Impeachment Committees Release Insights From Nat-Sec Officials

Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a military officer at the National Security Council, center, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on 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. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (CN) – New transcripts released Friday from impeachment investigators allege that Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House Chief of Staff, signed off on making a White House visit for Ukraine’s president conditional on the country opening investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, his son and the 2016 presidential election.

The testimony was delivered last week behind closed doors by Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top National Security Council expert on Ukraine.

The House committees conducting the impeachment probe released Vindman’s testimony on Friday, hours after Mulvaney defied a subpoena to give testimony of his own.

Vindman testified that the Mulvaney information came from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.

The ambassador “just said that he had a conversation with Mr. Mulvaney, and this is what was required in order to get a meeting,” Vindman testified. 

Vindman listened into the infamous July 25 phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that launched the impeachment probe and he told lawmakers in closed-door testimony that he was “concerned by the call.”

He reported the concerns about the call to National Security Council attorneys and said he was worried if Ukraine opened investigations into Biden and his son, it would be seen as political and could undercut “bipartisan support” for Ukraine.

The committees also released testimony from Fiona Hill, a former senior official for Russia and Europe on the National Security Council who testified before the committees on Oct. 14.

Much of Vindman’s testimony focused on a July 10 meeting at the White House between top U.S. national security officials and their Ukrainian counterparts in which Sondland brought up the investigations being tied to a White House meeting for the Ukrainian president.

According to Vindman’s testimony, the Ukrainian officials mentioned their desire to schedule a White House meeting, at which point Sondland “alluded to the investigations.” Then-national security adviser John Bolten soon after stepped in and ended the meeting. In a debriefing later, Sondland said the intent to tie the White House meeting with the investigations came from a conversation with Mulvaney.

Vindman said he viewed the discussion of the investigations as inappropriate and potentially damaging if other countries thought they could advance their national security interests by conducting politically motivated investigations.

“I thought it was inappropriate to call a foreign power to investigate a U.S. citizen,” Vindman said, according to the transcript. “In my mind, I had spent quite a bit of time in that part of the world. I understand how the justice system works. It’s not a rule of law that governs.”

Vindman did acknowledge, however, that it is “very possible” Sondland did not think he was doing anything wrong by raising the investigations to the Ukrainians and that he was merely working to “normalize” relationships.

Former White House adviser on Russia, Fiona Hill, arrives on Capitol Hill on Oct. 14, 2019, to testify before congressional lawmakers as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Separate testimony the committees released Friday from Fiona Hill, a former senior official for Russia and Europe on the National Security Council, tracked with Vindman’s recollection of Sondland’s conduct.

Touching on the same meeting Vindman described, Hill said Energy Secretary Rick Perry had been discussing the need for Ukraine to reform their energy sector when Sondland “blurted out” that they could set up a White House visit if the Ukrainians opened investigations into the energy sector.

The investigation into Biden and his son that has become central to the impeachment inquiry concerns Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.

Hill testified that Bolton “immediately stiffened” when Sondland mentioned investigations and ended the meeting abruptly.

Sondland then invited the Ukrainians to a separate room in the White House to talk more about a potential White House meeting. Hill said Bolton then pulled her aside, telling her to go with them and report back on what they discussed.

Hill walked into the room in the middle of a discussion where Sondland was telling the Ukrainians that he and Mulvaney had a deal for them to get a White House meeting if they went forward with the investigations.

Hill says she cautioned Sondland about the promise and that Sondland then asked the Ukrainians to leave the room. When he told her about discussions he had with Mulvaney and brought up Rudy Giuliani, Hill says she cut him off.

“Look, we’re the National Security Council,” Hill said, as she recalled in her testimony. “We’re basically here to talk about how we set this up and we’re going to set this up in the right way. And, you know, Ambassador Bolton has asked me to make it completely clear that we’re going to talk about this and, you know, we will deal with this in the proper procedures.”

Hill said Sondland was “clearly annoyed” by the comments and said he had other meetings. Like Vindman, Hill reported her concerns to the National Security Council’s top attorney.

Hill painted an unkind picture of Sondland’s work and defended the ousted Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, saying she was the victim of “an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory” peddled by Giuliani and his associates, including the indicted businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.

“I understood this to be the result of the campaign that Mr. Giuliani had set in motion in conjunction with people who were writing articles and, you know, publications that I would have expected better of, and also, you know, just the constant drumbeat of these accusations that he was making on the television,” Hill testified.

Hill detailed how she slowly became aware, through press reports and Fox News appearances, of the role Giuliani had in Ukraine. She said when she brought up Giuliani’s efforts to oust Yovanovitch, Bolton referred to Giuliani as “a hand grenade that is going to blow everybody up.”

Both Hill and Vindman expressed concern about Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine that radiated through the U.S. national security community.

Hill testified that Yovanovitch’s removal had a significant impact both on morale within the foreign service and on U.S. policy in Ukraine. After a period of uncertainty, she said Sondland informed her and others on the National Security Council in late June that Trump had decreed that Sondland was going to take the lead on Ukraine.

The description Hill gave of Sondland’s handling of his responsibilities makes for a somewhat chaotic scene. She said Sondland regularly gave out the personal cellphone numbers of people on the National Security Council, inundating them will calls and messages from European officials who would sometimes show up at the White House gates.

Sondland also did not get detailed briefings on some of the people he was meeting with, which Hill described as “driving along with no guardrails and no GPS on an unfamiliar territory.” In her testimony, Hill mentioned specific names of officials whom Sondland met with, but the names are redacted.

Vindman also detailed the White House’s response to the July 25 phone call, including the decision to place a rough transcript of the call into a highly classified system. Relying on his notes, Vindman filled out to House investigators details he said were not included in the rough transcript, including Trump’s claim that “there are recordings” of Biden “bragging” that he stopped a prosecution into a Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.

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