WASHINGTON (CN) – Republicans clamoring for so-called firsthand witnesses in the impeachment inquiry will get the genuine article Tuesday as National Security Council official Alex Vindman appears for the second week of public proceedings.
Vindman’s testimony is some of the most hotly anticipated, chiefly because of his proximity to the July 25 call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky.
A Purple Heart recipient, Vindman listened to the July 25 call from the White House Situation Room. Last month in closed deposition, the lieutenant colonel testified he was so alarmed by the impropriety of Trump’s request to Zelensky to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden — and the potential threat to national security such conditions imposed — he raised the alarm with John Eisenberg, senior counsel on the National Security Council.
Vindman will likely face extensive questions about the rough transcript of the July 25 call released by the White House in September. The summary omits several of the president’s own statements including mention of the Bidens and Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy firm where Hunter once sat on the board, Vindman told lawmakers in his closed-door session.
Following the disclosure Saturday of private testimony from Tim Morrison, former senior Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council, it is possible questions about the transcript will be a focal point for Republicans, too.
Morrison, according to the transcript, appeared to contradict Vindman when he said he could not recall whether Trump mentioned the Bidens or Burisma on the call.
Vindman’s testimony is poised to tighten the screws on ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, another key inquiry official, who testifies on Wednesday.
Sondland and Vindman attended a July 10 meeting together with Ukrainian officials at the White House. Vindman testified that Sondland asked the officials to launch investigations into Joe Biden in order to secure a meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office. This was the same meeting that reportedly prompted former national security adviser John Bolton to leave in an abrupt rage.
Lawmakers will have their chance to openly grill Vindman about Sondland, which is crucial considering that Sondland initially testified privately that he never thought military aid was delayed to Ukraine because the White House demanded it.
Sondland later changed course, however, conceding in a bombshell revised statement that he told Ukrainian officials aid would likely not flow until Ukraine publicly issued a so-called “anti-corruption” statement.
Anti-corruption — as corroborated by Sondland, Vindman, former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, former top adviser on Russia to the National Security Council Fiona Hill, deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs George Kent, ambassador William Taylor and others — was often generally used as a sort of shorthand for the request to open investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election.
Along with Vindman on Tuesday, lawmakers will hear from Jennifer Williams, Vice President Mike Pence’s special adviser on Europe and Russia. Over the weekend, Williams’ private deposition was made public, prompting backlash from President Trump on Twitter within 24 hours.
Williams, like Vindman, listened in on the July 25 call directly and described Trump’s request for investigations as “unusual and inappropriate.”
“I guess for me it shed some light on possible other motivation behind a security assistance hold,” the career foreign-service officer said.
Williams, like many other officials she said she observed that day, took notes during the call. She told lawmakers she would not have written “Burisma” down if the energy company hadn’t come up. Her recollection of Burisma being mentioned conflicts with the National Security Council’s Morrison who said in private that he did not recall whether Burisma was mentioned.
Testimony in the impeachment inquiry so far has put little attention on the role of Vice President Pence, but Williams’ testimony could change that.
The Office of the Vice President has been in lock-step with the White House in its refusal to respond to subpoenas or submit to House investigators requests for documents related to the July 25 call and records associated with a Sept. 1 delegation to Warsaw, Poland, where Pence met with Zelensky.
Williams, like many foreign-policy advisers working at the White House, is effectively on loan from the State Department. She was appointed by Pence’s national security adviser and retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg. Kellogg was also listening in on the July 25 call.
Lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee have not yet requested Kellogg appear. While it is uncertain if they will, Kellogg’s insights could clarify gaps in Williams’ recollection of events, like what happened to the complete readout of the July 25 call that went straight into a daily briefing book Williams kept for Pence.
Williams said she was unsure whether Pence ever reviewed the readout, but Kellogg and Pence met frequently for debriefing sessions where she was not present. Williams also recalled a July 9 meeting in Kellogg’s office that involved discussion of a Ukraine delegation to the United States. The meeting turned primarily on security assistance and Ukraine’s ability to negotiate conflict with neighboring aggressor Russia.
President Trump tweeted about Williams this weekend within 24 hours of her transcript being released.
“Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls & see the just released statement from Ukraine. Then she should meet with other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of & work out a better presidential attack!” Trump wrote. (Emphasis in original.)
Public hearings so far have regularly featured damning accounts of the president’s behavior and apparent intent with regard to Ukraine, as well as the unofficial U.S.-Ukraine outreach activities championed by Trumps’ personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. And while such testimony tends to undercut Trump’s assertion that his engagement with Zelensky was “perfect,” the president could find a new series of defensive talking points when former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker answers questions for investigators on Tuesday afternoon.
In private, Volker told lawmakers Ukrainian officials “never communicated a belief that there was a quid pro quo.” But in text messages between Volker, Sondland, Taylor and others that were released as the inquiry first got underway, Volker was unambiguous.
“Heard from white house – assuming president Z convinces trump he will investigate/‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016 we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” Volker wrote, referencing the White House visit dangled for Zelensky, a political neophyte who was a comedian before his election as president.
Volker resigned one day after the whistleblower report was first released.
Lawmakers will likely try to pin down whether Burisma or the Bidens were named in the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call when questioning the National Security Council figure Morrison on Tuesday. One topic that will certainly be explored at length is Morrison’s statement under oath that it was Trump who directed Sondland to seek out Ukrainian officials and discuss Burisma and the Bidens.
On Wednesday, after Sondland, lawmakers expect to hear from Laura Cooper, a Department of Defense official who oversees the processing of military aid assistance at the Pentagon. David Hale, the third-highest ranking official at the State Department, follows Cooper’s testimony.
As for witnesses sought by committee Republicans, last week the GOP requested appearances by former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, as well as the whistleblower who filed the complaint that triggered the inquiry. It is exceedingly unlikely House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff will acquiesce to either request.
Schiff has been adamant about preserving the whistleblower’s identity, and faced criticism for this position last week from Republican Representative Elise Stefanik as lawmakers interviewed ousted U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
Just before the House formalized the impeachment inquiry in October, Schiff said the whistleblower’s testimony was ultimately unnecessary since it would be redundant to the complaint at hand and since the contents of that complaint have already been widely corroborated by nearly a half-dozen Trump administration officials first in private and now in public.
Republicans have also called former Democratic National Committee staffer Alexandra Chalupa for testimony, as well as Nellie Ohr, an ex-contractor for GPS Fusion who has become a favorite Twitter target of President Trump. Republicans on the committee argue Chalupa and Ohr’s testimony is relevant to questions involving corruption in Ukraine, but Schiff’s response to the witness request noted the committee would not devolve into “a vehicle to undertake the same sham investigations into the Bidens or 2016 that the president pressed Ukraine into conducting for his personal political benefit.”