WASHINGTON (CN) – As the impeachment inquiry focused Tuesday on two live witnesses to President Donald Trump’s phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, Senator Tim Kaine’s thoughts circled on a different phone call that Trump had with Russian President Vladimir Putin some five days later.
“What are the chances that in that call [Trump] didn’t say, ‘Oh, and by the way, I canceled military aide to Ukraine,” Kaine asked, speaking to Courthouse News in a lengthy interview that spanned elevators, escalators, hallways and one subway car between the U.S. Capitol and the Rayburn House Office Building.
Skeptical about the fact that Trump and Putin’s chat had been “advertised” as one about Siberian wildfires, the Virginia Democrat is curious about what other topics the U.S. and Russian leaders may have broached.
“Oh, by the way, I’ve instructed Brad Lighthizer not to do a trade deal with Ukraine,” the former vice-presidential candidate intoned, citing news reports about Trump’s orders to the U.S. trade representative. “Oh, by the way, I’m about to cancel $800 million in military construction projects that support NATO in Europe, to take the money into the wall.”
“What are the chances in that call that he did not say those things?” Kaine asked. “I think getting that transcript is really important, and I hope at the House that they’re trying to do that.”
As the former running-mate of ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kaine had an intimate perspective on the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. House leaders have made clear that they view the Trump administration’s actions in Ukraine as a continuation of those attempts to undermine the integrity of U.S. democracy.
In describing Trump’s Ukraine scandal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been fond of telling reporters: “All roads lead to Putin.”
Asked whether he agreed with that assessment, Kaine kept an open mind: “That’s unclear, and actually, that needn’t be the case for this to be problematic — because trying to get Ukraine to be engaged in an attempt to hack our election is bad enough.”
The Democrat had been referring to a narrative advanced by Trump and Republican legislators recasting the culprits of 2016 electoral shenanigans as the United States’ Ukrainian allies rather than its Russian adversaries.
House Democrats note that Putin advanced that narrative himself at a 2017 press conference, one impeachment witnesses have described as a disinformation campaign meant to pull Ukraine into the Kremlin’s zone of influence.
As for Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, Kaine said last week’s testimony in the House “fleshed out” that the conversation “was really a scheme, a bribery scheme.” The senator had not yet been briefed on this morning’s testimony by press time, but he made clear that today’s witnesses — National Security Council aide Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and Vice President Mike Pence’s adviser Jennifer Williams — had hardly been the only witnesses with firsthand testimony.
President Trump offered some himself in the rough transcript that he made public.
“That critique that it was hearsay has never been effective because it was the president who put the memorandum in our hands and said, ‘This is what the call was about,’” Kaine said, as the congressional subway whizzed on its course. “So, even if you assume that the memorandum was the most sanitized, best possible version of the call, and that version was horrible, was absolutely horrible.”
House Republicans spent the better part of the morning session tearing into Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient who fled Soviet oppression as a toddler with his family.
Representative Devin Nunes, the ranking member of the committee, went so far as to suggest — without getting specific — that Vindman may want to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Offending the combat veteran, Nunes at one point addressed the witness as “Mr. Vindman.”
“Ranking member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman,” the witness shot back.
Other House Republicans followed suit: Representative Jim Jordan peppered Vindman with a series of questions about an intelligence officer with whom he spoke about the Trump-Zelensky call. Schiff emphasized that doing so could compromise the confidentiality protections of the whistleblower.
Representative Ted Lieu, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Courthouse News en route to a meeting inside Speaker Pelosi’s office that the Republicans’ motivations were transparent.
“They’re freaked out a decorated, military combat veteran is telling the truth to the American people,” Lieu remarked. “They understand that the visual of him, in uniform, telling the truth is devastating to the president of the United States. They’re trying everything they can to smear him, and it’s not working.”
Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican on the Freedom Caucus, openly defended his colleagues’ attacks on the combat veteran.
“I don’t think it’s proper to conflate the testimony, beliefs or politics of one veteran to every single veteran,” Gaetz told reporters. “I represent more active-duty military than any member of Congress, and the most important accountability is to my constituents in uniform. They have diverse views.”
Senate Republicans have been far less willing to attack Vindman than their upstart counterparts in the House. South Dakota Senator John Thune, their No. 2, chastened his colleagues by saying of the colonel last month: “He’s a patriot.”
Another figure facing barbs from Republicans on Tuesday was the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment inquiry, with Nunes accusing the still-clandestine individual of having conducted media interviews.
The whistleblower’s lawyer Andrew Bakaj rejected the assertion in an email.
“None,” said Bakaj, with Compass Rose Legal Group, going on to explain that members of the intelligence community like his client need department clearance to communicate with the press.
“Representative Nunes’ comment is absolutely irresponsible and he knows better,” said Bakaj, who represents the whistleblower along with attorney Mark Zaid.
Bakaj said the Republicans’ efforts could be better spent.
“I suggest Mr. Nunes start focusing on addressing facts as opposed to using a public hearing to espouse lies about my client,” he said. “I will not allow Mr. Nunes – or any other member of Congress – to use my client as a part of a desperate and deliberate misinformation strategy.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Representative Peter Welch raised a question for Trump about his perceived motive in delaying aid to Ukraine.
“You want to investigate Joe Biden? Hunter Biden? Do it. Do it hard. Do it dirty. Do it the way you do. Do it,” said Welch, a Vermont Democrat. “Just don’t do it by asking a foreign leader to help you in your campaign. That’s your job, not his.”