/Impeachment hearing: Tense moment between Schiff and Nunes over whistleblower identity

Impeachment hearing: Tense moment between Schiff and Nunes over whistleblower identity

WASHINGTON – Two national security aides who listened to a July 25 call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine’s president arrived Tuesday to testify on Capitol Hill in the Trump impeachment inquiry.

Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vibe President Mike Pence, and Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council expert on Ukraine, both listened to the phone call Trump had with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Williams described the Trump call with Zelensky as “unusual” for its discussion of “a domestic political matter.” Vindman said Trump’s request of Zelensky sounded like a “demand.”

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Witnesses deny partisan affiliation

Both witnesses were asked by Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., if they would consider themselves “Never Trumpers,” in response to previous tweets by the president attacking Williams and other witnesses.

“I’m not sure I know an official definition of a Never Trumper,” Williams said, “I would not, no.”

“Representative, I call myself ‘never partisan,'” Vindman said.

“Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls, & see the just released statement from Ukraine,” Trump tweeted Nov. 17. “Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!”

– Nicholas Wu

National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

Accusations of leaking

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said that Timothy Morrison, a National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, who is scheduled to testify Tuesday afternoon, told lawmakers during his closed-door deposition that some officials had questioned Vindman’s judgment and that Morrison worried he might leak information.

“Any idea why they have those impressions?” Jordan said.

Vindman read a July performance evaluation from Morrison’s predecessor, Fiona Hill, who is scheduled to testify Thursday and described Vindman as “brilliant,” “unflappable” and someone who “exercised excellent judgment.”

“I think you get the idea,” Vindman said. “I can’t say why Mr. Morrison questioned my judgment.”

Vindman also denied ever leaking information.

“I never did, never would,” Vindman said. “That is preposterous that I would do that.”

– Bart Jansen

Vindman getting military protection

Vindman’s involvement in the impeachment inquiry has prompted the Army to provide protection to him and his family.

“The Army is providing supportive assistance to help Lt. Col. Vindman with the public attention,” said Col. Kathy Turner, an Army spokeswoman. “As a matter of practice, the Army would neither confirm nor deny any safety or security measures taken on behalf of an individual; however, as we would with any soldier, the Army will work with civilian authorities to ensure that he and his family are properly protected.”

– Tom Vanden Brook

Tensions over identity of whistleblower

Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, questioned Williams and Vindman on whether they leaked information regarding Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky.

The Republican then pressed Vindman on whether he knows anyone who discussed the phone call with members of the media. Vindman directed Nunes to the NSC communications office before saying he did not know anyone.

When Nunes asked if either witness discussed the call with anyone outside the White House, Vindman said he discussed the call with State Department Deputy Secretary George Kent and an individual in the intelligence community.

Nunes asked who the member of the intelligence community was, prompting Schiff to interject to ensure it was not an attempt to out the whistleblower, whose letter about the call sparked the impeachment probe. Vindman said he was advised by his lawyer not to identify anyone when asked about members of the intelligence community.

Nunes continued to press Vindman to identify the member of the intelligence community he spoke to but the National Security Council aide refused to concede. Tensions grew as Vindman’s lawyer intervened to say his client was not going to answer the question while Schiff supported the decision, arguing that it appeared Nunes was attempting to identify the whistleblower.

“I want to make sure that this is not an attempt to out the whistleblower,” said Schiff, who said the whistleblower is protected with anonymity by law.

Nunes stated Vindman had testified that he didn’t know who the whistleblower was.

“I do not know who the whistleblower is,” Vindman said.

Nunes then asked how it was possible he could identify the whistleblower, if he didn’t know the name.

“Sir, under advice of my counsel, I have been advised not to answer specific questions about members of the intelligence community,” Vindman said.

Nunes reminded Vindman that he was testifying at the Intelligence Committee, to laughter in the audience. But Vindman declined to answer.

“Under advice of my counsel and instructions of the chairman, I have been advised not to provide any specifics on who I have spoken to inside the intelligence community,” Vindman said. “But I can offer that these people were properly cleared individuals with a need to know.”

Nunes said Republicans had tried to subpoena the whistleblower, but the motion was tabled by committee Democrats. Nunes ended his questioning by calling the hearings an “impeachment inquisition.”

