Long Day Of Impeachment Hearings Brings More Evidence Against Trump
After a long day of hearings, the case against the President is becoming clearer and Republican defenses becoming more absurd.
Yesterday’s two-part, four-person, impeachment inquiry hearings before the House Intelligence Committee hearings were the longest yet in what is expected to be the final week of public hearings for this committee. After this phase of the process is concluded, the Intelligence Committee will prepare a report for the House Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for drafting and approving Articles of Impeachment prior to their being sent to the House floor. As part of that process, the Judiciary Committee may call its own witnesses in addition to those who had been called by the Intelligence Committee, but if the timing is right we should see a vote on Articles of Impeachment on the floor of the House of Representatives just
The witnesses consisted of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Iraq War veteran who serves on the National Security Council as a specialist in Ukrainian affairs, Jennifer Wilson, who is a close adviser to Vice-President Mike Pence, Kurt Volker, a former Ambassador to NATO who served most recently as the Administration’s representative for the ongoing negotiations over the war in eastern Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, a former special advisor to the President on Russia and Europe. Two of the witnesses, Vindman and Wilson, were among those listening in on the now-famous July 25th phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky. The other two were closely responsible for Ukraine policy leading up to and after that call and while they were ostensibly supposed to be “Republican” witnesses in that they had been requested by the minority and were supposed to reinforce the Administration’s defenses to the charges against the President, it didn’t exactly turn out that way.
By the time the day was over, the support for the argument that the President had committed impeachable offenses was strong, and the Republican defenses of the President had grown even less credible and more absurd:
Three current and former Trump administration officials described Tuesday how they harbored a variety of concerns surrounding a July phone call in which President Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former vice president Joe Biden — boosting Democrats’ inquiry into whether Trump should be impeached and substantially undercutting the president’s assertion that the conversation was “perfect.”
Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 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 tasked with 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 United States.
Jennifer Williams, Vice President 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 and helped jump-start Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
“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. Their day-long testimony kicked off what is likely to be the most intense week yet in the impeachment inquiry.
As they had behind closed doors, the witnesses testifying Tuesday, some in the face of public attacks from the president and his allies, offered a clear window into how Trump used the power of his office in a bid to get a political benefit from a foreign leader.
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 (Calif.), said during Tuesday’s hearings.
Trump said Tuesday that impeachment was “a little pipe dream” of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and that Republicans “are absolutely killing it” with their line of questioning for the witnesses.
Vindman and Williams testified together in a morning session before the House Intelligence Committee, followed in the afternoon by Morrison and Volker. Republicans had requested Volker and Morrison as witnesses and treated them far more gently — though their remarks did not fully exonerate Trump.
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.
Williams — whom Trump tweeted about over the weekend — said she was “surprised” by the president’s tweet, which suggested that she was among a group of “Never Trumpers” who were trying to launch a “presidential attack.”
“I was not expecting to be called out by name,” Williams said, denying that she had attempted to launch an attack on Trump.
Vindman, in his Army dress uniform, initially spoke quickly and nervously, the sheets of paper containing his opening statement shaking in his hand as he read aloud. He called the attacks on those who have appeared before lawmakers “reprehensible” and — addressing his father, who brought the Vindman family to the United States from the Soviet Union decades ago — said: “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Later in the hearing, though, Vindman seemed to grow more confident. At one point, he corrected Nunes after the Republican called him “Mr. Vindman,” rather than by his military rank.
“It’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” Vindman said. He later declared himself “never partisan” in response to accusations that he is a “never Trumper” and, when asked about Trump’s attacks, asserted of his testimony: “I knew I was assuming a lot of risk.”
On Tuesday, Trump said of Vindman: “I never saw the man. I understand now he wears his uniform when he goes in.”
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, tweeted: “What a joke… Can anyone watch this and believe that Vindman has any credibility?
