WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House official testified in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump on Tuesday that a phone call the president made to ask Ukraine to investigate a political rival was improper as he fended off Republican efforts to cast doubt on his competence and loyalty to the United States.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the White House National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, testified at the third public impeachment hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, wearing his blue dress military uniform and medals.
Vindman denounced the criticism of public servants who have testified in the impeachment probe.
Both Vindman and a second witness – Jennifer Williams, an aide to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence – also raised questions about requests made by Trump in a July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is at the heart of the impeachment investigation threatening Trump’s presidency.
During the call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to carry out two investigations that would benefit him politically including one targeting Democratic political rival Joe Biden. The other involved a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Vindman and Williams both were among the U.S. officials who listened in during the call.
“It was inappropriate, it was improper for the president to request – to demand – an investigation into a political opponent, especially (from) a foreign power where there is at best dubious belief that this would be a completely impartial investigation and that this would have significant implications if it became public knowledge,” Vindman told the committee.
Vindman, a decorated Iraq war veteran, told lawmakers that “character attacks” against public servants testifying in the impeachment inquiry were “reprehensible.”
Trump has attacked both Williams and Vindman on Twitter as “Never Trump” witnesses, a term he uses to describe Republicans who oppose him. Some of Trump’s allies in the conservative media have questioned Vindman’s loyalty to the United States.
Asked by a Republican lawyer at the hearing whether he would consider becoming part of Ukraine’s government – an offer made by a Zelenskiy adviser – Vindman responded that he is an American and would not consider such an offer, calling it “comical.”
Asked by Democratic Representative Jim Himes if he would call himself a “a Never Trumper,” Vindman responded, “I’d call myself never partisan.” Williams said she would not consider herself a “never Trumper” and was surprised that Trump blasted her on Twitter. Himes said Trump’s Twitter attack on Williams looks like “witness intimidation and tampering.”
The investigation could lead the House to approve formal charges against Trump – called articles of impeachment – that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office. Few Republican senators have broken with Trump.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Vindman had recently raised concerns over his personal security and the Army has been carrying out security assessments. The official said Vindman and his family could be moved to a military base if the security threat warrants such action but that has not yet occurred.
Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union and settled in the United States, sent out a message to his father from the witness seat.
“Dad, that I am sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth,” Vindman testified.
Republican Representative Jim Jordan, a Trump ally, told Vindman that his White House bosses had questioned his judgment, but Vindman read from a July employee evaluation by National Security Council official Fiona Hill that called him “brilliant” and said he exercises “excellent judgment.”
Ahead of the July call, Trump had frozen $391 million in U.S. security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. Trump was seeking a Ukrainian investigation of Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and Biden’s son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm called Burisma.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and attacked the Democrats leading the inquiry.
‘DOMESTIC POLITICAL MATTER’
Williams told the committee that Trump’s call with Zelenskiy was unusual because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.” She said the White House budget office had said Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, had directed that $391 million in security aid to Ukraine be put on hold and that she never learned why the assistance was later released in September.
Vindman said he discussed Trump’s July call with two people outside the White House, State Department official George Kent and a person in the intelligence community who he declined to identify. Vindman said both had the proper clearances and a “need to know” because they were involved in Ukraine policy.
Representative Adam Schiff, the committee’s Democratic chairman, noted Trump’s criticism of Williams and of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who testified in the impeachment inquiry on Friday. Schiff also noted the “scurrilous attacks” on Vindman’s character.
At one point, Schiff interrupted Nunes’ questioning of Vindman that appeared to be aimed at revealing the identity of the intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s July 25 call triggered the impeachment inquiry. The whistleblower’s identity has remained a secret, but Trump and his allies have repeatedly attacked the individual.
“These proceedings will not be used to out the whistleblower,” Schiff said.
Two other witnesses were scheduled to testify later on Tuesday: Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and former National Security Council Russia expert Tim Morrison.
Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Idrees Ali, Susan Cornwell, David Morgan, Richard Cowan and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Alistair Bell