A woman in the gallery gasped when Schiff told the room not to out the whistleblower and other members of the audience raised their heads to get a better look at the exchange.

“I was shocked,” said Mar Roberts of Washington, D.C., who gasped when the topic of the whistleblower came up because, she said, that’s a statutory issue. Roberts, 68, who was taking detailed notes on her phone, said she also attended the Watergate impeachment hearings. 

– Courtney Subramanian and Bart Jansen

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the National Security Council, testifies on Nov. 19, 2019 before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Vindman says Ukrainians offered him defense minister position

Republican counsel Steve Castor asked Vindman if the Ukrainians offered him the position of defense minister.

Vindman said he “immediately dismissed” the three offers and notified his superiors and counterintelligence officials.

“I’m an American. I came here when I was a toddler, and I immediately dismissed these offers. I did not entertain them,” he said. “It’s pretty funny for a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, which isn’t really that senior, to be offered that illustrious of a position.   

“Just to be clear, there were two other staff officers, embassy Kiev staff officers that were sitting next to me when this offer was made,” Vindman said. One of the officers, Vindman said, was David Holmes, who testified behind closed doors last Friday.

A member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., told reporters during a recess that lawmakers weren’t challenging Vindman’s loyalty to the U.S.

“No, I don’t have any reason to question his loyalty, and I don’t think anyone on the committee is either, but I think we need to see the entire picture,” Perry said. “The American people need to see what happens in these discussions with foreign governments and the people who work for our government.”

He suggested the offer to Vindman was an example of how foreign governments try to “curry favor” with U.S. officials. 

Perry said testimony revealed that Vindman disagreed with U.S. officials about whether Trump’s call for investigations coincided with national-security interests.

“The president will decide that,” Perry said.

– Nicholas Wu and Bart Jansen

Nov 19, 2019;  Washington, DC, USA; Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence, 2nd from left, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the National Security Council, arrive to testify on Nov. 19, 2019 before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Vindman corrects Nunes on his rank

Vindman corrected Nunes after the Republican referred to him as “mister,” rather than by his military rank.

“Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistle-blower,” Nunes started to ask.

“Ranking Member, it’s Lt. Col. Vindman, please,” Vindman responded.

– Nicholas Wu

Vindman: Trump request sounded like a demand

In response to questions from Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., NSC aide Alexander Vindman said he knew without hesitation that he had to report his concerns about the July 25 call to White House lawyers. Vindman said that coming from a military culture, Trump’s request sounded more like a demand than a polite request that Ukraine could disregard.

“It was inappropriate,” Vindman said. “It was improper for the president to request, to demand an investigation into a political opponent, especially a foreign power where there is at best dubious belief that this could be an impartial investigation and that this would have significant implications if it became public knowledge.”

Vindman said that given the “power disparity” between the United States and Ukraine, it was clear that Trump’s request for investigations was more of a demand than a request.

“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 the investigations.”

— Bart Jansen

Aide to give classified statement on Pence-Zelensky call 

At the direction of her attorney, Mike Pence aide Jennifer Williams declined to answer a question from Schiff about a Sept. 18 call between the vice president and Ukraine President Volodymyr  Zelensky.

“The September 18 call is classified,” said her attorney, adding that Pence’s office had said she could not talk about it in an open setting.

Williams said she would submit a classified statement to the committee in writing about the call.

Read opening remarks:Statements from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams

A summary from the vice president’s office of the call said Pence commended Zelensky’s administration for “bold action to tackle corruption through legislative reforms, and offered full U.S. support for those efforts.”

— Nicholas Wu 

Vindman: ‘I was concerned by the call’

National Security Council aide Alexander Vindman told the House Intelligence Committee he reported his concerns about a July 10 meeting with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. The decorated Army soldier said he privately reported his concerns through official channels out of a sense of duty.

“I was concerned by the call,” Vindman said. “What I heard was inappropriate.”

— Bart Jansen

Williams says she found the July 25 call ‘unusual’

Jennifer Williams, a State Department official detailed to Vice President Mike Pence’s office, testified about how she found Trump’s July 25 phone call “unusual” because of the discussion of “a domestic political matter.”

“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,” she said.

She did not, however, discuss the call with the vice president or any of her other colleagues.

Williams also outlined her career in public service as a “career officer” rather than a partisan.

