National Security Official Alarmed by Ukraine Call Arrives to Testify

Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a military officer at the National Security Council, center, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday to appear before a House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Committee on Oversight and Reform for a joint interview in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) – What he heard firsthand on the call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine President Volodoymr Zelensky so alarmed Army Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman, he went straight to his superiors on the National Security Council to report it.

“As an active duty military officer, the command structure is extremely important to me,” Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient, will say Tuesday, reading a prepared statement during closed-door deposition with House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committee lawmakers conducting the Trump impeachment inquiry.

It was a “sense of duty and obligation” that Vindman says spurred him to red-flag the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call to NSC’s top attorney, John Eisenberg. 

“I was concerned by the call. I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine,” Vindman will say Tuesday. “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained.”

Vindman’s remarks refer to former Vice President Joe Biden, Biden’s son Hunter, and Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy company that once counted Hunter as a board member.

According to his opening remarks, Vindman’s report to Eisenberg following the call was in fact the second time the lieutenant colonel sought Eisenberg out. 

On July 10, after the secretary of national security and defense council for Ukraine, Oleksandr Danylyuk, met with then national security adviser John Bolton, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and U.S. ambassadors Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, things were going very smoothly – until they weren’t.

Ambassador Sondland shifted the discussion to Ukraine “delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the president,” Vindman will testify.

A reportedly fuming Bolton abruptly ended the meeting at that point. In the moments after, Vindman testifies he warned Sondland directly that his statements were “inappropriate” and that the request for Ukraine to deliver investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma were not matters of national security.

Fiona Hill, Trump’s former adviser on Russia and Europe, then entered the room.

According to Vindman’s opening statement, Hill also told Sondland his statements were out of line.

While Vindman’s testimony corroborates the account of events to which Hill testified earlier this month, it also casts a massive shadow of doubt over Sondland.

Sondland told lawmakers on Oct. 17 that no one, including Bolton and Hill, “harbored any misgivings about the propriety of what we were doing.”

“They never shared those misgivings with me, then or later,” Sondland said. “We had regular communications with the NSC about Ukraine, both before and after the July meeting; and neither Ambassador Bolton, Dr. Hill, nor anyone else on the NSC staff ever expressed any concerns to me about our efforts, any complaints about coordination between State and the NSC, or, most importantly, any concerns that we were acting improperly. Furthermore, my boss Secretary Pompeo was very supportive of our Ukraine strategy.”

Vindman’s remarks also line up with testimony delivered to Congress by Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

Taylor told lawmakers last week that both Vindman and Hill described the meeting with Sondland to him, and that Sondland tied the investigations sought by Trump to an Oval Office meeting for Zelensky.

Vindman, who received a Purple Heart after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq, is the first White House official who listened in on the July 25 call to testify.

On Tuesday, Trump lashed out at the active military member.

“Supposedly, according to the Corrupt Media, the Ukraine call ‘concerned’ today’s Never Trumper witness” Trump tweeted. “Was he on the same call that I was? Can’t be possible! Please ask him to read the Transcript of the call. Witch hunt!”

It was the second time in an hour that Trump alluded to Vindman. 

“How many more Never Trumpers will be allowed to testify about a perfectly appropriate phone call when all anyone has to do is READ THE TRANSCRIPT!” the president wrote. “I knew people were listening in on the call (why would I say something inappropriate?), which is fine with me, but why so many?”

No transcript of the call has been made public. To date the White House has released only a summary.

In his opening remarks, Vindman clarifies that he is not the whistleblower at the center of the inquiry and appears before the committee voluntarily. Vindman will  also say he has not had any direct contact with the president. 

Vindman’s opening remarks were first obtained by The New York Times late Monday. According to related documents that the news organization reviewed exclusively, Vindman also plans to tell lawmakers that he drafted a memo to restart military aid to Ukraine, at Bolton’s direction in mid-August, but Trump refused to sign it.

Vindman also reportedly plans to tell lawmakers he has experienced some level of retaliation since August. The Times reported Monday that documents Vindman is providing to the committee indicate he was cast out of important meetings and diplomatic trips, including one to Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

While Vindman testified in the House, Senate Republican leadership members met for a press conference.

Fielding questions from reporters, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wouldn’t comment on Vindman’s patriotism or the loyalty of any of the other people coming forward to testify for lawmakers.

But McConnell didn’t hold back on criticism for the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, which he suggested Tuesday was part of a larger, long-simmering ulterior motive.

“The first headline I saw when he was elected was ‘The Impeachment Process is Beginning’ or something like that. This is further evidence of what they had in mind from the very beginning,” McConnell said.

The full House is expected to vote Thursday on a resolution that will open the inquiry more publicly and set guidelines around standards and procedures for interviews, the handling of transcripts and more.

“We’ll see what the House comes up with,” McConnell said. “It’s about how they deal with the case. Not the merits of it, but the process. We’ll see if what the House comes up with passes the smell test for due process protections that President Trump and his team are entitled to just like President Clinton was and President Nixon.”

McConnell also expressed doubt that House Democrats would be able to corral enough votes once the final resolution goes to the floor.

“We’ll see whether they actually open it,” he said. “It will be a very interesting vote.”

Speaking at his own press conference Tuesday, Schumer defended the witness.

“Vindman made a very strong case that what the president did happened, and it was very, very wrong. Sometimes you wonder how low this president can go and he just keeps going lower and lower. And some of my colleagues will follow him,” Schumer said. “Last night, someone accused Vindman of espionage. A man who has a Purple Heart and served us in Iraq.”

In response to Republicans who criticized the procedural aspect of the inquiry, Schumer said House Speaker Pelosi addressed those objections when agreeing to hold a vote in the House.

“When you’re in the gym, you hear Republicans talk about Trump a lot differently,” Schumer said, adding that Democrats merely want a fair proceeding. “We hope McConnell will talk to we Democrats about how to do it.”

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