Yves here. While the main source for this piece on Alexander Vindman is Byron York of the Washington Examiner, bear in mind that the Examiner is a non-crazy right-leaning site and has even broken some important stories. It is telling that there are so few people on the left who have the patience and constitutional fortitude to pick through the impeachment evidence carefully, see what it amounts to and withstand the vitriol if what they find is not what Team Dem insists is there.
And that’s before we get to our regular lament: why are the Dems choosing a line of inquiry which is a hairball (albeit less of one than Russiagate) and also has the Dems taking the position that the President is not in charge of foreign policy, and should defer to the CIA and other non-accountable insiders? Why not go after emoluments, which is in the Constitution as a Presidential no-no, where Trump has clearly abused repeatedly (you need go no further than the guest list in his DC hotel) and therefore easy to prove, and would have the added benefit of allowing Team Dem to rummage around in his finances?
By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor of Automatic Earth. Originally published at Automatic Earth
Let’s see what shape I can give this. I was reading a piece by Byron York that has the first good read-out I’ve seen of the October 29 deposition by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, self-labeled no. 1 Ukraine expert at the National Security Counsel, and I want to share that in a summarized form, with my comments. There’ll be some longer quotes though. And I know there are people who may not like York, but just skip his opinions and focus on the facts then.
Overall, Vindman comes across to me as a bureaucrat among bureaucrats, who also appears to be on the edge what we think of when we mention the Deep State. And who seems to think his views and opinions trump Trump’s own. “.. his greatest worry was that if the Trump-Zelensky conversation were made public, then Ukraine might lose the bipartisan support it currently has in Congress.”
A US President is elected to determine foreign policy, but Vindman doesn’t like things that way. He wants the policy to be set by people like him. It brings to mind Nikki Haley saying that Tillerson and Kelly wanted her to disobey the President, because they felt they knew better. That slide is mighty slippery. And unconstitutional too.
And the suspicion that Vindman’s report of the call may be what set off “whistleblowing” CIA agent Eric Ciaramella is more alive after the testimony than before. But, conveniently, his name may not be spoken. For pete’s sake, Vindman Even Testified He Advised Ukrainians to Ignore Trump.
Here’s Byron York:
House Democrats conducted their impeachment interviews in secret, but Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman still emerged as star of the show. Appearing at his Oct. 29 deposition in full dress uniform, the decorated Army officer, now a White House National Security Council Ukraine expert, was the first witness who had actually listened to the phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that is at the heart of the Democratic impeachment campaign. Even though lawmakers were forbidden to discuss his testimony in public, Vindman’s leaked opening statement that “I did not think it was proper [for Trump] to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen” exploded on news reports.
Here are four problems with the Vindman testimony:
1) Beyond his opinions, he had few new facts to offer.
[..] Indeed, Vindman attested to the overall accuracy of the rough transcript, contrary to some impeachment supporters who have suggested the White House is hiding an exact transcript that would reveal everything Trump said to the Ukrainian president. As one of a half-dozen White House note-takers listening to the call, Vindman testified that he tried unsuccessfully to make a few edits to the rough transcript as it was being prepared. In particular, Vindman believed that Zelensky specifically said the word “Burisma,” the corrupt Ukrainian energy company that hired Hunter Biden, when the rough transcript referred only to “the company.” But beyond that, Vindman had no problems with the transcript, and he specifically said he did not believe any changes were made with ill intent.
“You don’t think there was any malicious intent to specifically not add those edits?” asked Republican counsel Steve Castor. “I don’t think so.” “So otherwise, this record is complete and I think you used the term ‘very accurate’?” “Yes,” said Vindman. Once Vindman had vouched for the rough transcript, his testimony mostly concerned his own interpretation of Trump’s words. And that interpretation, as Vindman discovered during questioning, was itself open to interpretation. Vindman said he was “concerned” about Trump’s statements to Zelensky, so concerned that he reported it to top National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg. (Vindman had also reported concerns to Eisenberg two weeks before the Trump-Zelensky call, after a Ukraine-related meeting that included Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.)
Vindman said several times that he was not a lawyer and did not know if Trump’s words amounted to a crime but that he felt they were “wrong.” That was when Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney, tried to get to the root of Vindman’s concerns. What was really bothering him? “I’m trying to find out if you were reporting it because you thought there was something wrong with respect to policy or there was something wrong with respect to the law,” Ratcliffe said to Vindman. “And what I understand you to say is that you weren’t certain that there was anything improper with respect to the law, but you had concerns about U.S. policy. Is that a fair characterization?”
“So I would recharacterize it as I thought it was wrong and I was sharing those views,” Vindman answered. “And I was deeply concerned about the implications for bilateral relations, U.S. national security interests, in that if this was exposed, it would be seen as a partisan play by Ukraine. It loses the bipartisan support. And then for — ” “I understand that,” Ratcliffe said, “but that sounds like a policy reason, not a legal reason.” Indeed it did.
Elsewhere in Vindman’s testimony, he repeated that his greatest worry was that if the Trump-Zelensky conversation were made public, then Ukraine might lose the bipartisan support it currently has in Congress. That, to Ratcliffe and other Republicans, did not seem a sufficient reason to report the call to the NSC’s top lawyer, nor did it seem the basis to begin a process leading to impeachment and a charge of presidential high crimes or misdemeanors.
So Vindman was so concerned that he contacted the National Security Council (NSC) top lawyer, John Eisenberg. However, when John Ratcliffe asked Vindman: “I’m trying to find out if you were reporting it because you thought there was something wrong with respect to policy or there was something wrong with respect to the law..”, it turns out, it was about policy, not the law. So why did he contact Eisenberg? He doesn’t know the difference, or pretends he doesn’t know? Moreover, Eisenberg’s not the only person Vindman contacted. There were lots of others. And remember, this is sensitive material. Vindman was listening in on the President’s phone call with a foreign leader, in itself a strange event. Presidents and PM’s should be able to expect confidentiality.
2) Vindman withheld important information from investigators.
Vindman ended his opening statement in the standard way, by saying, “Now, I would be happy to answer your questions.” As it turned out, that cooperation did not extend to both parties.
The only news in Vindman’s testimony was the fact that he had twice taken his concerns to Eisenberg. He also told his twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, who is also an Army lieutenant colonel and serves as a National Security Council lawyer. He also told another NSC official, John Erath, and he gave what he characterized as a partial readout of the call to George Kent, a career State Department official who dealt with Ukraine. That led to an obvious question: Did Vindman take his concerns to anyone else? Did he discuss the Trump-Zelensky call with anyone else? It was a reasonable question, and an important one. Republicans asked it time and time again. Vindman refused to answer, with his lawyer, Michael Volkov, sometimes belligerently joining in. Through it all, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff stood firm in favor of keeping his committee in the dark.
[..] Vindman openly conceded that he told other people about the call. The obvious suspicion from Republicans was that Vindman told the person who became the whistleblower, who reported the call to the Intelligence Community inspector general, and who, in a carefully crafted legal document, framed the issue in a way that Democrats have adopted in their drive to remove the president from office. Vindman addressed the suspicion before anyone raised it. In his opening statement, he said, “I am not the whistleblower … I do not know who the whistleblower is and I would not feel comfortable to speculate as to the identity of the whistleblower.”
Fine, said Republicans. We won’t ask you who the whistleblower is. But if your story is that you were so concerned by the Trump-Zelensky issue that you reported it to Eisenberg, and also to others, well, who all did you tell? That is when the GOP hit a brick wall from Vindman, his lawyer Volkov, and, most importantly, Schiff. As chairman of the Intelligence Committee, charged with overseeing the intelligence community, Schiff might normally want to know about any intelligence community involvement in the matter under investigation. But in the Vindman deposition, Schiff strictly forbade any questions about it. “Can I just caution again,” he said at one point, “not to go into names of people affiliated with the IC in any way.” The purpose of it all was to protect the identity of the whistleblower, who Schiff incorrectly claimed has “a statutory right to anonymity.”
Schiff’s role is beyond curious. Sometimes you think he’s the boy with his finger in the dike, mighty fearful that it could break at any moment. But then Vindman’s lawyer jumps in as well:
That left Republicans struggling to figure out what happened. “I’m just trying to better understand who the universe of people the concerns were expressed to,” said Castor. “Look, the reason we’re objecting is not — we don’t want — my client does not want to be in the position of being used to identifying the whistleblower, okay?” said Volkov. “And based on the chair’s ruling, as I understand it, [Vindman] is not required to answer any question that would tend to identify an intelligence officer.”
[..] Vindman’s basic answer was: I won’t tell you because that’s a secret. After several such exchanges, Volkov got tough with lawmakers, suggesting further inquiries might hurt Vindman’s feelings. “Look, he came here,” Volkov said. “He came here. He tells you he’s not the whistleblower, okay? He says he feels uncomfortable about it. Try to respect his feelings at this point.” An unidentified voice spoke up. “We’re uncomfortable impeaching the president,” it said. “Excuse me. Excuse me,” Volkov responded. “If you want to debate it, we can debate it, but what I’m telling you right now is you have to protect the identity of the whistleblower. I get that there may be political overtones. You guys go do what you got to do, but do not put this man in the middle of it.”
Castor spoke up. “So how does it out anyone by saying that he had one other conversation other than the one he had with George Kent?” “Okay,” said Volkov. “What I’m telling you right now is we’re not going to answer that question. If the chair wants to hold him in contempt for protecting the whistleblower, God be with you. … You don’t need this. You don’t need to go down this. And look, you guys can — if you want to ask, you can ask — you can ask questions about his conversation with Mr. Kent. That’s it. We’re not answering any others.” “The only conversation that we can speak to Col. Vindman about is his conversation with Ambassador Kent?” asked Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin. “Correct,” said Volkov, “and you’ve already asked him questions about it.”
“And any other conversation that he had with absolutely anyone else is off limits?” “No,” said Volkov. “He’s told you about his conversations with people in the National Security Council. What you’re asking him to do is talk about conversations outside the National Security Council. And he’s not going to do that. I know where you’re going.” “No, actually, you don’t,” said Zeldin. “Oh, yes, sir,” said Volkov. “No, you really don’t,” said Zeldin. “You know what?” said Volkov. “I know what you’re going to say. I already know what you’re going to do, okay? And I don’t want to hear the FOX News questions, okay?”
[..] It should be noted that Volkov was a lawyer, and members of Congress were members of Congress. The lawyer should not be treating the lawmakers as Volkov did. Volkov was able to tell Republicans to buzz off only because he had Schiff’s full support. And Republicans never found out who else Vindman discussed the Trump-Zelensky call with.
Looking at this, you get to wonder what the role is of GOP lawmakers, and why anyone would want to be one. Their peers across the aisle pretend they can tell them exactly what and what not to do or say. Is that why they are elected? I couldn’t find one question or even word in here that would be labeled unfitting, or out of place, or aggressive or anything like that. But even then, they hit a brick wall.
So what makes Vindman the expert on Ukraine? I get the idea that it’s his compliance with whatever anyone says is the desired and required policy, and in this case, what is not. He certainly doesn’t appear to know everything. Maybe that’s because he left the country at age three.
3) There were notable gaps in Vindman’s knowledge.
Vindman portrayed himself as the man to see on the National Security Council when it came to issues involving Ukraine. “I’m the director for Ukraine,” he testified. “I’m responsible for Ukraine. I’m the most knowledgeable. I’m the authority for Ukraine for the National Security Council and the White House.” Yet at times there were striking gaps in Vindman’s knowledge of the subject matter. He seemed, for instance, distinctly incurious about the corruption issues in Ukraine that touched on Joe and Hunter Biden.
