Republicans assail aide who reported Trump phone call

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

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WASHINGTON, DC, USA (AP) — A career Army officer testified Tuesday that President Donald Trump's call with Ukraine was “improper”, as Republicans tried to undercut the national security official with pointed exchanges, questioning his loyalty to the US during a remarkable day in the impeachment hearings.

Arriving on Capitol Hill in military blue with medals across his chest, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman told lawmakers it was his “duty” to report his concerns about the call. But he deflected repeated Republican efforts to divulge everyone he told about it, thwarting Trump allies' attempts to identify the anonymous whistle-blower who spurred the impeachment probe.

Vindman, a 20-year military officer who received a Purple Heart for being wounded in the Iraq War, was among the officials who listened in to the July 25 call when Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a “favour”– investigations of Democrat Joe Biden and other issues.

“Without hesitation, I knew I had to report this,” Vindman told the House Intelligence Committee. “It was inappropriate, it was improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent.”

The testimony launched a pivotal week as the House's historic impeachment investigation reaches further into Trump's White House. Democrats say Trump's pressure on Ukraine to investigate former Vice-President Joe Biden while withholding US military aid to Kyiv may be grounds for removing the 45th president. Republicans have argued both that there was no linkage between the two matters and that there is nothing inappropriate even if there was.

Vindman, an official at the National Security Council, testified alongside Jennifer Williams, his counterpart at Vice-President Mike Pence's office. Both said they had concerns as Trump spoke with the newly elected Ukrainian president about political investigations into Biden.

Trump insists Zelenskiy did not feel pressured and has cast the impeachment probe as a partisan affair aimed at pushing him from office.

It wasn't the first time Vindman was alarmed over the administration's push to have Ukraine investigate Democrats, he testified.

He highlighted a July 10 meeting at the White House when Ambassador Gordon Sondland told visiting Ukraine officials they would need to “deliver” before next steps — a meeting Zelenskiy wanted with Trump.

“Ambassador Sondland referred to investigations into the Bidens and Burisma in 2016,” he testified.

On both occasions, Vindman said, he took his concerns about the shifting Ukraine policy to the lead counsel at the NSC, John Eisenberg. Republicans later criticided him for not reporting to his direct supervisor.

An immigrant who came to the US as a toddler from Ukraine, Vindman opened his testimony by assuring his father he would be “fine for telling the truth”.

Yet Vindman spent long stretches fielding Republican attacks on his loyalty to the US and his career in public service. The Republicans' lead counsel asked at one point about an offer to Vindman from a Ukrainian official to become the country's defence minister.

Vindman called it “comical” and said he swiftly reported it up his chain of command.

“I'm an American,” Vindman said. “And I immediately dismissed these offers.”

Later yesterday, the House committee was hearing from former NSC official Timothy Morrison and Kurt Volker, the former Ukraine special envoy. On Wednesday, Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, is to appear. Much of Sondland's private testimony to lawmakers has been contradicted by other witnesses.

At the White House, Trump said he had watched part of the day's testimony and slammed the ongoing impeachment hearings as a “disgrace”. Over the weekend, Trump assailed Williams as part of the “Never Trumpers” who oppose his presidency, though there is no indication she has shown any partisanship. Trump allies have also repeatedly attacked Vindman's loyalty.

Vindman acknowledged the attacks during his testimony and appeared prepared to defend his loyalty to the United States. When the top Republican on the committee, Rep Devin Nunes, addressed him as “Mr Vindman”, the colonel reminded him to address him by his rank.

Republicans tried to prompt the witnesses to name the still-anonymous whistle-blower.

Nunes asked them who else they talked to about their concerns, bearing down once Vindman acknowledged one was from the intelligence community. The whistle-blower is a CIA official, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Vindman said he does not know who the whistle-blower is. He has previously said it is not him.


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