“As a career officer, I am committed to serving the American people and advancing American interests abroad, in support of the President’s foreign policy objectives,” she said.

— Nicholas Wu 

Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence, delivers opening remarks as she testifies on Nov. 19, 2019 before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Nunes slams Democrats, news media

Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, attacked the media and Democrats in his opening statement, slamming “fake news” and calling news outlets “puppets of the Democratic Party.” 

“If you watched the impeachment hearings last week, you may have noticed a disconnect between what you actually saw and the mainstream media accounts describing it,” Nunes said. 

“With their biased misreporting on the Russia hoax, the media lost the confidence of millions of Americans,” he added.

— Nicholas Wu 

Schiff opens the hearing

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff opened the hearing by noting how both witnesses were on the July 25 call, giving them firsthand knowledge of the events that day. 

He laid out the case Democrats hope to make today as lawmakers debate whether to impeach the president. 

“If the President abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections, if he sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection campaign and did so by withholding official acts — a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid — it will be up to us to decide, whether those acts are compatible with the office of the Presidency,” Schiff noted.

How to watch:Testimony begins in Week 2 of public impeachment hearings

Both witnesses were subpoenaed to appear today, Schiff noted. 

“Today’s witnesses, like those who testified last week, are here because they were subpoenaed to appear, not because they are for or against impeachment,” Schiff said. 

House Republicans have criticized previous witnesses for their indirect knowledge of events on the call, calling it “hearsay.”

— Nicholas Wu 

Trump tweets about stock market 

Just before the hearing began, President Donald Trump posted a tweet right before the hearing started, stressing the rise of the stock market.

Trump has previously slammed Vindman on Twitter as a “Never Trumper” and urged him to read a transcript of the call. The call occurred during a suspension in providing U.S. military aid to Ukraine, but Trump has insisted he didn’t demand the investigation in exchange for the funding.

Asked on Nov. 3 for evidence that Vindman was a “Never Trumper,” the president replied: “You’ll be seeing very soon what comes out.”

Schumer wants protections for whistleblowers

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter Monday to Defense Secretary Mark Esper urging him to notify all civilian and military personnel of their legal rights to make protected disclosures to Congress free from retaliation. Schumer said Vindman and Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of Defense, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday, have been attacked as traitors in the media.

“Bravely, in the face of these shameful attacks, these individuals have still chosen to come forward and tell the truth despite the risk of professional reprisals and threats to their personal safety,” Schumer said. “I fear, however, these attacks will only increase after their participation in these public hearings.”

Esper has said the Pentagon has protections for whistleblowers and Vindman “shouldn’t have any fear of retaliation.”

Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director for European Affairs at the National Security Council arrive on Capitol Hill on Oct. 29, 2019.

The hearing begins at 9 a.m.

Jennifer Williams also to testify 

Also on Tuesday morning, the committee will hear from Jennifer Williams, a National Security Council aide assigned from the State Department to the office of Vice President Mike Pence. She listened to the July 25 call and provided a memo about the call to Pence, although she couldn’t say whether he read it. She told lawmakers at her closed-door deposition that it was “folly” to withhold military aid to Ukraine and that the call was “unusual.”

“I would say that it struck me as unusual and inappropriate,” Williams said when asked what her own personal reaction to the call was. 

Afternoon hearings

Trump has also criticized Williams as a “Never Trumper.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the panel will hear from Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, a National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia.

Republicans had asked to hear from Volker and Morrison to compare their testimony to Vindman’s. Volker in his closed-door testimony described Trump’s longstanding presumption of corruption in Ukraine. The special envoy also said “no,” when asked if Trump asked Ukraine to manufacture dirt on the Bidens, in contrast to looking for evidence of whether Burisma tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

How to stay updated on USA TODAY’s impeachment coverage

“Even if he’s asking them to investigate the Bidens, it is to find out what facts there may be rather than to manufacture something,” Volker said.

Republicans have argued that the dispute about the July 25 call amounts to policy disagreements, and that Trump has the authority to direct foreign policy.

Morrison told lawmakers in his closed-door deposition that he asked National Security Council lawyers to review Trump’s July 25 call because he thought it “would be damaging” if it “leaked.”

But Morrison also said the White House chief of staff’s office had informed the Office of Management and Budget that “it was the President’s direction to hold the assistance.”