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

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 came under the most intense criticism from Republicans of any impeachment witness to date. 

Republicans asked Vindman 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 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 United States and Ukraine. 

“I think it would be a great honor … but I’m an American,” Vindman said. “I immediately dismissed these offers, did not entertain them.”

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

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.”

“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 Volodmyr Zelensky to publicly announce that his government was investigating former Vice President Joe Biden — a top rival for the presidency — and his son Hunter Biden’s position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Vindman, a recipient of the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in the Iraq War by an improvised explosive device, appeared before the committee in his full dress blues.

He 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 to 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. 

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 at 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.

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, R-Calif., when he called him “Mr. Vindman.”

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

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In this photo posted on the U.S. Embassy Kiev Twitter account on May 31, 2019, National Security Council Director for European Affairs Alexander Vindman prepares to lay flowers in honor of fallen Ukrainian soldiers. (U.S. Embassy Kiev Twitter account via AP)
National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

The first witnesses who were on the July 25th phone call that’s at the center of the impeachment inquiry to publicly testify are Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer and national security council staffer, and Jennifer Williams, a career foreign service officer stationed in the Vice President’s office.

Appearing in uniform, Vindman expressed to lawmakers his alarm at what he described as a concerted effort by Trump’s allies to bend U.S. policy in Ukraine to personally benefit Trump.

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) LT COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, SAYING:

"I was concerned by the call, what I heard was improper, and I reported my concerns to Mr. Eisenberg. It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent. It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermine U.S. national security, and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region."

Williams, a State Department official assigned to Mike Pence's team, testified that she found the call unusual.

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) AIDE TO VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE, JENNIFER WILLIAMS, SAYING:

"I found the July 25th phone call unusual because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter."

Vindman also described a meeting between Ukrainian officials and US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland and national security advisor John Bolton.

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) LT COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, SAYING:

"We fully anticipated the Ukrainians would raise the issue of a meeting between the two presidents. Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short when Ambassador Sondland started to speak about the requirement that Ukraine deliver specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with President Trump. Following this meeting, there was a short debriefing during which Ambassador Sondland emphasized the importance of Ukraine delivering the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma. I stated to Ambassador Sondland that this was inappropriate and had nothing to do with national security."

Vindman, a Ukrainian-born American citizen and decorated Iraq war veteran, has been the subject of attacks by Trump’s allies, and called a Never Trumper by the president. On Tuesday, Vindman added a personal note at the end of his opening statement.

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, SAYING:

"Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to United State of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth."

When questions shifted to the Republicans, ranking Republican Devin Nunes used his time to find out the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint sparked the inquiry than defending the president's alleged misdeeds.

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) REP. DEVIN NUNES, SAYING:

"Lt. Col. Vindman did you discuss the July 25th phone call with anyone outside the White House on July 25th or the 26th, and if so, with whom?"

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) LT COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, SAYING:

"Yes, I did….an individual in the intelligence community."

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) REP. DEVIN NUNES, SAYING:

"As you know…the intelligence community has 17 different agencies. What agency was this individual from?"

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) REP. ADAM SCHIFF, SAYING::

“If I could interject here. We don’t want to use these proceedings…We need to protect the whistleblower. I want to make sure there is no effort to out the whistleblower throughout these proceedings.”

Nunes also pushed an unfounded theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) REP. DEVIN NUNES, SAYING:

“In these depositions and hearings Republicans have cited numerous instances of Ukraine meddling in the 2016 elections to oppose the Trump campaign."

Under questioning from the Democrats’ side, Vindman shot that down.

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL DANIEL GOLDMAN, SAYING:

“Are you also aware that Vladimir Putin had promoted this theory of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election?”

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, SAYING:

“I am well aware of that fact.”

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL DANIEL GOLDMAN, SAYING:

“And ultimately which country did the U.S. intelligence services determine to have interfered in the 2016?”

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, SAYING:

“It’s the consensus of the entire intelligence community that the Russians interfered in U.S. elections in 2016.”

More witnesses are expected to testify throughout the week.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, National Security Council Director for European Affairs takes a break as he testifies during a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from Jennifer Williams, adviser to Vice President Mike Pence for European and Russian affairs, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, during the third day of open hearings in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump, who House Democrats say withheld U.S. military aid for Ukraine in exchange for Ukrainian investigations of his political rivals. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin - Pool/Getty Images)
National Security Council Director for European Affairs Alexander Vindman arrives for a closed-door deposition at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on October 29, 2019. - Vindman plans to tell Congress Tuesday that he witnessed efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate President Donald Trump's rival Joe Biden, and that he reported it as a national security risk. Vindman will be the first White House official to testify to the House impeachment inquiry that Trump and allied diplomats improperly pressured the Ukraine government to open investigations designed to help Trump politically. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a military officer at the National Security Council, center, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, to appear before a House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Committee on Oversight and Reform joint interview with the transcript to be part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a military officer at the National Security Council, center, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, to appear before a House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Committee on Oversight and Reform joint interview with the transcript to be part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a military officer at the National Security Council, center, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, to appear before a House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Committee on Oversight and Reform joint interview with the transcript to be part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a military officer at the National Security Council, center, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, to appear before a House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Committee on Oversight and Reform joint interview with the transcript to be part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 29: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director of European affairs at the National Security Council, arrives in the Capitol Visitor Center for his deposition related to the House's impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images),
National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman leaves the hearing room during a break from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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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 newly elected Zelensky last April.

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.

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 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 and 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.”

Nunes 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.

Democrats say that the whistleblower’s Aug. 12 complaint has been verified and corroborated by multiple public witnesses, and 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 overseeing Europe and Eastern Europe at 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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