Two experts on Ukraine who listened in on President Donald Trump’s phone call with the former Soviet republic’s new leader testified Tuesday on the third day of House Democrats’ public impeachment hearings.
The impeachment inquiry sprang from allegations that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during that call to investigate the Ukrainian business dealings of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s son in exchange for nearly $400 million in American military aid.
The witnesses’ testimony touched on the conduct of Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, regarding Ukrainian energy company Burisma, which employed the younger Biden; Democrats’ accusation that Trump committed bribery; and Ukraine’s offer to one of the witnesses to serve in a high-ranking government position.
The witnesses Tuesday morning before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence were Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director of European affairs at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, Vice President Mike Pence’s special adviser on Europe and Russia. Both Vindman and Williams listened in on the Trump-Zelenskyy call.
Testifying in the afternoon were Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine, and Timothy Morrison, the National Security Council’s former senior director for Europe and Russia.
Here are seven big moments from the day.
1. ‘Improper,’ ‘Unusual’ but Not ‘Bribery’
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made waves last week by asserting that Trump was guilty of bribery. While two witnesses criticized what Trump said on the call to Zelenskyy, neither used the word bribery.
Nor have any other witnesses so far, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, noted as he placed 3,500 pages of testimony on the desk in front of him:
Six weeks of witness interviews in this impeachment inquiry, hundreds of hours of testimony, thousands of questions asked, thousands of answers given. The number of times that witnesses have used the term ‘bribery’ or ‘bribed’ to describe President Trump in the last six weeks of this inquiry is zero. …
In fact, in these 3,500 pages of sworn deposition testimony in just these 10 transcripts released thus far, the word ‘bribery’ appears in these 3,500 pages exactly one time. And, ironically, it appears not in description of President Trump’s alleged conduct. It appears in relation to Vice President Biden’s alleged conduct.
Vindman testified that he didn’t approve of Trump discussing the Bidens with Zelenskyy in the July 25 call because of what he called a “power disparity,” meaning Ukraine’s heavy reliance on the United States to defend itself against Russia.
“I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate,” Vindman testified. “It is improper for the president of the United States to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent.”
Democrats’ counsel, Daniel Goldman, later asked Vindman: “After this call, did you ever hear from any Ukrainians either in the United States or Ukraine about any pressure that they felt to do these investigations that President Trump demanded?”
Vindman responded, “Not that I can recall.”
Williams said she asked that a summary of the call be included in a briefing book that the vice president’s staff prepared for Pence.
“I found the July 25 phone call unusual because in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter,” Williams said, adding:
After the July 25 call, I provided an update in the vice president’s daily briefing book indicating President Trump had a call that day with President Zelenskyy. A hard copy of the memorandum transcribing the call was also included in the book. I do not know whether the vice president reviewed my update or the transcript. I did not discuss the July 25 call with the vice president or any of my colleagues in the office of the vice president or the NSC.
Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asked why the word “Burisma,” the name of the Ukrainian energy firm that paid Hunter Biden as a board member, appeared in Vindman’s notes but not in the White House transcript of the call released in September.
Vindman told Schiff that it was “not a significant omission” from the official transcript.
Williams and Vindman both described the White House transcript as “substantively correct.”
Ratcliffe asked both witnesses about Pelosi’s bribery allegation against Trump.
“I’ve word-searched each of your transcripts and the word ‘bribery’ or ‘bribed’ doesn’t appear anywhere in that,” Ratcliffe said. “Ms. Williams, you’ve never used the word ‘bribery’ or ‘bribed’ to explain President Trump’s conduct, correct?”
Williams answered, “No sir.”
Ratcliffe: “Col. Vindman, you haven’t either?”
Vindman: “That is correct.”
2. Not Aware of Hunter Biden
Vindman testified that he thought it was improper for Trump to ask Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. But he said during an exchange with Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif, the panel’s senior Republican, that he wasn’t aware of details regarding Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma or actions by the former vice president related to Ukraine.
