On Tuesday, the House’s ongoing impeachment investigation held its third day of public hearings – featuring National Security Council Ukraine expert Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams, a member of Vice President Mike Pence’s staff.
The afternoon hearing featured former US Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, the former top Russia and Europe adviser on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council.
I watched the hearings and took notes – so you don’t have to! Below, the biggest moments from the hearing, as they happened.
Even before Vindman or Williams had said a word, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (California) sought to warn his Republican colleagues against attacking either of the witnesses.
Adam Schiff tries to prebut attacks on Vindman/Williams
Of Vindman, who received a Purple Heart after being wounded by an IED in Iraq, Schiff said: “We have seen far more scurrilous attacks on your character, and watched as certain personalities on Fox have questioned your loyalty. I note that you have shed blood for America, and we owe you an immense debt of gratitude.”
Noting that Trump had attacked both Williams and Vindman, Schiff later added, “I hope no one on this committee will become part of those vicious attacks.”
Will Schiff’s warning change how Republicans will handle Vindman and Williams? Probably not. But it makes clear that Democrats will not let any attacks on either witness simply pass.
Devin Nunes really doesn’t like the media
Listening to the opening statement of Rep. Devin Nunes (California), you’d be forgiven if you thought that Tuesday’s hearing was an examination of the national media and its role in politics and policy.
Nunes claimed that the media was responsible for, among other things, pushing the idea that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with the Russians (the Department of Justice decided to open the investigation, not the media) and working with Democrats to drum up controversy surrounding Ukraine (the witnesses called so far in the impeachment investigation have been members of the Trump administration.)
Nunes also used his opening statement to defend a series of columns written by John Solomon, a former columnist for The Hill newspaper, raising questions about the conduct of Joe and Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine. “Now that Solomon’s reporting is a problem for the Democrats, it’s a problem for the media as well,” said Nunes. (The Hill is in the midst of an investigation into Solomon’s columns.)
How much did Nunes actually talk about the facts of the Ukraine investigation or the witness testimony we were going to hear? Uh, not much.
Vindman’s powerful opening statement
Vindman’s personal story – brought with his twin brother to the United States from Russia at age 3, decorated military service, years of work as a Ukraine expert – is compelling to read on a piece of paper. It was that much more compelling to hear him relate his life journey in his opening statement while wearing the uniform of the US Army.
Vindman’s closing lines were particularly powerful:
“I am grateful for my father’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for mine and my family’s safety.
“Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision forty 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. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
You will be seeing and hearing that last line – “I will be fine for telling the truth” – a whole lot today and in the days to come.
Vindman calls out “false narrative” in Ukraine
Vindman didn’t mince words when asked why he immediately reported to his superiors his discomfort with Trump’s actions on the July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
He said he was previously aware of an “alternative false narrative” prior to the call. Pushed on whether those “false narratives” were the ideas that a) Ukraine meddled in the 2016 presidential election to aid Hillary Clinton and b) the Ukrainians had not adequately looked into allegations that Joe and Hunter Biden had committed some wrongdoing regarding Ukraine, Vindman confirmed that they were.
Neither of those claims, which Trump relayed in his July 25 call with Zelensky, have any basis in known facts.
Vindman for Ukrainian Defense Minister?
During the Republican counsel’s questioning of Vindman, it came up that he had been asked, on three occasions, by the Ukrainians to serve as their defense minister. (Vindman was born in Ukraine but came to the United States when he was 3.)
“I’m an American,” Vindman responded, noting that he had turned down the offers. “I came here when I was a toddler, and I immediately dismissed these offers. I did not entertain them.” He added that he had “notified my chain of command and the appropriate counterintelligence folks about the offer.”
Later, Connecticut Democratic Rep. Jim Himes ripped Republicans for trying to inject the issue into the hearings. Himes said it was a clear effort to question Vindman’s commitment to America and part of a broader attempt by conservatives to suggest he had dual loyalties of some sort. (Later, President Trump retweeted a tweet by an aide – Dan Scavino – noting the three offers made to Vindman.)
“I want people to understand what that was all about,” said Himes of the attack. “It’s the kind of thing you say when you have to defend the indefensible.”
Who is the whistleblower? (again)
Twice – once by Nunes and once by Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan – Republicans on the committee sought to force VIndman to disclose the two people outside of the National Security Council who he briefed on the July 25 call. One, Vindman said, was George Kent, the State Department official who testified last week. The other, Vindman said, was a member of the intelligence community.
When pressed to say who that second person was, Vindman demurred – citing guidance provided by Schiff that the committee would not be involved in the business of outing the whistleblower.
