Testimony from Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill caps a devastating week for Trump

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The week ended on a sour note for President Trump, with the public release of testimony by two national security council staffers — one current, one former — who expressed alarm over the way Trump officials pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for political help at home. The campaign, orchestrated by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and intended to harm Joe Biden, a political rival, is now the subject of an impeachment inquiry launched last month by the House of Representatives. 

“Transcripts released today show clearly that individuals close to the President were alarmed by a presidential scheme as illicit and corrupt as a ‘drug deal,’” Democratic committee chairs said in a statement.

That scheme was managed by Giuliani, whose role in attempting to wrest political concessions from Zelensky was plainly troubling to career public servants unused to his unorthodox approach. “Rudy Giuliani is a hand grenade that is going to blow everybody up,” national security adviser John Bolton told Fiona Hill, a Russia hardliner on the National Security Council whose testimony was released on Friday. 

The other transcript released on Friday is of the interview with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert at the NSC. Vindman remains at his job at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, right next to the White House, despite having been the subject of withering attacks by Trump and his allies. Bolton was fired in September, while Hill left her post in June.

The testimony of the two officials is bound to energize Democrats ahead of next week’s public hearings. It includes a denunciation by Vindman of the “inherent risk” of playing politics with world affairs and Hill’s flat assessment of the Republican talking point — that Ukraine “was launching an effort to upend our [2016] election” — as “a fiction.” 

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, left, and former White House adviser on Russia Fiona Hill. (Photos: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters; Andrew Harnik/AP)

(Hill also asserted that she was not the anonymous White House official who penned a New York Times op-ed highly critical of Trump and has just published a book on the same subject called “A Warning.” Some had suspected her of being the op-ed’s author.)

The release of the two transcripts came at the end of a week in which House Democrats released at least one witness transcript each day, allowing them to dictate media coverage with a precision that Trump might have otherwise admired. In any case, the chyrons on CNN and MSNBC could not have pleased the president. 

Monday saw the release of testimony by Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who was removed from her post in May because Giuliani and others regarded her as an impediment to their political work. She and others condemned Trump’s approach to Ukraine in unsparing terms, with former Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker calling the whole affair “extremely unfortunate.”

All of the testimony painted a picture of Giuliani as essentially running America’s policy on Ukraine, which has been engaged in a war against Russian-backed separatist militias on its eastern flank for several years. The former New York City mayor, who is now acting as Trump’s personal lawyer, has no diplomatic background and has not been nominated or confirmed for any official government post. 

Giuliani sought a public announcement from Zelensky that he would investigate Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election, a pet concern shared by some on the conservative fringe who steadfastly reject the unanimous findings of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies that the meddling and hacking was perpetrated by Russia rather than its much smaller and less powerful (not to mention far less bellicose) neighbor. Equally intense was the pressure on Zelensky to announce a new investigation of Burisma, the troubled energy company on whose board Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden, once sat.

In exchange, Zelensky would be given an Oval Office meeting, an important imprimatur of American backing for the newly elected president. As the pressure on Zelensky increased, Trump administration officials put a hold on $400 million in aid to Ukraine that had been appropriated by Congress. Zelensky was made to understand that the desired investigations were the condition for receiving the much-needed assistance. 

Rudy Giuliani. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Both of the witnesses whose testimony was released on Friday are immigrants to the United States: Hill is from the U.K., while Vindman is from Ukraine, which was still part of the Soviet Union when he was born there. Both have also been the subjects of fringe conspiracy mongering. Hill described how she was deluged with “hateful calls” and “conspiracy theories” during her first year on the National Security Council, in part because of an unfounded belief that she was somehow an operative of George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist who is the object of lurid anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Vindman is a decorated combat veteran of the U.S. armed forces. “I have a deep appreciation on American values and ideals and the power of freedom,” he said in the opening statement to his testimony. “I am a patriot.” Trump has attacked Vindman as a “Never Trumper” witness, although there is no evidence on record of his political leanings, and some of the president’s supporters have even alleged — without any evidence — that Vindman harbors dual loyalties. Vindman is Jewish, and “dual loyalty” has historically been a theme of anti-Semitism in many countries where Jews have settled.

Yovanovitch, though not Jewish, would come under similar attacks, especially after an article in the Hill speculated that she had told Ukrainian officials not to investigate certain U.S. entities dear to Democratic interests. 

