WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A top adviser to President Donald Trump on Ukraine testified on Tuesday that he was so alarmed after hearing Trump ask Ukraine’s president to investigate a political rival, Democrat Joe Biden, that he reported the matter to a White House lawyer out of concern for U.S. national security.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, director of European affairs on the National Security Council, arrived at the U.S. Capitol clad in his military dress uniform as he became the first current White House official to testify in the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry against Trump.
Vindman, a Ukraine-born American citizen and decorated Iraq War combat veteran, also became the first person to testify who listened in on the July 25 call at the heart of the Ukraine scandal. Even before his arrival, some allies of the Republican president, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham, sought to attack Vindman’s integrity and questioned his loyalty to the United States.
Biden defended Vindman as a hero, calling attacks on the Army officer’s character and loyalty “despicable.”
“He’s a hell of a patriot,” the former U.S. vice president told MSNBC.
During the call, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to face Trump, and his son Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma. Trump also asked Zelenskiy to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I was concerned by the call,” Vindman said in his opening statement to the three House committees conducting the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry. “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’s testimony was some of the most damaging to date in the impeachment inquiry that threatens Trump’s presidency even as he seeks re-election next year. Vindman also called into question the truthfulness of earlier testimony by another administration official, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Trump had withheld $391 million in U.S. security aid to Ukraine approved by Congress to fight Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. Zelenskiy agreed to Trump’s requests. The aid was later provided.
Vindman, who appeared after receiving a subpoena from lawmakers, recounted listening in on the call.
“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. This would all undermine U.S. national security,” he said in his testimony.
After the call, Vindman added, he reported his concerns to the National Security Counsel’s lead counsel. The call also prompted a complaint from an intelligence community whistleblower, whose identify has not been revealed, that triggered the impeachment inquiry. In his statement, Vindman denied being the whistleblower or knowing the identity of the individual.
A PIVOTAL MEETING
At a July 10 meeting in Washington with visiting Ukrainian officials, Vindman said Sondland, a former Trump political donor, told the Ukrainian officials they needed to “deliver specific investigations in order to secure a meeting with the president.” At that point, Vindman said, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton cut the meeting short.
According to Vindman’s prepared remarks, Sondland told other U.S. officials in a debriefing after the meeting that it was important that the Ukrainian investigations center on the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma.
“I stated to Amb. Sondland that his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security,” Vindman said, adding that he also reported his concerns to the National Security Counsel’s lead lawyer.
Trump’s former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, testified in the impeachment inquiry on Oct. 14 that she too was alarmed by Sondland’s reference to a probe of Biden during that July 10 meeting and was advised to see NSC lawyer John Eisenberg, a person familiar with her testimony told Reuters.
Sondland gave a different account of the July 10 events in his own testimony in the inquiry, saying that “if Ambassador Bolton, Dr. Hill or others harbored any misgivings about the propriety of what we were doing, they never shared those misgivings with me, then or later.”
Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable foreign ally to interfere in an American election for his own political benefit. Federal law prohibits candidates from accepting foreign help in an election.
The president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others have made discredited allegations that when Biden was vice president, he had a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to halt an investigation into Burisma.
Vindman said he became aware of a shadow Ukraine policy promoted by “outside influencers” in the spring of this year. In his role as a director on the National Security Council, he provided readouts of relevant meetings and communications on Ukraine and other countries in his portfolio.
Trump denies any wrongdoing in his dealings with Ukraine and has called the impeachment probe politically motivated.
“Why are people that I never even heard of testifying about the call. Just READ THE CALL TRANSCRIPT AND THE IMPEACHMENT HOAX IS OVER! Ukrain (sic) said NO PRESSURE,” he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
“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! I knew people were listening in on the call (why would I say something inappropriate?), which was fine with me, but why so many?” Trump added.
The “Never Trump” movement refers to Republicans and conservatives who opposed Trump’s 2016 candidacy and his presidency. Trump last week called “Never Trump” Republicans “human scum.”
In his testimony, Vindman said, “I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics.” Vindman also emphasized how critical a strong and independent Ukraine is to American national security as “a bulwark against Russian aggression.”
Democrats rallied to defend Vindman. U.S. Representative Katherine Clark wrote on Twitter that Republicans were attacking “a purple heart recipient because they can’t defend the President’s actions.” The Purple Heart is awarded to those wounded or killed while serving in the U.S. military.
Reporting by Karen Freifeld, Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell, Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay and Richard Cowan; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis