Impeachment investigators on Wednesday released the much-anticipated deposition transcript of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer and Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council staff.
Vindman, a participant in the now-famous July 25 phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, told lawmakers in his Oct. 28 testimony that he was troubled by what he saw as political considerations impinging on U.S. national security — and that he was told by a top White House lawyer to keep quiet about the call.
“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,” Vindman said, referring to Trump’s demand that Zelensky investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival, and his son Hunter.
"It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where the gain would be for the president in investigating the son of a political opponent," Vindman said.
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Vindman implicates acting White House Chief of Staff Mulvaney
During a July 21 meeting in the Ward Room at the White House, U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland began discussing how a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky was contingent upon Zelensky launching the investigations Trump demanded, Vindman testified. That “deliverable” had been coordinated with acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, he said.
Vindman is the third witness to tie Sondland directly to Mulvaney.
George Kent, a senior State Department official, told lawmakers that Sondland and Mulvaney had an independent relationship that facilitated Sondland’s presence in high-level meetings with both Trump and the Ukrainians, and that Mulvaney was the one who placed a hold on U.S. military aid to Ukraine at the president’s direction.
And Fiona Hill, the NSC’s top Europe and Russia adviser at the time, testified that during the July 21 meeting with the Ukrainians, Sondland “was talking about how he had an agreement with Chief of Staff Mulvaney for a meeting with the Ukrainians if they were going to go forward with investigations."
Sondland describes the ‘deliverable’: an investigation of Biden
Vindman described a subsequent meeting in the Ward Room of the White House during which Sondland detailed, with “no ambiguity,” the so-called “deliverable” that was required in order for the Ukrainians to secure a White House meeting.
“He was calling for something, calling for an investigation that didn’t exist into the Bidens and Burisma,” Vindman said, referring to the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden once sat.
When asked what Sondland specifically said, Vindman replied: “That the Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens.”
In addition to the military aid, the Ukrainians viewed a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky as critical for the relationship between the two leaders. When pressed further, Vindman said it was clear what Sondland was trying to do.
“My visceral reaction to what was being called for suggested that it was explicit. There was no ambiguity,” Vindman said.
Vindman: Trump was clear, too
As Vindman describes his reaction to hearing Trump ask Zelensky for a “favor,” he notes that the president did not need to explicitly demand something in order for Zelensky to understand what Trump wanted. American presidents have unmatched leverage over foreign leaders, Vindman explained.
“[T]he power disparity between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine is vast, and, you know, in the president asking for something, it became—there was—in return for a White House meeting, because that’s what this was about,” Vindman told investigators. “This was about getting a White House meeting. It was a demand for him to fulfill his—fulfill this particular prerequisite in order to get the meeting.”
Trump’s Republican allies have argued that Trump did not explicitly demand that Zelensky open an investigation into Biden — but Democrats have pushed back, noting that Ukraine relies on the U.S. for its safety and security in the region, meaning that Zelensky would consider an ask from the American president to be a demand.
The Ukraine aid holdup happened earlier than previously reported
Several officials have testified that they learned about the aid holdup on July 18. But Vindman said he learned about it more than two weeks earlier, on July 3, shifting the known timeline of when the aid was held up.
The aid holdup may have been in the works as early as June, Vindman testified, because he was getting indications from the relevant departments that OMB was asking “abnormal” questions” about the aid, including how much and what kind of funding Kyiv was receiving.
The new timeline also raises questions about a July 3 meeting Special Envoy Kurt Volker had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Toronto, in which he urged Zelensky to commit to investigating “corruption.” Volker testified that he told Zelensky that the message of cleaning up corruption that the U.S. needed to hear in order to support him was getting “countermanded by a negative narrative about Ukraine.”
Vindman testified that he received a notice from the State Department on July 3 saying that the Office of Management and Budget was holding up a notification to Congress about the military aid, a required step to obligate the appropriated funds.
He didn’t understand why, initially, but sought to find out. Between July 3 and July 18, when the aid freeze was relayed to a sub-policy coordinating committee, Vindman said, the NSC was “trying to get to the bottom of why this hold was in place”—and that the reason became “quite apparent” during the July 18 meeting, when he learned that the hold came from Mulvaney’s office.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine