WASHINGTON - Two U.S. national security experts told the impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump on Tuesday that they were troubled and concerned by Trump pushing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July 25 call to launch an investigation to benefit himself politically.
Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the White House's National Security Council, listened in as Trump asked Zelenskiy for "a favor," to investigate one of the U.S. leader's top 2020 Democratic challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden's businessman son, Hunter Biden.
"What I heard was inappropriate" and "improper," said Vindman, a decorated veteran appearing in his dress military uniform before the House Intelligence Committee at the start of the second week of the impeachment hearings.
Vindman said that Trump's request for the Biden political investigation "had nothing to do with U.S. national security" interests. Vindman said he had prepared foreign policy talking points in preparation for Trump's call with Zelenskiy, none of which concerned investigating the Bidens.
Vindman said he viewed Trump's request to Zelenskiy for the Biden investigations as "an order," one that would undermine U.S. national security and Washington's relations with Kyiv. Republicans supporting Trump noted that Zelenskiy has said he did not feel pressured by the Trump request even though it occurred at a time the U.S. leader had temporarily blocked $391 million in U.S. military aid that Ukraine wanted.
Vindman said that shortly after the call, he reported his concerns about the Trump request to a security council lawyer. After that, Vindman said he later was excluded from security meetings he might have otherwise attended.
Jennifer Williams, a foreign affairs advisor to Vice President Mike Pence, who also listened in on the Trump-Zelenskiy call, said the request for the Biden investigation was "unusual" because it involved a "domestic political matter."
"That struck me as political in nature," she said of Trump's request, and beyond the norm of what she had heard in other high-level calls involving U.S. leaders in her 14 years as a Foreign Service officer. "I just noted that the reference to Biden sounded political to me," she said.
Trump also wanted Zelenskiy to investigate Hunter Biden's work for a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma Holdings, and a debunked theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election that Trump won, not Russia, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded.
Vindman and Williams were the first of four witnesses testifying Tuesday about the July 25 call they listened in on. Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council aide who also heard the call, is appearing later in the day, along with Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine.
Volker said he did not knowingly take part in any effort to encourage Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Volker said he did not know about the push for the investigations until Trump released a rough transcript of his call with Zelenskiy in late September, and Volker said he would have objected had he known.
The veteran diplomat said that while U.S. diplomats attempted to support Zelenskiy as he assumed power earlier this year, Volker said he found that Trump had a "chronically negative" view of the eastern European country.
Volker said Trump's skepticism for better relations with Kyiv were based on negative information he was receiving from his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor whom the president had named to oversee U.S. relations with Ukraine, sidelining normal diplomacy channeled through the State Department.
Republicans are expected to attack the credibility of the witnesses, claiming they are "deep state" bureaucrats opposed to Trump's free-wheeling conduct of U.S. affairs and his relations with other world leaders.
Republican lawyer Steve Castor suggested that Vindman, a Ukraine native who came with his parents to the United States to escape the then-Soviet republic when he was 3 years old, still had ties to his homeland, eliciting the fact that a Zelenskiy aide earlier this year asked Vindman three times whether he would want to be the Ukrainian defense minister.
But Vindman said he summarily rejected the overture, saying, "I'm an American. The whole notion is rather comical. I did not leave the door open" to accept the offer to join Zelenskiy's government. Vindman said he reported the job possibility to U.S officials.
In all, nine witnesses are set to testify through Thursday, likely the key days in whether Democrats will be able to mount the case for lawmakers and the American public that Trump should be only the third U.S. leader to be impeached in the country's 243-year history.
National polls show U.S. voters deeply divided on whether Trump should be removed from office through the impeachment process, which would be a first in U.S. annals. If impeached or formally charged by the full House of Representatives with articles of impeachment, Trump would face a trial in the Republican-majority Senate, where his conviction remains unlikely.
Trump, who has almost daily taken to Twitter to assail the investigation, remained quiet about the first hours of Tuesday's proceedings.
Later, he told a Cabinet meeting, "Right now, you have a kangaroo court, headed by little shifty Schiff, where we don't have lawyers, we don't have witnesses, we don't have anything. And yet I just got to watch, and the Republicans are absolutely killing it. They are doing so well, because it's a scam, it's a big scam. They're doing something that the founders never thought possible, and the founders didn't want, and they are using this impeachment hoax for their own political gain.”
Trump added, "But Vindman, I watched him for a little while this morning, and I think he, I'm going to let people make their own determination, but I don't know Vindman, I never heard of him. I don't know any of these people (testifying against him) other than I have seen one or two a couple of times, they're ambassadors."
On Monday, Trump said he would "strongly consider" testifying before the impeachment inquiry.
"Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!" Trump tweeted.
....that I testify about the phony Impeachment Witch Hunt. She also said I could do it in writing. Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 18, 2019
The president was replying to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who told CBS television’s Face the Nation on Sunday, "The president could come right before the committee and talk, speak all the truth that he wants...or he could do it in writing. He has every opportunity to present his case."
She added that if Trump "has information that is exculpatory — that means ex, taking away, culpable, blame — then we look forward to seeing it."
Almost two years ago, Trump said he was ready and willing to testify in person as special counsel Robert Mueller investigated Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and whether as president, Trump had attempted to obstruct the probe.
Ultimately, Trump never testified face-to-face with investigators, preferring to only answer their questions in writing without cross-examination by prosecutors. In his written responses, Trump said more than 30 times he could not remember or recall an event.
The top House lawyer said on Monday that lawmakers are investigating whether Trump told the truth to Mueller and want the sealed material from the Mueller probe released.
Trump has said the Mueller investigation cleared him of allegations of obstruction of justice.
The impeachment inquiry centers on whether Trump withheld $391 million in badly needed military aid to Ukraine -- in its conflict with Russian-backed forces -- unless Zelenskiy publicly committed to investigating the Bidens and whether Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of the Democrats trying to defeat Trump.
A whistleblower disturbed by a U.S. president appearing to ask a foreign government to dig up dirt on a political rival alerted the intelligence community's inspector general, leading to the current impeachment inquiry.
No evidence of corruption by the Bidens has surfaced and the allegations of Ukrainian election interference are based on a debunked conspiracy theory.
Trump has described the July 25 telephone call as "perfect " and strongly denies there was any quid pro quo with Ukraine -- the military aid in exchange for the political investigations. He has called the impeachment probe a "hoax" and a "witch hunt," while also describing some of the witnesses as "never Trumpers," including several career diplomats who have spent decades serving presidents of both parties in non-partisan roles.
The impeachment hearing "is a great fraud being played out against the American people by the Fake News Media & their partner, the Do Nothing Democrats," Trump tweeted Monday, claiming the hearing rules "are rigged" by Pelosi and Congressman Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence panel.