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Army officer gives Democrats fresh ammunition on Trump and Ukraine

Army Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who is assigned to the National Security Council, arrives Tuesday to testify in the impeachment inquiry.
Army Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who is assigned to the National Security Council, arrives Tuesday to testify in the impeachment inquiry.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

A decorated Army officer assigned to the National Security Council told a House panel Tuesday that he was so alarmed by White House efforts to press Ukraine to investigate President Trump’s political foes that he repeatedly complained to a superior, giving Democrats fresh ammunition in the fast-moving impeachment inquiry.

Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, is the first serving White House official to testify in the impeachment probe, and one of the first to provide direct, firsthand confirmation of numerous details in the anonymous whistleblower’s complaint that first fueled the inquiry.

The testimony, which took place behind closed doors, came as Democrats introduced a resolution that could be approved Thursday to formalize procedures for their probe. It would be the first formal House vote on the impeachment inquiry that began five weeks ago, and aims to counter complaints from Trump and his allies that the process is illegitimate, unfair and lacking due process.

The resolution would pave the way for public hearings and allow Republicans to request subpoenas of witnesses and documents, subject to a committee vote. The House Intelligence Committee would play the lead role, and its chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), would have broad latitude to arrange questioning of witnesses.

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The White House made clear it was still dissatisfied. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said the resolution only serves to continue “this scam,” saying the White House rights “remain undefined, unclear and uncertain — because those rules still haven’t been written.”

In an opening statement, Vindman said he was among a small group of officials who gathered in the White House Situation Room to listen to Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a conversation at the heart of the inquiry into whether the president improperly used U.S. foreign policy for personal gain.

According to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House, Trump pressed Zelensky for “a favor” — to investigate Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter — when asked for additional U.S. military aid for the embattled country’s conflict with Russia.

Vindman said he was so troubled that he spoke to the top lawyer for the National Security Council.

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“I was concerned by the call,” Vindman wrote in his opening statement. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”

He added: “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and [Hunter Biden’s former employer] Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained [in Congress]. This would all undermine U.S. national security.”

Like other administration officials who have testified over the last month, Vindman appeared in response to a subpoena from the House Intelligence Committee after the White House directed him not to participate.

Writing on Twitter, Trump denounced the inquiry Tuesday as a “sham,” adding: “Why are people that I never even heard of testifying about the call. Just READ THE CALL TRANSCRIPT AND THE IMPEACHMENT HOAX IS OVER!”

Vindman’s Army dress blues and service medals as he entered the Capitol served as a quiet rebuke to some Trump supporters who suggested he wasn’t loyal to the United States but to Ukraine, the former Soviet republic where he was born. His Jewish parents immigrated to America when he was 3 years old.

“Fox and Friends” host Brian Kilmeade suggested that Vindman, who was wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq and was awarded the Purple Heart, “tends to feel simpatico with the Ukraine” because of his heritage.

Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican who recently gave up his House seat, also suggested the possibility of split loyalties, speculating on CNN about Vindman’s “affinity” for his birthplace.

Some took umbrage at the smears, including Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.)., who called it “shameful” to question the patriotism of the 20-year military veteran.

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“It’s absurd, disgusting and way off the mark,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said. “This is a decorated American soldier, and he should be given the respect that his service to our country demands.”

Bradley P. Moss, a national security lawyer in Washington, noted that any foreign-born military officer would be thoroughly vetted about possible dual loyalties before receiving a security clearance to work at the White House.

“LTC Vindman was already vetted (more than once) on these very issues, and the vetting for someone with an ... intelligence posting would no doubt have required the highest clearance eligibility ... necessitating not only the standard background check but also more than likely a full scope polygraph (the one where they grill you on your entire life),” Moss wrote on Twitter. “Vindman passed this vetting.”

According to his prepared statement, Vindman planned to tell lawmakers that he first complained to the National Security Council lead counsel after a July 10 meeting in Washington between U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and visiting Ukrainian officials.

Vindman said Sondland stressed the importance of having Ukraine investigate the 2016 election as well as Burisma, the company that had hired the son of former Vice President Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

Vindman says he told Sondland that “his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the NSC was going to get involved in or push.”

That account differs from that of Sondland, a wealthy Oregon businessman who donated $1 million to the Trump inauguration and testified to impeachment investigators that no one from the NSC “ever expressed any concerns.” He also testified that he did not realize there was any connection between Biden and Burisma.

Vindman served in various military and diplomatic posts before joining the Trump White House. He was the director for European affairs at the National Security Council under Fiona Hill, who previously testified in the impeachment probe. Hill worked for Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton. Both have left government.

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Vindman attended Zelensky’s inauguration last spring in Kyiv with a delegation led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and he and Hill took part in a Ukraine briefing with Sondland that, according to others who have testified, irritated Bolton at the White House.

According to his prepared statement, Vindman planned to make clear that he is not the whistleblower, the still-unnamed intelligence official who filed the initial complaint over Trump’s July 25 conversation with Zelensky that sparked the House impeachment inquiry — and that he does not know who that person is.

“For over 20 years as an active-duty United States military officer and diplomat, I have served this country in a nonpartisan manner, and have done so with the utmost respect and professionalism for both Republican and Democratic administrations,” he wrote.

As Vindman testified Tuesday afternoon, Democrats introduced a resolution to affirm the impeachment investigation, set rules for public hearings and outline the potential process for writing articles of impeachment against Trump.

Most important, it allows the minority party to request subpoenas of witnesses and documents, the same authority Democrats were given during the Republican-led impeachment of President Clinton in 1998.

The resolution also authorizes the House Intelligence Committee to release transcripts of their closed-door depositions, something Republicans have repeatedly demanded.

“The evidence we have already collected paints the picture of a president who abused his power by using multiple levers of government to press a foreign country to interfere in the 2020 election,” the four Democratic committee chairmen handling the inquiry said in a statement.

“Following in the footsteps of previous impeachment inquiries, the next phase will move from closed depositions to open hearings where the American people will learn firsthand about the president’s misconduct,” they wrote.

The House Rules Committee will mark up the resolution Wednesday and a full House vote could be held as early as Thursday. The Democratic majority all but guarantees it will pass.

Times staff writers Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.


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