White House official was ‘concerned’ about Trump’s Ukraine call

Via Financial Times

A White House official who listened in on the July 25 phone call between Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart told Congress he was “concerned” about the exchange and reported his unease to a National Security Council lawyer.

Alexander Vindman, a US army officer and recipient of the Purple Heart medal, joined the NSC last year, reporting to Fiona Hill, Mr Trump’s former top Russia adviser.

On Tuesday Mr Vindman told the congressional committees leading the impeachment inquiry into the US president that he listened in on the July 25 phone call from the White House situation room alongside other administration officials.

According to a draft of Mr Vindman’s opening statement, first published by The New York Times, he said he was “concerned” by the call, in which Mr Trump asked Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden, the former vice-president’s son. Hunter Biden had held a board position with Burisma, a Ukrainian oil and gas company.

“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a US citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the US government’s support of Ukraine,” Mr Vindman told the impeachment inquiry, saying he reported his concerns to John Eisenberg, the NSC’s lead counsel.

A whistleblower complaint centred on the July 25 phone call sparked the impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump. The White House released a memorandum based on the phone call last month. But Mr Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union for the US in 1979, insisted on Tuesday that he is not the whistleblower.

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Mr Vindman also described a July 10 meeting in Washington involving Ukrainian politician Oleksandr Danylyuk, US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, US energy secretary Rick Perry, then-US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and then-US national security adviser John Bolton.

He said the meeting was “cut short” by Mr Bolton after Mr Sondland “started to speak about Ukraine delivering specific investigations” to secure a meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky.

According to Mr Vindman, during the meeting Mr Sondland “emphasised the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 [US presidential] election, the Bidens and Burisma”.

The officer said he told Mr Sondland that his statement was “inappropriate” and his requests to investigate the Bidens “had nothing to do with national security”. Ms Hill also reported her concerns to Mr Eisenberg, Mr Vindman said.

His comments cast doubt on the testimony of Mr Sondland, who told House investigators earlier this month that Mr Bolton and Ms Hill “never shared” any “misgivings about the propriety of what we were doing”.

Mr Sondland also told House investigators he did not know “until more recent press reports” that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma.

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Mr Vindman’s testimony came one week after William Taylor, the US chargé d’affaires to Ukraine, told the impeachment inquiry that the release of US military aid to the country was contingent on Mr Zelensky opening an investigation into the Bidens and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

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Some Republicans sought to undermine Mr Vindman’s credibility on Tuesday. Sean Duffy, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin, told CNN the Army officer seemed “incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defence” and said he may have an “affinity” for the eastern European country, rather than the US. John Yoo, a former George W Bush White House official, suggested on Fox News that Mr Vindman participated in “espionage”.

But Liz Cheney, a top House Republican, said it would be “shameful” to question the patriotism of Mr Vindman or other impeachment inquiry witnesses.

“We need to show that we are better than that as a nation,” she said. “We’re talking about decorated veterans who have served this nation, who put their lives on the line.”

On Monday Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, said members of Congress would vote this week on a resolution formalising the impeachment inquiry.

“We are taking this step to eliminate any doubt as to whether the Trump administration may withhold documents, prevent witness testimony, disregard duly authorised subpoenas, or continue obstructing the House of Representatives,” Ms Pelosi said.

The White House has insisted it would not co-operate with the impeachment inquiry, and House committees have subpoenaed witnesses to compel them to testify. On Monday Mr Trump’s deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman defied a subpoena and did not appear for his scheduled deposition.