WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A White House official told impeachment investigators on Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate a political rival was an improper demand as he fended off Republican efforts to cast doubt on his competence and loyalty to the United States.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the White House National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert and a decorated Iraq war veteran, testified at the third public impeachment hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, wearing his blue dress military uniform and medals.
“It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent,” Vindman said.
Both Vindman and a second witness - Jennifer Williams, an aide to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence - said they were struck by the political nature of the requests made by Trump in a July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is at the heart of the impeachment investigation threatening Trump’s presidency.
During the call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to carry out two investigations that would benefit him politically, including one targeting Democratic political rival Joe Biden, a leading candidate in the 2020 presidential race. The other involved a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Vindman and Williams were among the U.S. officials who listened in during the call.
“Frankly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was probably an element of shock that maybe, in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukrainian policy could play out was playing out,” Vindman said.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and has assailed the inquiry as a witch hunt and a sham.
Williams told the committee that Trump’s call with Zelenskiy was unusual and inappropriate because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.”
Ahead of the July call, Trump had frozen $391 million in U.S. security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. Trump was seeking a Ukrainian investigation of Biden and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm called Burisma.
Kurt Volker, a former diplomat who was involved in efforts to get Zelenskiy’s government to commit to corruption investigations, said the United States should not have pursued those allegations. He said attacks against Biden were “not credible.”
Volker said he did not know that a request to investigate Burisma was effectively a request to investigate Biden.
“In retrospect, I should have seen that connection different, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections,” he said in prepared testimony.
He said Trump was critical of Ukraine. “He said that Ukraine was a corrupt country, full of terrible people. He said they ‘tried to take me down,’” Volker said.
Volker’s testimony conflicted in some aspects with an earlier account.
In closed-door testimony in October, Volker said he had not heard any references to investigations during a July 10 White House meeting between U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
On Tuesday, he said Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, made a “generic” comment about investigations that others regarded as inappropriate.
Former National Security Council Russia expert Tim Morrison also testified later on Tuesday.
Trump has attacked both Williams and Vindman on Twitter as “Never Trump” witnesses, a term he uses to describe Republicans who oppose him. Some of Trump’s allies in the conservative media have questioned Vindman’s loyalty to the United States.
Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union four decades ago when he was 3 years old and settled in the United States, told lawmakers that “character attacks” against public servants testifying in the impeachment inquiry were “reprehensible.”
Even as he was testifying, the White House’s official Twitter account attacked his judgment - even though he is a current White House official, and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. assailed him in a separate Twitter post as “a low level partisan bureaucrat and nothing more.”
A U.S. official said Vindman and his family might be moved to a military base because of security threats.
The investigation could lead the House to approve formal charges against Trump - called articles of impeachment - that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office. Few Republican senators have broken with Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday it was “inconceivable” that two-thirds of the Republican-controlled chamber would vote to convict Trump.
According to Reuters/Ipsos polling, 46 percent of Americans support impeachment, while 41 percent oppose it.
Last Friday’s testimony attracted an average audience of 12.9 million viewers across seven U.S. television networks that aired lived coverage, according to data from the Nielsen ratings agency, down slightly from the audience on the first day. The numbers did not include people who streamed the event on phones or computers or followed the proceedings via social media.