Army officer on Trump phone call said it was his 'duty' to report president

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

The second decorated U.S. military combat veteran to testify in the House impeachment inquiry told Congress Tuesday that he listened to President Trump’s July phone call with the president of Ukraine and immediately knew it was his “duty” to report Trump’s “improper” behavior to White House lawyers.

“I knew that I had to report this to the White House counsel. … It was improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent,” Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a 44-year-old Army officer detailed to the White House for the past 18 months, told the House Intelligence Committee.

Vindman, a recipient of the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in the Iraq war, appeared before the committee in his full dress uniform. He came under the most intense criticism from Republicans of any impeachment witness to date. 

Republicans asked him if the new Ukrainian government had asked him to become minister of defense in the newly formed administration earlier this year. Vindman said it was offered to him three times by Ukrainian official Oleksandr Danylyuk, but that each time he rejected it out of hand. But Republicans used that new piece of information to imply that Vindman’s loyalties were divided between the U.S. and Ukraine, a talking point that first originated on Fox News in recent weeks.

Vindman said helping a fledgling democracy would be “a great honor” but that he never considered it. 

“I’m an American,” Vindman said. “I immediately dismissed these offers, did not entertain them.”

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

But Steve Castor, a Republican lawyer on the committee, asked Vindman if the incident might create at least the perception of a “conflict.”

This echoed comments by right-wing pundits on Fox News, such as former Rep. Sean Duffy, who said on Oct. 29 that while Vindman was “incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense … I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy.” Similarly, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade noted Vindman’s birth in the former Soviet Union and said Vindman “tends to feel simpatico with Ukraine.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, also asked questions designed to sow doubts about Vindman’s credibility, noting that his former boss Tim Morrison — who resigned from the National Security Council in October — told the committee in his deposition that he “had concerns about Lt. Col. Vindman’s judgment,” a comment that was amplified by the White House official Twitter account during the hearing. 

“Ever leaked information?” Jordan asked Vindman.

“I never did, never would. It is preposterous,” Vindman replied.

Vindman also read from his last job evaluation by Fiona Hill, who held Morrison’s job for two years, until July. Hill said Vindman was “brilliant, unflappable and exercises excellent judgment.”

Vindman backed up testimony last week by three separate diplomats that Trump was pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly announce that his government was investigating former Vice President Joe Biden — a top rival for the presidency — and his son Hunter’s position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Other witnesses have testified that the Trump administration was withholding nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine, as well as a meeting at the White House between Zelensky and Trump, as leverage to coerce the Ukrainians to announce an investigation.

The funding was released on Sept. 11, around the same time the White House was notified of a congressional investigation, kicked off by a whistleblower complaint. 

Vindman testified sitting alongside Jennifer Williams, Vice President Mike Pence’s special adviser on European and Russian affairs.

Vindman and Williams are two of the three people who are speaking to Congress who were listening in on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, as part of the regular White House staff process. The other is Morrison, who was scheduled to testify later Tuesday. 

Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, reads an opening statement before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Vindman was born in the Soviet Union, and his parents fled the Communist regime when he was 3 years old. He has been a Russia and Eastern Europe expert at the National Security Council since July 2018, after having served in a number of posts, including in the U.S. embassies in Moscow and Kyiv and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America,” Vindman said, and he insisted that his decision to report the president’s comments as “improper” was out of a sense of “duty.”

He described to the committee that in some countries, his act of reporting the head of state to government attorneys “would not be tolerated” and that the act of giving public testimony “would surely cost me my life.”

But he reassured his father in his opening statement that he would be “fine for telling the truth” and that his testimony was “proof that you made the right decision” to leave his homeland.

“This is America ... Here, right matters,” he said. 

He also criticized those who he said have made “character attacks” on those who have testified or who are scheduled to do so. 

Vindman had some small clashes with Republicans on the committee, at one point correcting the top Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, when he called him “Mr. Vindman.”

“Ranking member, it’s Lt. Col. Vindman,” Vindman said. 

Williams, a foreign service officer for over a decade, told the committee about some of the details surrounding Pence’s decision not to attend the inauguration of the newly elected Zelensky in May.

Trump decided not to send Pence, Williams said, and it was not a scheduling conflict.

Williams also told the committee that she, like Vindman, along with “several of my colleagues,” listened to the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, as is customary for calls between heads of state.

National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Williams found the 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 also told the committee that the president’s request for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens was “inappropriate.”

Williams said the loose transcript of the call was included in Pence’s briefing book the next day, but she did not know if he read it. And she said that in a Sept. 1 meeting between Pence and Zelensky in Warsaw, Poland, Pence did not talk about the investigations that Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others were pushing the Ukrainians to pursue.

Nunes spent most of his opening statement bashing the news media and called the press “puppets of the Democratic Party.”

He complained that the media was not pressing Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to bring the whistleblower in for testimony. 

Republicans are implying that the whistleblower had partisan motivations and coordinated with Schiff’s staff to jump-start the impeachment inquiry.

Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks and as Ranking Member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) looks on during a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 19, 2019. (Photo: Erin Scott/Reuters)

Democrats say the whistleblower’s Aug. 12 complaint has been verified and corroborated by multiple public witnesses, and that the need to have that person testify is no longer vital. And they want to protect the identity of the whistleblower to maintain a precedent that will encourage others to utilize this channel of communication without fear of retribution and keep government officials accountable.

But Republicans repeatedly returned to this theme throughout the hearing. 

The hearing with Vindman and Williams was the first of the day, with another two-witness panel scheduled for later. Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, former senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council, were scheduled to appear then.

On Wednesday, Gordon Sondland, current U.S. ambassador to the European Union, will appear before the committee, followed by Pentagon official Laura Cooper and David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranking official at the State Department.

Hill, former senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council, will testify Thursday. Also appearing Thursday: David Holmes, a State Department official stationed in Kyiv who heard Sondland’s phone conversation with Trump on July 26 in which the president reportedly asked Sondland about whether Ukraine would investigate the Bidens. 

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