Nunes and Jordan objected strenuously, noting that Vindman had said he didn’t know the identity of the whistleblower so how could he possibly out him or her? Jordan took it a step further by making clear that he didn’t believe Schiff’s assertion that the California Democrat didn’t know the identity of the whistleblower.
Around and around they went – to no resolution. Vindman didn’t say who the second person was, and Jordan and Nunes remained annoyed.
Mr. Vindman? No, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman
Vindman showed relatively little emotion after the first moments of the hearing, when his hands were visibly shaking as he read his opening statement. But he did let his annoyance slip once – when Nunes referred to him as “Mr. Vindman” in asking a question.
“It’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman,” he replied.
Trump seized on that moment when talking to reporters on Tuesday. “I don’t know him,” Trump said of Vindman. “I don’t know, as he says, ‘Lieutenant Colonel.’ I understand somebody had the misfortune of calling him ‘Mr.’ and he corrected them. I never saw the man. I understand now he wears his uniform when he goes in. No, I don’t know Vindman at all.”
How does this play? My guess is that depends which party you side with. Democrats will see Vindman’s “lieutenant colonel” correction as a smackdown of the much-maligned Nunes. Republicans will view it as evidence that Vindman is just an egotistical bureaucrat who doesn’t like Nunes and, by extension, Republicans.
‘This is America’
As the hearing wound to a close, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-New York) asked Vindman whether his father was a “worrier” and whether he or his father are concerned about the decision to come forward with testimony that put him on the opposite side of the President of the United States.
Vindman said that his father was very worried because he came from the Soviet Union, where the consequences for such an action could be severe. Vindman added that he wasn’t worried himself because “This is America. This is the country I’ve served and defended. That all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.”
Some members of the audience applauded him for that sentiment.
Volker reveals why Trump viewed Ukraine so negatively
Volker recounted a meeting in May in the Oval Office in which he and others argued to Trump that he should work to build a relationship with the newly elected Zelensky.
Volker told the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday afternoon that Trump was not receptive to those urgings. “He said that Ukraine was a corrupt country, full of terrible people,” recounted Volker. “He said, ‘They tried to take me down.’”
Volker said that he became convinced that Trump’s obstinacy was rooted in what he was being told by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Said Volker:
“It was clear to me that despite the positive news and recommendations being conveyed by this official delegation about the new President, President Trump had a deeply rooted negative view on Ukraine rooted in the past. He was clearly receiving other information from other sources, including Mayor Giuliani, that was more negative, causing him to retain this negative view.”
Volker dismissed Trump’s belief that Joe Biden was somehow trying to protect his son in Ukraine or that the country possessed the hacked Democratic National Committee server as “conspiracy theories.”
Volker changed his closed-door testimony in meaningful ways
Volker, who was a witness Republicans had pushed for, offered very different testimony on Tuesday than he did when he spoke behind closed doors with House impeachment investigators.
“Since these events, and since I gave my testimony on October 3, a great deal of additional information and perspectives have come to light,” Volker told the House Intelligence Committee. “I have learned many things that I did not know at the time of the events in question.”
Among the changes:
*Volker initially said that investigations into Trump’s conspiracy theories and the release of almost $400 million in military aid for Ukraine were not mentioned in a July 10 meeting at the White House. But on Tuesday, Volker said he now knows that the investigations were mentioned.
*Volker said in his October testimony that any conversations with the Ukrainians about making an announcement on the opening of an investigation into the Bidens had ended in August. But on Tuesday, Volker acknowledged that US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had told a top Ukrainian official on September 1 that he believed the military aid was tied to the announcement of an investigation.
Those are both big deals – and undermine the very points Republicans were hoping Volker would make in the public hearings.
Morrison says the July call was put into a classified server by accident
Morrison, the former top NSC Russia and Europe adviser, broke some news when he said that he had been told by NSC lawyer John Eisenberg that the transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky had been placed in a more secure server solely because of a “mistake” by the lawyer’s executive secretary.
“John related that he did not ask for it to be put on there, but that the Executive Secretariat staff misunderstood his recommendation for how to restrict access,” Morrison told the committee.
That directly counters what Vindman told the Intelligence Committee earlier today. Here’s the exchange between Vindman and Democratic counsel Dan Goldman:
GOLDMAN: Was it intended to be put on the highly classified system by the lawyers or was it a mistake that it was put there?
VINDMAN: I think it was intended. But, again, it was intended to prevent leaks and to limit access.
Morrison was asked later about the specific instructions given surrounding where the transcript should be placed. He made clear that he was in favor of limiting the number of people with access to it but that he did not specifically request it be put on the server where it ultimately wound up.