The theory claims that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the election, and that it was done to benefit Hillary Clinton. Echoing the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment about Russia’s efforts in 2016, Vindman said there was no “factual basis” for such claims.

“I am, frankly, unaware of any authoritative basis for Ukranian interference in 2016 elections, based on my knowledge,” he said.

It wasn’t just Giuliani who was advancing it. During his July 25 call with Zelensky, Trump mentioned the debunked theory while asking his Ukrainian counterpart to also investigate the Bidens.

“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine,” Trump told Zelensky. “There are a lot of things that went on,” he said.

Vindman describes why he couldn’t attend a key Ukraine meeting

Vindman attended Zelensky’s inauguration along with a delegation sent from the White House—but was instructed not to attend the debriefing of the president afterward because it might create “personal risk” for him, he testified.

The risk stemmed from potential confusion surrounding his role, given another official’s “misrepresenting” himself as the Ukraine director for the NSC. That official, Kashyap Patel—another acolyte of Nunes—had been “providing information” to Trump about Ukraine already despite having no formal role in crafting Ukraine policy, Vindman said. POLITICO first reported last week that Vindman was excluded from the meeting because of Patel’s influence.

Vindman said he was told all this by Hill, who testified about Patel at length in her own deposition. She told lawmakers that the president had confused Patel for the Ukraine director, but that she didn’t want to cause “embarrassment” to Trump by correcting him during the debriefing.

“I went to talk to Charlie Kupperman, who was going to be taking part on our behalf sitting in on the debriefing for the President,” Hill testified, referring to the deputy national security adviser.

“And I said: Apparently, the president may think that Kash Patel is our Ukraine director, and I just want to make sure there's no embarrassment here,” Hill said, explaining why she excluded Vindman.

Hill also testified that she took Patel “off our distribution list” because his Ukraine involvement was “obviously just not appropriate” and because she “started to worry that he'd been sending some of our materials in an unauthorized fashion.”