In her testimony, Hill poignantly defended Yovanovitch. “The dismissal of Ambassador Yovanovitch was a real turning point for us,” Hill said, because it had clearly been engineered by Giuliani and media allies such as Fox News and the author of the article, John Solomon. “There was no basis for her removal. The accusations against her had no merit whatsoever. This was a mishmash of conspiracy theories,” Hill testified. The campaign against Yovanovitch had been “ruthless and nasty,” she said, and the episode had  “a really devastating effect” on career diplomats like herself, and on female diplomats in particular.

Those events took place in May. Giuliani would ramp up his efforts throughout the summer, using allies within the administration to advance Trump’s political interests, even if they came into ever sharper conflict with official U.S. policy, which was to support Ukraine in its war with Russia. Vindman’s testimony notably describes the role of Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who Vindman says worked outside normal diplomatic channels to help Trump. Also helpful to Giuliani’s cause, according to Vindman, was Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. A Republican donor and businessman from Portland, Ore., Sondland was plainly seen as the most amenable to Giuliani’s shadow foreign policy, even though Ukraine, which is not an EU member, fell outside his purview. 

Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

During a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials, Sondland attempted to raise the issue of the investigations, only to have Bolton cut the conversation short. In a subsequent debriefing, however, Sondland “emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigation into the 2016 elections, the Bidens, and Bunisma,” according to Vindman’s testimony. 

Vindman testified that he and Hill both told Sondland that this was an “inappropriate” demand. The requested investigations had “nothing to do with national security,” Hill said, and “the NSC was not going to get involved in it,” according to Vindman’s recollection.

Both officials relayed their concerns to John Eisenberg, legal adviser for the NSC. Hill testified that she did so at Bolton’s behest, after he told her he wanted “no part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this.”

Eisenberg did not seem to appreciate Vindman’s concerns. “There might not be anything there,” Vindman remembered him saying. There was no further inquiry into the matter by either Eisenberg or any of the attorneys on his staff.

(Though others have described Sondland in terms similar to Vindman’s, the public release of Sondland’s own testimony was accompanied by a revised public statement plainly calculated to distance himself from Giuliani’s efforts.)

Eisenberg declined to testify before the impeachment panel earlier this week, as have several officials from the Office of Management and Budget, which had authority over the actual disbursement of the aid money. Mulvaney, the former head of OMB, also refused to testify

More testimony, however, may not be entirely necessary. Democrats effectively controlled the narrative this week, with news coverage each day dominated by the testimony of a new witness. Republicans, who had previously argued that the impeachment process was invalid because it was secret now had to find new ways to defend Trump. The president’s ardent backer Sen. Lindsey Graham drew on the somewhat strained argument that Trump could not have extorted a “quid pro quo” from Zelensky because his administration was too incompetent and his policy too “incoherent” to pull it off. 

President Trump with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Vindman was among the small coterie of officials present as Trump spoke to Zelensky on the telephone on July 25. During that call, Trump appeared to pressure Zelensky into launching a Burisma investigation, seeming to suggest that foreign aid would be contingent on such an investigation being announced. That phone call became the subject of a whistleblower complaint, and that complaint in turn serves as the basis for the impeachment inquiry. The whistleblower himself was not present for the phone call and as far as is known has not testified and remains officially anonymous, although Donald Trump Jr. sent out a tweet that allegedly names him.

Hill had already left the Trump administration by the time of the July 25 phone call. Vindman told investigators he was “concerned about the fact that there was a call to have a foreign power investigate a U.S. citizen.” He also described how the partial readout of the call released by the White House was bowdlerized, removing portions that would seem to support the charge that Trump sought to extort a  quid pro quo from the Ukraine president. He described some of that evidence, including an explicit reference to Burisma by Zelensky. That suggests that the young Ukrainian president, despite being new to politics, grasped exactly what Trump wanted.

Despite that, Zelensky never made an announcement about any investigation of Burisma or purported 2016 electoral interference by Ukraine. And though the $400 million in funding to Ukraine was delayed, it was eventually released, thanks in part to lobbying of the president by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, both Republicans. 

Vindman described to investigators how even with the funding restored, confidence in the Kiev-Washington friendship has been shaken. “I perceive that our relationship is damaged,” Vindman said. “I think as this process wears on, I think the relationship will continue to be damaged and undercut.”

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