White House Ukraine Expert Sought to Correct Transcript of Trump Call

Julian E. Barnes, Nicholas Fandos and Danny Hakim

WASHINGTON — Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, told House impeachment investigators Tuesday that the White House transcript of a July call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine’s president omitted crucial words and phrases, and that his attempts to include them failed, according to three people familiar with the testimony.

The omissions, Vindman said, included Trump’s assertion that there were recordings of former Vice President Joe Biden discussing Ukraine corruption, and an explicit mention by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of Burisma Holdings, the energy company whose board employed Biden’s son Hunter.

Vindman, who appeared on Capitol Hill wearing his dark blue Army dress uniform and military medals, told House impeachment investigators that he tried to change the reconstructed transcript made by the White House staff to reflect the omissions. But while some of his edits appeared to have been successful, he said, those two corrections were not made.

Vindman did not testify to a motive behind the editing process. But his testimony is likely to drive investigators to ask further questions about how officials handled the call, including changes to the transcript and the decision to put it into the White House’s most classified computer system — and whether those moves were meant to conceal the conversation’s most controversial aspects.

The phrases do not fundamentally change lawmakers’ understanding of the call, which was first reported by the CIA whistleblower whose complaint set off the impeachment inquiry. There are plenty of other examples of Trump referring to Ukraine-related conspiracy theories and asking for investigations of the Biden family. But Vindman’s account offered a hint to solving a mystery surrounding the conversation: what Trump’s aides left out of the transcript in places where ellipses indicated dropped words.

In hours of questioning Tuesday by Democrats and Republicans, Vindman recounted his alarm at the July 25 call, saying he “did not think it was proper” for Trump to have asked Zelenskiy to investigate a political rival, and how White House officials struggled to deal with the fallout from a conversation he and others considered problematic.

His testimony about the reconstructed transcript, the aftermath of the call and a shadow foreign policy being run outside the National Security Council came as Democrats unveiled plans for a more public phase of the impeachment process. They plan to vote Thursday to direct the Intelligence Committee to conduct public hearings and produce a report for the Judiciary Committee to guide its consideration of impeachment articles. The measure will also provide a mechanism for Republicans to request subpoenas for witnesses and give Trump’s lawyers a substantive role in the Judiciary Committee’s proceedings to mount a defense.

Some lawmakers indicated Vindman would make a good candidate to appear again at a public hearing next month.

It is not clear why some of Vindman’s changes were not made, but the decision by a White House lawyer to quickly lock down the reconstructed transcript subverted the normal process of handling such documents, according to people familiar with the matter.

The note takers and voice recognition software used during the July 25 call had missed Zelenskiy saying the word “Burisma,” according to people briefed on the matter, but the reconstructed transcript does refer to “the company” and suggests that the Ukrainian president is aware that it is of great interest to Trump.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Zelenskiy said, according to the document, “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”

The rough transcript also contains ellipses at three points where Trump is speaking. Vindman told investigators that at the point of the transcript where the third set of ellipses appears, Trump said there were tapes of Biden.

Trump’s mention of tapes is an apparent reference to Biden’s comments at a January 2018 event about his effort to get Ukraine to force out its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin. Supporters of Biden have said Shokin was widely criticized for his lax anti-corruption efforts. Republicans charge, without evidence, that Biden was trying to stop an investigation into his son.

Vindman told House investigators Tuesday that he twice registered internal objections about how Trump and his inner circle were pressuring Ukraine to undertake inquiries beneficial to the president, including of Biden. After the July 25 call, the colonel reported what happened to a superior, explaining that “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,” according to his opening remarks. He added, “This would all undermine U.S. national security.”

He also described confronting Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, after the envoy pressed Ukrainian officials to help the Trump administration by investigating the Biden family. The colonel said he acted out of a “sense of duty” and emphasized his military service in his remarks. “I am a patriot,” he said, “and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country irrespective of party or politics.”

As he spoke, House leaders were preparing for what was expected to be significant new private testimony from current and former White House officials in the coming days. On Wednesday, they will hear from two Ukraine experts who advised Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to the country. On Thursday, Timothy Morrison, the National Security Council’s Russia and Europe director, is scheduled to testify. And Friday, investigators have called Robert Blair, a top national security adviser to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff.

There is no recording of the July 25 call by the U.S. side. The White House uses note takers listening in on the call as well as voice recognition software to create a rough transcript that is a close approximation of the call. But names and technical terms are frequently missed by the software, according to people familiar with the matter.

After the call, Vindman was given a hard copy of the rough transcript to make updates and corrections, according to a person familiar with the matter. Vindman went through the transcript, made changes and gave his written edits to his boss, Morrison, according to the person.

But after the call, Vindman went with his brother, a lawyer on the National Security Council staff, to see John Eisenberg, the council’s legal adviser, to raise his concerns about the conversation.

Vindman declined to detail to investigators his discussions with Eisenberg, citing attorney-client privilege, according to two of the people familiar with the testimony.

One explanation for why Vindman’s changes were not made could be that the transcript had been quickly placed into a highly secure computer system, the NSC Intelligence Collaboration Environment, or NICE system, making it more difficult to alter.

Eisenberg ordered the transcript moved to ensure people who were not assigned to handle Ukraine policy could not read the transcript, a decision he hoped would prevent gossip and leaks about the call.

Putting the transcript in the secure server would have made it more difficult to make further edits to the document and in the case of the July call effectively stopped additional changes.

Eisenberg made the decision without consulting with his supervisor, Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel. A White House review of the handling of the call is examining if Eisenberg acted properly in securing the notes.

Administration officials have said a number of calls between Trump and foreign leaders were put in the most secure server. But tightened security had been put in place for those calls ahead of time. The Ukraine call was put in the secure server only after the fact.

In the whistleblower complaint that was made public, the CIA officer wrote that placing the rough transcript in the server was part of an effort to lock it down and restrict access and a sign that “White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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