Politico

Trump’s Ukraine call gets scrutiny with White House officials’ testimony

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams have two things in common: They both listened to President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president. And they both testified under oath that it was far from “perfect.”

On Tuesday, the two White House national security aides will sit side by side as House Democrats kick off the second week of public impeachment hearings. Lawmakers plan to press them about why they felt Trump’s efforts to push his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate his political foes were inappropriate — and how they believed the campaign jeopardized U.S. national security.

The duo has another thing in common: They have since come under attack from Trump, who dubbed them “Never Trumpers” and pushed back against their characterization of the fateful phone call that is at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

The testimony of Vindman, the top Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council, and Williams, an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence on Russia and Europe, brings the inquiry closer to Trump than ever before — arming Democrats with firsthand accounts of Trump’s posture toward Ukraine amid criticism from Republicans that last week’s witnesses offered only “hearsay.”

Both officials also offer high-level insight into the confusion and alarm that followed Trump’s abrupt decision to freeze U.S. military aid to Ukraine, a key U.S. ally fending off Russian aggression.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee also plan to press them about whether they believed Trump and his allies were using the military aid, as well as a repeatedly delayed White House meeting for Ukraine’s president, as leverage to push the country to investigate Trump’s political enemies — the central claim that could form the basis of impeachment articles against the president.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday said the alleged scheme suggests “the president is jeopardizing the integrity of the 2020 elections.”

Vindman told investigators during his deposition last month that he believed Trump harmed U.S. national security interests when he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a “favor” during the July 25 phone call. Williams said she viewed Trump’s efforts to spur an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter were “unusual and inappropriate,” and tied more closely to a “personal political agenda” than to U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region.

Later Tuesday, lawmakers will hear from Tim Morrison, another senior NSC official who listened in on the July 25 call, and Kurt Volker, a former U.S. envoy for Ukraine negotiations who abruptly resigned in late September. Both witnesses were requested by Republicans, who have argued that they undercut claims that Trump did anything improper.

But the transcripts of their closed-door testimony could complicate that argument.

During his deposition last month, Morrison backed up testimony indicating a growing belief that a hold on military aid to Ukraine might have been used to press Zelensky to launch Trump’s favored investigations. Though he said he didn’t view Trump’s July 25 phone call as problematic, he later grew concerned about a possible quid pro quo, which he said was injected into the discussion by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, during a Sept. 1 meeting with Ukrainians in Warsaw.

Volker, meanwhile, testified about his contacts with Giuliani and how the two worked together to persuade Ukrainians to announce investigations connected to the Bidens and the 2016 election. But Volker suggested he saw no evidence of a quid pro quo — though he also acknowledged he was not involved in several of the meetings and conversations that have since been revealed in subsequent testimony.

“Mr. Volker is the definitive sort of story and narrative on this whole thing, and he has been clear all along: There was never any linkage of anything,” said Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a top Trump ally. “And he was convinced all along the aid was going to get there.”

Volker’s appearance will be a significant moment: He was the first witness to speak with impeachment investigators behind closed doors and did not have the benefit of learning what a slew of subsequent witnesses attested to after his appearance. Since then, he’s been described by other witnesses as playing a central role in some of the discussions about orchestrating a public statement by Zelensky announcing Trump’s preferred investigations.

Another potential weak spot for the GOP: Volker told investigators that he viewed Giuliani’s hand in Ukraine policy as a “problem,” while Giuliani has publicly said he was acting in concert with Volker.

“The negative narrative about Ukraine which Mr. Giuliani was furthering was the problem,” Volker told investigators. “[I]n my view, it was impeding our ability to build the relationship the way we should be doing.”

Some Republicans have privately griped that Democrats buried the hearing in the afternoon, when many viewers may be tuned out after the morning session. And another top Trump ally suggested that any witnesses who actually interacted with Trump said there was no link between military aid to Ukraine and the Biden probe.

“The people who had real access to and conversations with @realDonaldTrump have consistently made it clear: there was zero tie between aid to Ukraine and political investigations. Period,” tweeted Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of Trump’s chief defenders on Capitol Hill.

All four witnesses will bring heightened interest to Wednesday morning’s public hearing with Sondland, who appears to be in the middle of the Ukraine pressure campaign.

Democrats have accused Sondland of omitting crucial information during his closed-door testimony, in particular about a July 10 meeting at the White House involving senior U.S. national security officials.

Vindman offered key details about that meeting, which he attended, to investigators — including that he believed there was “no ambiguity” about Sondland’s intentions, in Vindman’s words, “that the Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens.”

And Morrison said it was conversations with Sondland that left him with a “sinking feeling” that Ukraine might not receive its military aid because it had become intertwined with domestic U.S. politics, which he had hoped Ukraine would not become involved in.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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