As expected, Vindman and Williams both testified that what they heard in the July 25th phone call left them sufficiently concerned to take further action. In Vindman’s case, that meant speaking with the chief attorney for the National Security Council about the matter as well as other intelligence community representatives, including possibly the person who ultimately became the whistleblower that started off this whole process. Vindmain also pushed back hard against the idea that Republicans have tried to advance that President Trump was not focused on the Bidens but on the general idea of corruption in Ukraine, noting that the President’s discussions with Zelensky focused solely on the issue of Joe and Hunter Biden and the discredited conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine that had interfered in the 2016 elections.
Vindman also directly contradicted the claim that the Ukrainians were not aware of the hold on military aid, and therefore could not have made a connection between the aid and an investigation of Biden. In his testimony, Vindman stated that he spoke with Ukrainian government officials in July and August and it was evident by that point that they were aware that the aid was being frozen, and that they were likely aware that it was being withheld at least in part to force Ukraine into complying with the President’s desire to see specific allegations against his political enemies. Finally, Vindman flatly rejected the Fox News/GOP conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine interfered in the 2016 elections.
Instead, Vindman correctly noted that all the available evidence regarding interference pointed at Russia and that the allegation that the interference actually came from Ukraine is disinformation that came directly from the Kremlin. In other words, Republicans, including the President and the hosts on Fox News, are spreading a conspiracy theory that likely originated in the office of Vladimir Putin himself. All in all, both Vindman and Williams reinforced the idea that there was something unusual about the manner in which President Trump tried to coax the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens and that they took the steps they felt were necessary to alert their chains of command or superiors about their concerns regarding that call.
As for Volker and Morrison, as I stated these witnesses had initially been requested by the Republicans and were initially expected to provide testimony favorable to the President. As I noted above, though, it didn’t turn out that way. For his part, Volker, who was not on the July 25th phone call, stated that he did not think it was appropriate to link aid to Ukraine and investigations of the Bidens and discredited 2016 conspiracy theories. Volker also stated that he flatly rejected the corruption allegations against the former Vice-President, a position likely linked to his long association with the late Senator John McCain. Morrison, meanwhile, indicated that he at first did not see the mention of the Bidens in the July 25th as problematic but stated that, upon reading the depositions and testimony of other witnesses, he now has a different perspective on the matter. Morrison, who was Lt. Col. Vindman’s immediate civilian superior, rejected Republican efforts to undermine the credibility of Lt. Col. Vindman. Morrison also testified that Gordon Sondland, the Ambassador to the European Union who will testify today, told him that the Ukrainians were told that they must announce that the investigations will be undertaken before the hold on military aid would be released. Ultimately, of course, the hold was released the day after we first learned of the existence of the whistleblower’s complaint, which caused the whole house of cards to collapse.
By the time the day was over nearly 12 hours after it had started, the case against the President appeared to have been strengthened. Both Vindman and Williams came across as credible witnesses concerned primarily with doing their jobs and alerting their superiors to the unusual nature of what Lt. Col. Vindman characterized as President’s demand directed at President Zelensky. As for Volker and Morrison, they clearly didn’t provide Republicans with the ammunition they were hoping for and did not dispute the testimony of other witnesses who raised concerns about the contents of the July 25th phone call. While we have yet to come across a “smoking gun” in this proceeding, yesterday’s hearings went a long way toward reinforcing the idea that linking military aide with investigations of domestic political rivals was exactly what the President was trying to do. That’s bad news for the President, and for the Republicans seeking to defend him.
Today, the committee will hear from the U.S, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in the morning session. There’s been much speculation about exactly what Sondland will testify to, especially since there are significant parts of his deposition testimony that have been contradicted or shown to be incomplete by many of the witnesses who came after him. Sondland has already revised his previous testimony and may be required to do so again. This also raises issues of perjury, which has led to some speculation that Sondland may assert his rights under the Fifth Amendment in response to some questions. The afternoon session will consist of Laura Cooper, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense who previously testified that Ukraine was aware of the delay in military assistance by at least August. Testifying alongside Cooper will be David Hale an undersecretary at the State Department who will apparently testify regarding a phone call in which the President made specific mention of the Ukrainians conducting investigations before he would release the aid. As with the past several days of hearings, today’s proceedings will be carried live on a wide variety of television and streaming outlets.