“Did you know that financial records show a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma, routed more than $3 million to American accounts tied to Hunter Biden?” Nunes asked.
Vindman replied: “I’m not aware of this fact. … I guess I didn’t independently look into it. I’m just not aware of what kind of payments Mr. Biden may have received.”
Nunes: “Did you know Burisma’s American legal representatives met with American officials just days after Vice President Biden forced the firing of the country’s chief prosecutor?”
Vindman: “I’m not aware of these meetings.”
Nunes: “Did you know that Burisma lawyers pressured the State Department in February 2016 after the raid [of the home of Burisma chief Mykola Zlochevsky] and a month before the firing of [prosecutor Viktor] Shokin, that they invoked Hunter Biden’s name as a reason to intervene?”
Vindman: “I’m not aware of any of these facts.”
Nunes: “Did you know that Joe Biden called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at least three times in February 2016 after the president and owner of Burisma’s home was raided on Feb. 2 by the state prosecutor’s office?”
This was a reference to the raid at Zlochevsky’s residence.
Vindman replied only: “I’m aware of the fact that Vice President Biden was very engaged on Ukraine.”
During questioning by Republican counsel Steve Castor about whether Hunter Biden was qualified to serve on the Burisma board, Vindman testified: “As far as I can tell, he didn’t seem to be. I don’t know his qualifications.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., later asked whether Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma when his father was vice president dealing with Ukraine policy presented the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Vindman responded: “Certainly the potential, yes.”
Williams responded: “Yes.”
Schiff so far has rejected requests from Republican members to subpoena Hunter Biden.
Volker testified that he didn’t personally view investigating Burisma as tantamount to investigating Joe Biden.
Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, saw it differently, he said.
“Mayor Giuliani raised and I rejected the conspiracy theory that Vice President Biden would have been influenced in his duties as vice president by money paid to his son,” Volker said.
“As I have previously testified, I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years. He is an honorable man and I hold him in the highest regard. At no time was I aware of, or knowingly took part in, an effort to encourage Ukraine to investigate Vice President Biden.”
3. President and Talking Points
Goldman, the Democratic counsel, suggested when questioning Vindman that Trump committed a major breach by not following talking points for the call drafted by Vindman, an official assigned to the National Security Council.
Vindman essentially responded that the president, an elected official, sets policy.
“As you listened to the call, did you observe whether President Trump was following the talking points based on the official U.S. policy?” Goldman asked.
Vindman responded: “Counsel, the president could choose to use the talking points or not. He’s the president. But they were not consistent with what I provided.”
4. ‘Comical’ Offer of Defense Minister Job
The Ukrainian-born Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union when he was a boy, revealed to the committee that he declined three offers to serve as Ukraine’s defense minister.
The Army lieutenant colonel said Alex Danylyuk, a former aide to Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, made the job offer to him. He called the job offers “comical.”
The topic came up when Castor, the committee’s Republican counsel, asked about it.
“Do you know any reason why he asked you to do that?” Castor inquired.
Vindman said: “I don’t know, but every single time I dismissed it. Upon returning, I notified my chain of command and the appropriate counterintelligence folks about this offer.”
Castor noted that for a country at war with Russia, this was a huge government position, and wondered why Ukraine leaders made two follow-up offers to Vindman.
Vindman stressed that he never entertained the job offer:
The whole notion is rather comical, that I was being asked to consider whether I would want to be the minister of defense. I did not leave the door open at all. It is pretty funny for a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, which really isn’t that senior, to be offered that senior of a position.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., later expressed outrage that Ukraine’s offer of a top position for Vindman had been raised by Republicans’ counsel.
“They have accused you of espionage and dual loyalties. We’ve seen [in] this room this morning the three minutes that were spent asking you about the offer made to make you the minister of defense,” Himes said. “That may have come cloaked in a Brooks Brothers suit and parliamentary language, but that was designed exclusively to give the right-wing media an opening to question your loyalties. I want people to understand what that was all about. It’s the kind of thing you say when you’re defending the indefensible.”
