WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House official testified in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump on Tuesday that a phone call the president made to try to get Ukraine to investigate his political rivals was improper, and denounced attacks on witnesses in the investigation.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the White House National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, testified at the third public hearing in the impeachment effort before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
The inquiry focuses on a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to carry out two investigations that would benefit him politically including one targeting Democratic political rival Joe Biden. The other involved a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
“It was inappropriate, it was improper for the president to request – to demand – an investigation into a political opponent, especially (from) a foreign power where there is at best dubious belief that this would be a completely impartial investigation and that this would have significant implications if it became public knowledge,” Vindman told the committee.
Vindman and Williams were among the U.S. officials who listened in on the July 25 call.
Vindman, an Iraq war veteran who appeared at the hearing wearing his Army uniform and medals, has been publicly criticized by Trump along with other witnesses. He told lawmakers that “character attacks” against public servants testifying in the impeachment inquiry were “reprehensible.”
“It is natural to disagree and engage in spirited debate, this has been the custom of our country since the time of our Founding Fathers, but we are better than personal attacks,” he told lawmakers.
In his prepared opening statement to the committee, he had referred to “vile character attacks” and said “we are better than callow and cowardly attacks,” but did not use those words at the hearing.
Trump has attacked both Williams and Vindman on Twitter as “Never Trump” witnesses, a term to describe Republicans who oppose him.
Williams told the committee that Trump’s call with Zelenskiy was unusual because it “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.” She said the White House budget office had said Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, had directed that $391 million in security aid to Ukraine be put on hold and that she never learned why the assistance was later released in September.
Williams testified behind closed doors this month that some of Trump’s comments in the July 25 call were “inappropriate.”
Democrats have accused Trump of using the frozen aid and Zelenskiy’s desire for an Oval Office meeting as leverage to pressure a vulnerable U.S. ally to dig up dirt on political adversaries. Trump is seeking re-election next year.
The investigation could lead the House to approve formal charges against Trump – known as articles of impeachment – that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office. Few Republican senators have broken with Trump.
Representative Devin Nunes, the committee’s top Republican and a close Trump ally, did not address the substance of the witness testimony about the president’s actions in his opening statement on Tuesday but unleashed an attack on the media, calling journalists “puppets of the Democratic Party.”
Representative Adam Schiff, the committee’s Democratic chairman, noted Trump’s criticism of Williams and of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who testified in the impeachment inquiry on Friday. Schiff also noted the “scurrilous attacks” on Vindman’s character.
“I note that you have shed blood for America, and we owe you an immense debt of gratitude,” Schiff told Vindman, who was awarded a Purple Heart medal for war wounds.
Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, told lawmakers in October he did not know of any effort by Trump to press Ukraine to investigate Biden, a leading Democratic contender opposing Trump’s bid for re-election next year, and Biden’s son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm called Burisma.
But other witnesses have identified Volker as one of the “Three Amigos,” along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, who were tasked by Trump to obtain Zelenskiy’s commitment to probing the Bidens. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani also was a central figure in trying to get Ukraine to carry out those investigations.
Among those whose previous testimony was at odds with Volker’s deposition was Vindman.
Vindman and Volker have clashed, for example, over what occurred at a July 10 White House meeting. Volker testified that U.S. and Ukrainian officials in the meeting did not discuss any investigations. Vindman said Sondland raised the need for Ukraine to open “specific investigations” if Zelenskiy wanted to have a coveted meeting with Trump.
At a follow-up meeting that both also attended, Vindman said in previous testimony: “Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma.”
Ahead of his request that Zelenskiy carry out the two investigations, Trump had frozen $391 million in U.S. security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.
Trump has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and raged on Twitter against what he calls “a witch hunt” and a “hoax.”
Two other witnesses were scheduled to testify on Tuesday: Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine and former National Security Council Russia expert Tim Morrison.
Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Mark Hoseball; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Alistair Bell