Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman went up to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and said under oath that his boss, the President, did something wrong.
That may be the most remarkable and unique thing that happened in a day that left anyone who is paying attention awash in new developments.
The immigrant American and career soldier said he was “never partisan” rather than a “Never Trumper,” as President Donald Trump has alleged. He was frustrated by the “false narratives” being pushed toward Trump by Rudy Giuliani for the President’s political gain.
Proud of his service, he reminded the ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, to refer to him as “Lieutenant Colonel” rather than “Mister.” Nunes obliged.
Vindman talked about reassuring his father, who was raised in the then-Soviet Union, where questioning authority could have led to death. It won’t save Vindman from criticism; the White House Twitter account, the official account for the place where he’ll go back to work tomorrow, questioned his judgment.
But here, a midlevel officer can, through the chain of command, stand up to the most powerful person in the world.
‘Here right matters’
How do you have that confidence, he was asked by a Democratic lawmaker.
“Congressman, because this is America,” Vindman said. “This is the country I served and defended, that all my brothers have served, and here right matters.”
The patriot who came to the US from the Soviet Union sees a very big problem in asking the Ukrainian President for the favor of investigating the Bidens. The US President does not.
There are plenty of takeaways from today’s testimony, which probably left you awash in details about the July 10 meeting and the July 25 call and the meetings between then-US Special Envoy Kurt Volker and Rudy Giuliani and Vindman’s performance review and why Pence’s call with Zelensky is classified but Trump’s is not.
But that’s mine. We talked a lot about this element on the Impeachment Watch podcast today. I was joined by David Sanger of The New York Times and Kylie Atwood of CNN. We discussed how nonpartisan civil servants have at times objected to Trump’s attempts to use the mechanism of the US government to pursue conspiracy theories. Listen to that here.
One weird thing: Vindman got a job offer
Vindman testified that a Ukrainian aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky had offered him the position of defense minister three separate times. Vindman took it as a joke and reported it up the chain of command. Republicans, including Trump adviser Dan Scavino, have tried to use this detail without the second part — that Vindman didn’t take the offer seriously and reported it to his superiors.
‘In retrospect …’ Kurt Volker changes his story
CNN’s Kylie Atwood points out that Volker told lawmakers that he had drawn a “sharp distinction” between Burisma and Joe Biden, but now admits that he had been wrong to view them separately.
‘I would have raised my own objections’
“In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company, ‘Burisma,’ as equivalent to investigating former Vice President Biden. I saw them as very different. The former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable,” Volker said in his opening statement. “In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.”
With regard to the efforts he was undertaking at the time, Volker believed that encouraging Ukrainians to make a statement on Burisma did not mean Biden.
“At no time was I aware of or knowingly took part in an effort to urge Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Biden,” Volker said.
Volker resigned after call transcript was released
Volker stepped down from his voluntary post as special envoy days after the transcript of the July 25 call was released in September and the documents he provided to impeachment investigators largely corroborated the whistleblower’s testimony.
That he now says he should have raised his own objections about what was going on seems extremely consequential.
Four reviews of the July 25 call
- Vindman is not the whistleblower who set this impeachment inquiry in motion, and Democrats shut down Republicans who tried to suss out exactly who he had discussed the July 25 phone call with. They want to protect the whistleblower’s anonymity. But Vindman gets no such protection. He was in public and on the record as the person who had raised concerns in real time that something inappropriate was happening. He did that both after the July 10 meeting and after the pivotal July 25 call. We heard today from four people who listened in while Trump pressured Zelensky. Only one had no concerns.
- Tim Morrison, Vindman’s superior at the National Security Council at the time, didn’t see anything wrong with what Trump said, but he felt it could be damaging if it became public. He was right. For that reason he too went to NSC attorneys.
- Jennifer Williams, a State Department official detailed to Vice President Mike Pence’s staff, said the call was “unusual” and concerned her because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.” But she didn’t raise those concerns with anyone.
- In a written statement about Williams’ testimony — he said it was factual but steered clear of praising her performance — her boss at Pence’s office, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who had also been on the call, is the only person to say today that there was nothing wrong with it. “I heard nothing wrong or improper on the call. I had and have no concerns.”
Volker and Morrison are Republicans’ witnesses
CNN’s Kevin Liptak points out that as Morrison and Volker recount their concerns about the parallel track of diplomacy in Ukraine meant to surface dirt on the Bidens, it’s worth remembering they are the witnesses who Republicans — not Democrats — wanted to hear from in the impeachment inquiry.
It’s notable because their testimony is not entirely flattering to Trump. So far, they have described their unease at Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine and their skeptical view of efforts to launch an investigation into Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Joe Biden’s son Hunter sat.
Morrison was disappointed by the call
Morrison also noted that Trump’s reference to CrowdStrike and a Democratic computer server — both based in debunked conspiracy theories — were not part of his official preparatory talking points for the July phone call with Ukraine’s President.
“I was hoping for a more full-throated support for President Zelensky’s reform agenda,” he said.
Volker changed his story
Volker, too, has seemed to become a less favorable witness to Trump, given the changes to his account between his closed deposition and his public testimony.
GOP talking points had a rough day
After the first witness panel, CNN’s Chief Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin was asked for his assessment, and he said the sound you heard during the hearing was “Republican talking points disintegrating.”
He ticked through the main GOP defenses:
- There’s nothing to tie Trump to any of this — Vindman and Williams were concerned about US politics in Ukraine policy after the July 25 call, which ties Trump directly to the effort to pressure Zelensky
- The Ukrainians didn’t know there were conditions on support — In testimony about the July 10 meeting with Ukrainians at the White House, we heard that US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had made clear there were conditions and he did it in front of Ukrainians
- The aid was ultimately released, so there’s no wrongdoing — The aid was released after concerns were raised by Vindman and, later, the whistleblower
None of these witnesses seem happy to testify
Trump said at the White House that he’d never seen Vindman before. The message from Kellogg about Williams wasn’t exactly supportive. Morrison and Volker have left their positions. But these witnesses aren’t exactly happy to be testifying. All of them required subpoenas. All of them were happy to work, either currently or until very recently, for the President.
And that could ultimately be the most devastating element of these public hearings. These are people that seem tortured, in some cases, about telling the truth under oath. They all seem very … normal. And reasonable. And a good few of them are Republicans. Which may have something to do with the fact that Republicans have chosen not to attack them.
So it’s entirely possible that these hearings don’t lead to the sharing of unknown revelations but rather confirm the notion that Trump is testing the US government in very stressful ways that go beyond partisanship.
Coming Wednesday: Gordon Sondland
The main event of these hearings so far will come Wednesday, when the US ambassador to the EU testifies about his jogged memory, his loud phone conversations with Trump while in a Ukraine restaurant, the ultimatum he delivered to Ukrainians on September 1 in Warsaw, the “deliverables” he demanded on July 10 at the White House, exactly what investigations the President told him to pursue and so much more.
Sondland testifies at 9 a.m. In the afternoon, we’ll hear from Laura Cooper, a Pentagon official who will talk about the holdup and ultimate release of Ukraine security aid, and David Hale, another State Department official.
What are we doing here?
The President has invited foreign powers to interfere in the US presidential election. Democrats want to impeach him for it. It is a crossroads for the American system of government as the President tries to change what’s acceptable for US politicians. This newsletter will focus on this consequential moment in US history.