Vindman agreed with everyone that Ukraine has a serious corruption problem. But he knew little specifically about Burisma, the nation’s second-largest privately owned energy company, and even less about Mykola Zlochevsky, the oligarch who runs the firm. “What do you know about Zlochevsky, the oligarch that controls Burisma?” asked Castor. “I frankly don’t know a huge amount,” Vindman said. “Are you aware that he’s a former Minister of Ecology”? Castor asked, referring to a position Zlochevsky allegedly used to steer valuable government licenses to Burisma. “I’m not,” said Vindman.
“Are you aware of any of the investigations the company has been involved with over the last several years?” “I am aware that Burisma does have questionable business dealings,” Vindman said. “That’s part of the track record, yes.” “Okay. And what questionable business dealings are you aware of?” asked Castor. Vindman said he did not know beyond generalities. “The general answer is I think they have had questionable business dealings,” Vindman said.
[..] Vindman had other blind spots, as well. One important example concerned U.S. provision of so-called lethal aid to Ukraine, specifically anti-tank missiles known as Javelins. The Obama administration famously refused to provide Javelins or other lethal aid to Ukraine, while the Trump administration reversed that policy, sending a shipment of missiles in 2018. On the Trump-Zelensky call, the two leaders discussed another shipment in the future. “Both those parts of the call, the request for investigation of Crowd Strike and those issues, and the request for investigation of the Bidens, both of those discussions followed the Ukraine president saying they were ready to buy more Javelins. Is that right?” asked Schiff.
“Yes,” said Vindman. “There was a prior shipment of Javelins to Ukraine, wasn’t there?” said Schiff. “So that was, I believe — I apologize if the timing is incorrect — under the previous administration, there was a — I’m aware of the transfer of a fairly significant number of Javelins, yes,” Vindman said. Vindman’s timing was incorrect. Part of the entire Trump-Ukraine story is the fact that Trump sent the missiles while Obama did not. The top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council did not seem to know that.
York goes on to explain just how much of a bureaucrat Vindman is, as exemplified by things like “..there’s a fairly consensus policy within the interagency towards Ukraine,”. The “interagency” doesn’t set -foreign- policy, the President does.
4) Vindman was a creature of a bureaucracy that has often opposed President Trump.
One of his favorite words is “interagency,” by which he means the National Security Council’s role in coordinating policy among the State Department, Defense Department, the Intelligence Community, the Treasury Department, and the White House. [..] He says things such as, “So I hold at my level sub-PCCs, Deputy Assistant Secretary level. PCCs are my boss, senior director with Assistant Secretaries. DCs are with the deputy of the National Security Council with his deputy counterparts within the interagency.” He believes the interagency has set a clear U.S. policy toward Ukraine. “You said in your opening statement, or you indicated at least, that there’s a fairly consensus policy within the interagency towards Ukraine,” Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman said to Vindman.
“Could you just explain what that consensus policy is, in your own words?” “What I can tell you is, over the course of certainly my tenure there, since July 2018, the interagency, as per normal procedures, assembles under the NSPM-4, the National Security Policy [sic] Memorandum 4, process to coordinate U.S. government policy,” Vindman said. “We, over the course of this past year, probably assembled easily a dozen times, certainly at my level, which is called a subpolicy coordinating committee — and that’s myself and my counterparts at the Deputy Assistant Secretary level — to discuss our views on Ukraine.”
The “interagency” doesn’t set policy, the President does -and with him perhaps the House and Senate. But not an alphabet soup of agencies.
I’ve said it before, and I fear I may have to say it again, this is a show trial. And no, it’s not even a trial, that happens next in the Senate. Jonathan Turley said the other day that he thinks Nancy Pelosi wants a quick -before Christmas- resolution to the House part, but I’m not convinced.
The reason is that the Democrats lose the director’s chair once this moves to the Senate. They can’t silence the Republicans there the same way Adam Schiff does it in the House. Pelosi herself said in March that impeachment MUST be a bipartisan effort. It’s unclear why she abandoned that position in August, but I think it could be panic, and that it was the worst move she could have made.
Because this thing in its present shape is unwinnable. To impeach Trump, the Dems would need Republican votes. But how could they possibly get those when they lock out the Republicans of the entire process?