WASHINGTON (CN) – Inside the situation room in July, a decorated Army colonel and a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence listened in on U.S. President Donald Trump’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodomyr Zelensky and grew concerned at what they heard.
Some four months later, the two high-profile witnesses — Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and Pence’s special adviser for Europe and Russia Jennifer Williams — appeared Tuesday at the magisterial Longworth Building where they told House lawmakers about what in the July 25 call so disturbed them.
“It was inappropriate. It was improper for the president to request, to demand an investigation into a political opponent — especially a foreign power where there’s at best dubious belief that this would be a completely impartial investigation,” Vindman, decked in his medallion-decorated Army uniform, said this morning in his first public appearance in the impeachment inquiry. “It would have significant implications if it became public knowledge and would be seen as a partisan play, undermining foreign policy and our national security.”
Representative Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, noted in his opening statement this morning that the witnesses testifying today are offering firsthand accounts of a call they heard live.
“After the call, multiple individuals, including Vindman, were concerned enough to report it to the National Security Council’s top lawyer,” Schiff said. “It was the second time in two weeks that Vindman had raised concerns with the NSC lawyers.”
That testimony earned Vindman a whisper campaign by House Republicans to discredit him as somehow more loyal to Ukraine than to the United States. The dual loyalty accusation against a decorated Purple Heart recipient instantly drew allegations of anti-Semitic innuendo.
Asked point-blank whether they knew of any evidence of wrongdoing by former Vice President Joe Biden in Ukraine, Vindman and Williams left no room for confusion Tuesday.
“I did not,” said Vindman, who is director for European Affairs at the National Security Council.
“No, I did not,” Williams echoed.
Trump claims that he asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens because of a corruption scheme involving the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Not a single witness so far has corroborated that theory, and several have contradicted it. Democrats accuse Trump of attempting to bribe Ukraine’s president with military assistance if he would gin up a bogus investigation against his political opponent.
Vindman and Williams offered their insights on the heels of a Thursday press conference where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the testimony to date has corroborated evidence of bribery by President Trump.
Republican Representative John Ratcliffe responded Tuesday with a lengthy diatribe about the speaker’s language. “That evidence is invisible,” the Kentucky congressman said.
Moments later, Schiff called a point of order.
“Bribery does involve quid pro quo,” he said. “It does involve an official act in exchange for something of value. It could be a White House meeting, it could be $400 million in military aid. It could be investigations into a political rival. We don’t ask fact witnesses to make judgments about whether crime or bribery has been committed or what the founders had in mind when they itemized bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. That’s our job to decide.”
During her testimony Tuesday, Williams described how Pence was suddenly removed in May from a U.S. delegation to Zelensky’s inauguration that he was supposed to lead.
Trump was in Japan at the time, and generally the president and vice president do not leave the country at the same time, Williams said Tuesday.
When she asked her superiors why Pence was officially pulled off the delegation after weeks of preparation, however, she was told only that it was at Trump’s direction.
“I don’t know the reason why the president directed the vice president not to go to Ukraine,” Williams said.
Pence and Zelensky finally met in Poland on Sept. 1. Aid from the U.S. to Ukraine had been delayed for weeks by that time, and it was the very first thing Zelensky brought up when he saw the vice president.
Zelensky had learned about the freeze courtesy of a Politico news report. Williams testified that Zelensky seemed alarmed.
“He explained that equal with financial and physical value, it was the symbolic nature of the assistance that was important,” Williams said today. “It was a show of support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The national-security threat posed by Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine is a dimension Democrats have highlighted repeatedly since the start of hearings. That anxiety was emphasized Tuesday as Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman questioned Williams.
“If the U.S. was withholding aid, would Russia see that as a sign of weakening U.S. support for Ukraine?” asked Goldman, a former prosecutor from the Southern District of New York.
Williams said this appeared to be precisely what Zelensky was indicating.
“Any sign that U.S. support was wavering would be construed by Russia essentially as an opportunity for them to strength their own hand in Ukraine,” she said.
Ultimately, Pence explained the delay to Zelensky as more or less temporary, though U.S. support was strong.
Pence also told Zelensky the U.S. wanted other European countries to “step up and provide assistance as well,” Williams said.
Pence promised the Ukrainian president he would convey Zelensky’s concerns to Trump by phone. Pence and Trump spoke that night.
“I wasn’t privy to that conversation,” Williams said.
It would be another 10 days after that phone call before assistance was finally released.
Toward the end of his opening statement, Vindman reflected upon his family’s escape from the former Soviet Union when he was 3 years old to a country, the United States, where he could “live free” and testify today.
“Dad, I’m sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol,” Vindman said, concluding his remarks with a stirring and personal soliloquy. “Talking to elected professionals is proof you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and seek a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Later, lawmakers asked Vindman why he felt he could rest in that belief.
“Because this is America,” Vindman said. “This is a country I have served and defended. Here, rights matters.”
A momentary round of applause rang out in the chamber.
Another official on the line for the Trump-Zelensky call was Williams, who had been serving as Pence’s point person for U.S. policy in the region and meetings with foreign leaders.
“For her part, Williams also believed that asking Zelensky to undertake these political investigations was inappropriate, and that it might explain something else she had become aware of — the otherwise inexplicable hold on U.S. military assistance to Ukraine,” Schiff said.
Echoing her frank assessment in private testimony that Trump’s phone call with Zelensky was “unusual and inappropriate,” Williams emphasized today for the public that the call was “unusual because it discussed a domestic political matter.”
Though her 14-year diplomatic career included service to both Democratic and Republican administrations before landing in the inner circle of the Trump White House, Williams earned a presidential tweet over the weekend that attacked her as a “Never Trumper.”
Just as Schiff did last week with Trump’s attack on Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, the chairman would not let the message go without notice.
“Ms. Williams, we all saw the president’s tweet about you on Sunday afternoon and the insults he hurled at Ambassador Yovanovich last Friday,” Schiff said. “You are here today, and the American people are grateful.”
Before landing in the inner circle of the Trump White House, Williams served both Democratic and Republican administrations in her 14-year diplomatic career.
One of President Trump’s most staunch allies, Representative Jim Jordan, meanwhile confronted Vindman with similar language, asking the lieutenant colonel if he would call himself a “Never-Trumper.”
“Sir, I’ve called myself never-partisan,” Vindman told the Ohio Republican.
The coordinated effort by a handful of Republicans to cast doubt on Vindman’s credibility fired up Representative Jim Himes for several tense moments Tuesday.
A Connecticut Democrat, Himes took particular aim at his California colleague, Representative Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the committee.
Himes said Nunes should be ashamed for insinuating that Vindman leaked sensitive matters to the media to denigrate the White House or any other branch of government he has faithfully served.
Noting the Purple Heart on Vindman’s lapel as he spoke, Himes urged the veteran to disregard attacks that come “wrapped up in a Brooks Brothers suit.”
Vindman testified privately in October that Trump’s implicit demand for a Ukrainian investigation into his likely political rival Joe Biden was unmistakable.
“The power disparity between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine is vast, and, you know, in the president asking for something, it became — there was — in return for a White House meeting, because that’s what this was about,” Vindman testified on Oct. 29.