Three current and former Trump administration officials described Tuesday how they harbored a variety of concerns surrounding a July phone call in which President Donald Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been at the heart of Democrats’ impeachment investigation, and on Tuesday, they solicited public testimony from the trio of firsthand witnesses, who had been listening in.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s European affairs director, said he considered the president’s demand of the Ukrainian leader “inappropriate,” because it could have “significant national security implications” for the U.S.
Jennifer Williams, Vice President Mike Pence’s special adviser on Europe, said she thought the call was “unusual” because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.”
And Tim Morrison, the NSC’s former top Russia and Europe adviser, said he worried what might happen if the call was made public — as it ultimately was, after an intelligence community whistleblower complained about it.
“I feared at the time of the call on July 25th how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate,” Morrison said. “My fears have been realized.”
The three witnesses were joined Tuesday by Kurt Volker, a former Trump administration envoy to Ukraine.
Lawmakers are scheduled to hear from nine witnesses before Friday, as they seek to build a case not just that Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart for a political favor, but that he withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and a White House meeting to ensure he would get what he wanted.
Republicans, meanwhile, intensified their attacks on the investigation — questioning Democrats’ motives, scrutinizing witnesses and suggesting that Trump was merely concerned about Ukrainian corruption in general.
“The Democrats are no closer to impeachment than where they were three years ago,” the House Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said during Tuesday’s hearings.
Vindman and Williams testified together in a morning session before the committee, followed in the afternoon by Morrison and Volker. Republicans had requested Volker and Morrison as witnesses.
Volker testified that while he was aware that the administration was holding back aid from the Ukrainians as Trump sought investigations, he was not aware of a quid pro quo. He said he believed that the president merely harbored a general view that corruption was rampant in Ukraine — a view that was not necessarily unfair, given the country’s past leadership.
“The issue of the security assistance was one where I thought this was related to a general negative view about Ukraine,” Volker said.
Volker said, too, that while he was involved in the administration’s pressure on the Ukrainians to announce investigations of interest to the president, he did not connect those probes to Biden, Trump’s political rival. He said he initially believed that the administration was pursuing investigations of potential Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma.
Biden’s son, Hunter, was on the board at Burisma. Volker testified that he was trying to “thread a needle” in divorcing the two and believed that pursuing an investigation of the former vice president would amount to examining “conspiracy theories that have been circulated by the Ukrainians.”
“The accusation that Vice President Biden was acting inappropriately didn’t seem at all credible to me,” he said.
Volker was not on the July 25 call in which Trump mentioned Biden specifically, and he said he “would have objected” to pursuing such an inquiry.
Morrison said he was disappointed over the call because it was “not what we recommended the president discuss,” though he said he did not believe, in real time, that Trump was making an improper request, and he evaded Democratic efforts to pin him down on the point. Morrison reported the call to a top NSC lawyer so that access to it could be restricted.
“I was hoping for a more full-throated statement of support from the president concerning President Zelenskiy’s reform agenda,” Morrison said.
Vindman testified that he immediately reported the matter to National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg “out of a sense of duty.” After that, he said, he seemed to have been excluded from some meetings to which he thought he should have been invited.