Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman arrives on Capitol Hill to testify to House investigators, October 29, 2019 (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Transcripts of testimony from two more senior US officials add to the evidence of Donald Trump’s “quid pro quo” demanding Ukraine announce investigations to tarnish Presidential candidate Joe Biden and the Democratic Party and to cover up Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election.
Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine and East European specialists on the National Security Council, detailed how they were “shocked” and concerned by the campaign by Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliahi since last November. They confirmed that Trump cut off military aid to Ukraine and made any White House visit by new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky conditional on the investigations.
Vindman, who is still on the NSC, told House committees of Trump’s July 25 call to Zelenskiy, to which he listened. He contrasted the conversation with a call in April just after Zelenskiy’s election.
The tone was significantly different. I’m struggling for the words, but it was not a positive call. It was dour. If I think about it some more, I could probably come up with some other adjectives, but it was just — the difference between the calls was apparent.
Rep. Peter Welch asked Vindman if he had any doubt that Trump was asking for investigations “as a deliverable” in return for Trump’s actions towards Kiev.
“There was no doubt,” Vindman replied.
The NSC official said he was told by US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland — a Trump political appointee and key figure in the Trump-Giuliani campaign — that the quid pro quo, of a Zelenskiy visit to the White House in return for the investigations, was “coordinated” with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
“[Sondland] said that he had had a conversation with Mr. Mulvaney, and this is what was required in order to get a meeting,” Vindman testified.
Sondland revised his testimony this week to acknowledge a quid pro quo between Trump’s freeze on military aid in return for the investigations.
Mulvaney defied a subpoena requiring his testimony before the committees on Friday. His top deputies at the Office of Management and Budget have also refused to appear.
Trying to protect Trump, Rep. John Ratcliffe pressed Vindman on why he said there was a Trump “demand” for an investigation of Biden and his son Hunter, a board member of Ukraine’s largest private gas company, Burisma.
Vindman set out the vast “power disparity” between Trump and Zelenskiy and summarized: “When the President of the United States makes a request for a favor, it certainly seems — I would take it as a demand.”
He explained that, within an hour of the July 25 call, he told the NSC’s top lawyer John Eisenberg of the “troubling and disturbing” and “wrong” statements by Trump, including the request to Zelenksiy to meet Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to “conduct an investigation that didn’t exist”.
On Thursday, it was revealed that Barr was angered by Trump’s linking of him and Giuliani. The Attorney General refused Trump’s request that Barr hold a press conference to declare a “perfect call”.
Vindman said he was instructed by National Security Advisor John Bolton — who had described the pressure for investigations as a “drug deal” with which the NSC should have no involvement — to draft a memo for Trump about the US interests in the suspended $391 million of military aid to Ukraine.
He explained that on August 16, Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper met Trump “to discuss the hold and other issues”, bringing a broad agreement that the aid cut-off “would significantly undermine the message of support” to Ukraine and “signal to the Russians that they could potentially be more aggressive”.
Vindman said that one official told him that the hold on military aid “never came up”, while another said it was raised “but no decision was taken”.
Hill: “Shocked” by Giuliani Campaign and Threats to US Diplomats
Hill, who left the NSC this summer, set out the Giuliani campaign including his use of business associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who have been indicted for campaign finance violations.
Hill said that, knowing of Parnas and Fruman’s activities in countries such as Venezuela, she was concerned about Giuliani and his associates “trying to appropriate presidential power or the authority of the President, given the position that Mr. Giuliani is in, to also pursue their own personal interests”.
She explained how that campaign included disinformation and character assassination to undermine and eventually remove the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, seen as a barrier to any investigations. The effort included dissemination of the disinformation through a writer for The Hill site and culminating, after Yovanovitch’s recall in May, in Trump telling Zelenskiy that she was a “bad woman” who would “go through some things”.
Yovanovitch, who is still in the State Department, told the House committees that she still worried about the implied threat: “I didn’t know what it meant. I was very concerned. I still am.”
Hill told the committees:
My worst nightmare is the politicization of the relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine and, also, the usurpation of authorities, you know, for other people’s personal vested interests. And there seems to be a large range of people who were looking for these opportunities here.
Hill: Businessman Trump “Targeted” by Putin
Near the end of her testimony, Hill told the committees that Trump was probably viewed for decades as a potential Russian asset.
She said of Vladimir Putin, then a KGB officer and now Russian President: “I firmly believe he was…targeting President Trump, and he was targeting all of the other campaigns [in 2016] as well.”
Asked by Rep. Jamie Raskin, “Why do you believe that Putin was targeting Donald Trump from his days as a businessman?”, Hill responded:
Because that’s exactly what President Putin and others were doing. Again, he was part of a directorate in the KGB in Leningrad….What they did exclusively was targeting businessmen.