Trump impeachment hearings: 4 takeaways from Day 3 of public testimony

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

The first impeachment hearings of the week brought more bad news for the White House, as two officials who listened directly to a call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine testified they found it unusual, while a witness called by Republicans defended the honor of former Vice President Joe Biden and said calling for an investigation into him was “unacceptable.” But there were elements in Tuesday’s testimony that offered some support to the narrative favored by House Republicans.

Here are the key moments from today’s testimony.

Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence; Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine; Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman; and Tim Morrison, a former official at the National Security Council. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

An “unusual” and “improper” call

Jennifer Williams was a staffer for the 2004 George W. Bush campaign before moving into a nonpolitical foreign service position and now serves as a national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence. She listened to the call this summer between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to the whistleblower report that initiated the formal impeachment hearings.

“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,” said Williams, who described Trump’s request to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter “inappropriate.”

Williams added that she did not know why aid was being withheld from Ukraine, only that the Office of Management and Budget was doing so at the request of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney despite pushback from officials at the Departments of State and Defense. When asked if anyone in the national security community supported withholding aid, Williams said no. Previous witnesses have testified that Trump was withholding the nearly $400 million in military assistance as well as a visit to the White House sought by Zelensky to coerce the Ukrainians into investigating the Bidens. 

Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Both Williams and Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council staffer who was called as a witness by Republicans to testify in the afternoon session, said that during a Sept. 1 meeting the first thing Zelensky asked Pence about was the status of the military aid. Williams also did not know the reason why Pence’s trip to attend Zelensky’s inauguration was canceled. 

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer assigned to the White House, also listened to the call and said, “It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.”

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Vindman when asked about his first thoughts of Trump raising a potential investigation into Biden. “It was probably an element of shock, that maybe in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security.”

In response to a line of questioning about whether Trump’s request for a “favor” from Zelensky amounted to a demand, Vindman said that because of Ukraine’s dependence on the United States and Zelensky’s desire for the imprimatur of a White House meeting, he believed requests from the White House would come across as directives.

“The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it’s polite and pleasant, it’s not to be taken as a request, it’s to be taken as an order,” Vindman said. “In this case, the power disparity between the two leaders, my impression is that in order to get the White House meeting, President Zelensky would have to deliver these investigations.”

Later, under questioning by Republican members, Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Morrison said they didn’t believe Trump was making a “demand” of Zelensky. When pressed by Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., Morrison did not specify why he went to an NSC counsel following the July 25 call, saying only that he wanted them to know that the call had occurred.

Both Williams and Vindman said they were unaware of any evidence that suggested misconduct by Biden in Ukraine. Williams was not allowed to testify on a Sept. 18 call between Trump and Zelensky, the contents of which are still classified.

A Trump appointee defends Biden

Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, testifies on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Alex Brandon/Pool/Reuters)

The afternoon session also included Volker, who was appointed by Trump outside normal State Department channels and served without salary. In his opening statement, Volker revised testimony he gave last month in a private deposition, explaining that “I have learned many things that I did not know at the time of the events in question.” 

Volker initially testified that during a July 10 meeting there was no discussion about Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine or anything about the investigation into Biden. In his amended testimony on Tuesday, Volker said that Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, “made a generic comment about investigations. I think all of us thought it was inappropriate.”

Volker, who resigned his position in September, said that initially he didn’t see a call to investigate the Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma, on whose board Biden’s son Hunter served, as the same thing as demanding an investigation of the Bidens, but has since realized how closely they were entwined. Near the end of the hearing, Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y., was nearly incredulous about Volker’s inability to connect the dots on what the investigation requests would mean to Ukraine, saying it would put the country’s officials in an “impossible position.”

“In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company Burisma as equivalent to investigating former Vice President Biden,” said Volker. “I saw them as very different — the former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable. In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.”

Volker praised Biden and said that he told Giuliani that the idea that Biden was corruptly trying to help his son’s business career — a key talking point for Republicans, including Trump — was “self-serving and not credible.”

“At the one in-person meeting I had with Mayor Giuliani on July 19, 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,” said Volker. “As I testified previously, I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years. He is an honorable man and I hold him in the highest regard.”

Volker also expressed his dismay at military aid being withheld from Ukraine.

“I opposed the hold on U.S. security assistance as soon as I learned about it on July 18, and thought we could turn it around before the Ukrainians ever knew or became alarmed about it,” Volker testified on Tuesday. “I did not know the reason for the hold, but I viewed it as a U.S. policy problem that we needed to fix internally, and I was confident we would do so.” 

“I will be fine for telling the truth”

National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testifies before the House Intelligence Committee. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Vindman, the Army officer whose family emigrated from the Soviet Union when he was a child and who earned a Purple Heart serving in Iraq, said that he felt it was his “duty” to come forward. During his opening statement, he directly addressed his father.

“Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family,” said Vindman. “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

Vindman was criticized by Republicans for not reporting his concerns about Trump’s Zelensky call to his superior, Morrison. There were also several lines of questioning that suggested Vindman might not have total loyalty to the United States, attacks that started when he testified in private last month. Vindman said that the Ukrainian government tried to offer him the defense minister’s job, but he didn’t even consider it because “I’m an American.”

He corrected the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, who addressed a question to him as “Mr. Vindman,” reminding him that he was “Lt. Col. Vindman.” Later, another Republican, Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, noted that Vindman was in his dress uniform, and asked if he always requested to be addressed by his military rank in civilian life. Vindman said he was seeking to defuse the attacks on his honesty and patriotism.

During his testimony, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, questioned whether Vindman was a leaker and cited a quote from Morrison in which he questioned Vindman’s judgment. Vindman responded by reading from his most recent performance review. The White House’s official Twitter account also published the same quote from Morrison. According to a U.S. official, the military is prepared to move Vindman and his family to a base for their protection if he faces retaliation for his testimony.

Trump also attacked Williams over the weekend, deriding her as a “Never Trumper.” On Tuesday she responded: “I’d call myself never partisan.”

Defending “an outright fabrication”

Rep. Devin Nunes questions Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Nunes has spent most of his time during these hearings attacking Democrats, the media and the impeachment process itself, which he said were earning very low television ratings. On Tuesday, Nunes began his remarks by citing and defending the work of John Solomon, a former columnist at The Hill whose strident defense of Trump has been promoted by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. The State Department has referred to Solomon’s reporting as “an outright fabrication,” while diplomat George Kent testified last week that his reporting was “if not entirely made up in full cloth, it was primarily non-truths and non sequiturs.” Last year The Hill moved Solomon’s work to the opinion section, and in September the outlet and writer parted ways. This week The Hill announced it would review the work of Solomon published during his tenure there.

Nunes stated that Democrats called Volker and Morrison to testify publicly when he did so in a Nov. 9 letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and implied that because Trump was voted into office, any checks by the legislative branch that would remove him from office would defy “half the country who voted for the President.” Trump received 46.1 percent of the popular vote in 2016, or about 3 million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton. He was elected with the support of roughly one-quarter of eligible voters.

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