5. Advice to Zelenskyy on Russia, U.S.
At one point, Schiff asked Vindman what he advised Zelenskyy in an in-person meeting during his visit to Ukraine in May for the new president’s inauguration as part of a U.S. delegation.
Vindman said he offered two pieces of advice—one pertaining to Russia, the other pertaining to the United States.
“The first [was] be particularly cautious with regards to Russia and its desire to provoke Ukraine and the second one was to stay out of U.S. domestic policy,” Vindman said.
Schiff: “You mean politics?”
Schiff: “Why did you feel it was necessary to advise President Zelenskyy to stay away from domestic politics?”
Vindman: “Chairman, in the March and April timeframe, it became clear there were public actors, nongovernmental actors that were promoting the idea of investigations and 2016 Ukrainian interference [in the U.S. presidential election]. It was consistent with U.S. policy to advise any country in my portfolio, all the countries in the world, to not participate in U.S. domestic politics. So, I was passing [along] the same advice consistent with U.S. policy.”
6. Volker: Trump Called Ukranians ‘Terrible People’
During his testimony in the afternoon, Volker explained that he and other U.S. officials who attended Zelenskyy’s inauguration informed Trump upon their return that he should support Ukraine’s new leader.
“The problem was that despite the unanimous positive assessment and recommendations of those of us who were part of the U.S. presidential delegation that attended the inauguration of President Zelenskyy, President Trump was receiving a different negative narrative about Ukraine and President Zelenskyy,” Volker testified. “That narrative was fueled by accusations from Ukraine’s then-prosecutor general [Yuriy Lutsenko], and conveyed to the president by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.”
Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, is one of Trump’s personal lawyers.
Volker said he and other officials urged Trump to invite Zelenskyy to Washington for a White House meeting, testifying:
The president was very skeptical. Given Ukraine’s history of corruption, that’s understandable. He said that Ukraine was a corrupt country filled with terrible people. He said ‘they tried to take me down.’
In the course of that conversation, he referenced conversations with Mayor Giuliani. … President Trump had a deeply rooted, negative view of Ukraine rooted in the past. He was receiving other information from other individuals, including Mayor Giuliani, that was more negative, causing him to retain this negative view.
Volker testified that he doesn’t believe that Zelenskyy or the Ukraine government was aware of the Trump administration’s hold on the nearly $400 million in congressionally approved military aid when Trump talked to Zelenskyy on the phone July 25:
I believe the Ukrainians became aware of the hold on Aug. 29 and not before. That date is the first time any of them asked me about the hold. Instead of telling them they needed to do something to get the relief, I told them the opposite. That they should not be alarmed, that it was an internal U.S. problem and we were working to get it fixed. I did not know others were conveying a different message to them around the same time.
7. Distraction From Real Concerns
Much is at stake in a secure and democratic Ukraine, Morrison said in his testimony.
“I feared at the time of the call on July 25 how this disclosure [of Trump’s interest in investigations] would play in Washington’s political climate. My fears have been realized,” Morrison told the committee, adding:
I understand the gravity of this proceeding, but I beg you not to lose sight of the military conflict underway in Eastern Ukraine today, the ongoing, [Russia’s] illegal occupation of Crimea, and the importance of reform of Ukraine’s politics and economy.
Every day that the focus of discussion involving Ukraine is centered on these proceeding instead of those matters is a day when we are not focused on the interest of Ukraine, the United States, and Western-style liberalism.
Morrison testified that Ukraine is on the “front lines of a strategic competition” against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“Russia is a failing power, but it is still a fierce one,” he said. “The United States aids Ukraine and her people so they can fight Russia over there and we don’t have to fight Russia here.
“Support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been a bipartisan objective since Russia’s military invasion in 2014. It must continue to be,” Morrison said.
Volker expressed similar views.
“If we can stop and reverse Russian aggression in Ukraine, we can prevent it elsewhere,” he said.