Witnesses Deflect GOP Attacks But Give Democrats Little New Ammo


(Bloomberg) -- The lone show of evenhanded calm in Tuesday’s House impeachment hearing was at the witness table -- and that’s just how Jennifer Williams and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman wanted it.

Republicans who tried to portray them as deep-state bureaucrats eager to embarrass Donald Trump made little headway with their attacks. Democrats who praised them as patriots willing to call out the president’s wrongdoing didn’t get damaging new information to bolster their case. Instead, the two witnesses remained largely unruffled, with only a few moments of indignation.

Williams, a foreign service officer assigned to Vice President Mike Pence’s office, emphasized that she was sworn into government by Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “a personal hero of mine.” Vindman, the Ukraine expert on the White House’s National Security Council, had soft-spoken but emphatic retorts to questions about his devotion to duty.

“Would you call yourself a Never Trumper?” Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat, asked Vindman, as Trump has suggested in disparaging tweets. “Representative, I’d call myself never partisan,” Vindman responded.

Unsparing Terms

Both witnesses described in unsparing terms their concerns about what Trump said in his July 25 call with Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy out of a sense of duty and concern about America’s national security. But both gave the administration the benefit of the doubt on other aspects of Ukraine policy the Democrats asked them about, such as whether the partial transcript of the call was handled improperly.

Democrats were betting the pair’s testimony on Tuesday morning would be damning to Trump because both of them were on the call in which Trump made the demand that Zelenskiy investigate Democrat Joe Biden and his son.

Vindman, who appeared in his Army dress uniform bristling with medals, faced sharp questions from Republicans. Representative Jim Jordan suggested the Army officer had leaked confidential information.

“I never did, never would. That is preposterous that I would do that,” Vindman said.

Asked later why he decided to come forward, Vindman said “Because this is America, this is the country I’ve served and defended, that all of my brothers have served and here, right matters.”

Under questioning from Republican staff lawyer Steve Castor, Vindman, whose family immigrated from Ukraine, acknowledged that he was offered the job as Ukraine’s defense minister while on an official trip to that country.

“I’m an American, I came here as a toddler, and I dismissed the offer,” Vindman said. He called it “comical,” and said he reported the incident to his superiors.

Later, Democratic Representative Jim Himes accused Republicans of seeking to question Vindman’s loyalty to the U.S. by raising the matter.

“That was designed exclusively to give the right-wing media an opening to question your loyalties,” Himes said, “The kind of thing you say when you’re defending the indefensible.”

At another point, when Republican Representative Devin Nunes referred to him as “Mr. Vindman,” the witness countered, “Ranking member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please.”

But at the same time, Vindman and Williams refused to give Democrats the gotcha moments they were craving. Vindman declined to ascribe nefarious motives to a decision to leave the word “Burisma” out of a rough transcript of the July 25 call that was eventually released by the White House. Burisma is the Ukrainian company that hired Biden’s son Hunter.

“it’s not a significant omission,” Vindman said.

Similarly, Williams repeatedly declined to characterize why Trump canceled a trip to Ukraine by Pence or give credence to the Democrats’ theory that he did so to punish Ukraine.

Republicans have complained that earlier witnesses called by House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff had no access to Trump or firsthand knowledge of the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. On Tuesday, they had as witnesses two officials who were on the call and who both recoiled when they heard the president seek an investigation into a political opponent.

More testimony was set to come later in the day and then on Wednesday, when Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is scheduled to testify. Sondland is alleged to have had a phone call with Trump on July 26 from Ukraine and to have told a State Department diplomat that Trump only cared about “big stuff” like an investigation into the Bidens.

While saying he came forward solely out of a sense of duty, not opposition to Trump, Vindman did support essentials of the Democrats’ narrative. He aired his concerns that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was promoting “false narratives” that undermined U.S. policy.

“Certainly it wasn’t helpful and it didn’t help advance American national security interests,” he said of Trump’s demands in the July call.

In a poignant moment, Vindman directly addressed his father in his opening statement.

In the Soviet Union that their family left behind, Vindman said, “offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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