Army officer says he raised flags about Trump's Ukraine call

VIDEO: REUTERS
Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman arriving in Capitol Hill, Washington, on Oct 29, 2019, to testify in the US House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman arriving in Capitol Hill, Washington, on Oct 29, 2019, to testify in the US House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry into President Trump.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - A US Army officer who works for the White House National Security Council said he listened in on the telephone call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine's president and was so disturbed by what he heard that he reported his concerns to the NSC's legal counsel.

Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman arrived on Capitol Hill on Tuesday (Oct 29) for testimony before the House impeachment inquiry. He said in prepared testimony that the July call was just one of the instances he witnessed in which Trump administration officials conditioned aid to Ukraine on that country agreeing to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden. In one of the prior incidents, he also contacted the NSC lawyer.

Vindman's statement corroborates the complaint made by a whistle-blower in the intelligence community, who Trump has repeatedly sought to discredit and dismiss.

Vindman's appeared on Tuesday before the three House committees leading an impeachment inquiry into Trump and provides a key piece of evidence from someone with first-hand knowledge of the events being investigated.

"I was concerned by the call. 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," Vindman said in the statement.

"I realised that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained." That, he added, "would all undermine US national security."

Biden's son Hunter sat on the board of Burisma Group, one of the country's biggest private gas companies. As vice-president, Biden pursued an anti-corruption policy in Ukraine in 2016 that included a call for the resignation of the country's top prosecutor who had previously investigated Burisma.

On Tuesday, Trump referred in a tweet to Vindman without naming him: "Was he on the same call that I was? Can't be possible!"

Vindman said the first time he contacted an NSC lawyer was after Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, told Ukrainian officials at a meeting that their country had to pledge "specific investigations" in order to secure a meeting between Zelensky and Trump.

 
 
 
 

Vindman said he told Sondland that "his statements were inappropriate". He said he was in the White House Situation Room when the Trump-Zelensky call took place.

He said he never had direct contact or communication with the president. When Vindman joined the National Security Council in 2018, he said, he reported to Fiona Hill, another NSC official who in turn reported to John Bolton, who was the national security adviser.

Hill has already testified to the three impeachment committees and its investigators have indicated they want to ask Bolton, who departed the White House in September, to testify at some point.

In his statement, Vindman says he isn't the whistle-blower who brought this issue to the intelligence community's inspector general, triggering the current focus on Trump's actions regarding Ukraine.

"I do not know who the whistle-blower is and I would not feel comfortable to speculate as to the identity of the whistle-blower," he stated in his prepared remarks.

Vindman's been in the Army for more than 20 years and is an Iraq combat veteran. Since 2008, he's been specialising in Eurasia, with tours at US embassies in Kiev and Moscow.

"I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America," he said in his statement. "I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honour to advance and defend our country, irrespective of party or politics."

Vindman's testimony comes a day after a former deputy White House national security adviser defied a congressional subpoena. Charles Kupperman failed to show up for a scheduled deposition on Monday after the White House instructed him not to do so. He has filed legal action in federal court in Washington for guidance on whether he was legally required to do so. A preliminary hearing has been set for Friday.

Yet as the Vindman statement underscores, even as the administration attempts to prevent officials and former officials from taking part in the impeachment inquiry, other witnesses continue to testify.

Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff of California said on Monday the three committees would "move forward" in the investigation and wouldn't let the administration's blocking of witnesses impede progress.