Ukraine expert at White House sounded alarm

Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman will be the first White House official to testify, who listened in on the July 25, 2019, telephone call between US President Donald Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine that is at the centre of the im
Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman will be the first White House official to testify, who listened in on the July 25, 2019, telephone call between US President Donald Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine that is at the centre of the impeachment inquiry.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A White House national security official who is a decorated Iraq War veteran plans to tell House impeachment investigators on Tuesday (Oct 29) that he heard President Donald Trump appeal to Ukraine's President to investigate one of his leading political rivals, a request the aide considered so damaging to US interests that he reported it to a superior.

Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman of the Army, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, twice registered internal objections about how Mr Trump and his inner circle were treating Ukraine, out of what he called a "sense of duty", he plans to tell the inquiry, according to a draft of his opening statement obtained by The New York Times.

He will be the first White House official to testify, who listened in on the July 25 telephone call between Mr Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine that is at the centre of the impeachment inquiry, in which Mr Trump asked Mr Zelensky to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden.

"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,"  Mr Vindman's statement says.

"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."

Burisma Holdings is an energy company on whose board Mr Biden's son served while his father was vice-president.

"This would all undermine US national security," Lt Col Vindman added, referring to Mr Trump's comments in the call.

The colonel, a Ukrainian-American immigrant who received a Purple Heart after being wounded in Iraq by a roadside bomb and whose statement is full of references to duty and patriotism, could be a more difficult witness to dismiss than his civilian counterparts.

"I am a patriot," Mr Vindman plans to tell the investigators, "and it is my sacred duty and honour to advance and defend our country irrespective of party or politics."

He was to be interviewed privately on Tuesday by the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform Committees, in defiance of a White House edict not to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry.

 
 
 
 

The colonel, who is represented by Mr Michael Volkov, a former federal prosecutor, declined to comment for this article.

In his testimony, Mr Vindman plans to say that he is not the whistleblower who initially reported Mr Trump's pressure campaign on Ukraine. But he will provide an account that corroborates and fleshes out crucial elements in that complaint, which prompted Democrats to open their impeachment investigation.

"I did convey certain concerns internally to national security officials in accordance with my decades of experience and training, sense of duty, and obligation to operate within the chain of command," he plans to say.

He will testify that he watched with alarm as "outside influencers" began pushing a "false narrative" about Ukraine that was counter to the consensus view of American national security officials, and harmful to US interests.

According to documents reviewed by The New York Times on the eve of his congressional testimony, Mr Vindman was concerned as he discovered that Mr Rudy Giuliani, the President's personal lawyer, was leading an effort to prod Kiev to investigate Mr Biden's son, and to discredit efforts to investigate Mr Trump's former campaign chairman, Mr Paul Manafort, and his business dealings in Ukraine.

His account strongly suggests that he may have been among the aides the whistleblower referred to in his complaint when he wrote that White House officials had recounted the conversation between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky to him, and "were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call".

Mr Vindman did not interact directly with the President, but was present for a series of conversations that shed light on his pressure campaign on Ukraine.

He will also testify that he confronted Mr Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, the day the envoy spoke in a White House meeting with Ukrainian officials about "Ukraine delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the president".

Even as he expressed alarm about the pressure campaign, the colonel and other officials worked to keep the US relationship with Ukraine on track.

At the direction of his superiors at the National Security Council, including Mr John Bolton, then the national security adviser, Mr Vindman drafted a memorandum in mid-August that sought to restart security aid that was being withheld from Ukraine, but Mr Trump refused to sign it, according to documents reviewed by the New York Times. And he drafted a letter in May congratulating Mr Zelensky on his inauguration, but Mr Trump did not sign that either, according to the documents.

Mr Vindman was concerned after he learnt that the White House budget office had taken the unusual step of withholding the US$391 million (S$532 million) package of security assistance for Ukraine that had been approved by Congress.

At least one previous witness has testified that Mr Trump directed that the aid be frozen until he could secure a commitment from Mr Zelensky to announce an investigation of the Bidens.

While Mr Vindman's concerns were shared by a number of other officials, some of whom have already testified, he was in a unique position.

Because he emigrated from Ukraine along with his family when he was a child and is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, Ukrainian officials sought advice from him about how to deal with Mr Giuliani, though they typically communicated in English.

On two occasions, the colonel brought his concerns to Mr John Eisenberg, the top lawyer at the National Security Council.

The first came on July 10. That day, senior American officials met with senior Ukrainian officials at the White House, in a stormy meeting in which Mr Bolton is said to have had a tense exchange with Mr Sondland after the ambassador raised the matter of investigations he wanted Ukraine to undertake. That meeting has been described in previous testimony in the impeachment inquiry.

At a debriefing later that day attended by the colonel, Mr Sondland again urged Ukrainian officials to help with investigations into Mr Trump's political rivals.

"Ambassador Sondland emphasised the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma," Mr Vindman's draft statement says.

"I stated to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate" and that the "request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the NSC was going to get involved in or push", he added.

The colonel's account echoed the testimony of Ms Fiona Hill, one of his superiors, who has previously testified behind closed doors that she and Mr Bolton were angered by efforts to politicise the interactions with Ukraine.

The colonel said that after his confrontation with Mr Sondland, "Dr Hill then entered the room and asserted to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate."

Ms Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs, also reported the incident to Mr Eisenberg.

The colonel went to Mr Eisenberg a couple of weeks later, after the President's call with Mr Zelensky.

This time, the colonel was accompanied by his identical twin brother, Yevgeny, who is a lawyer on the National Security Council.

The picture painted by Mr Vindman's testimony has been echoed by several other senior officials, including Mr William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, who testified last week that multiple senior administration officials had told him that the President blocked security aid to Ukraine and would not meet with Mr Zelensky until he publicly pledged to investigate Mr Trump's political rivals.

While the White House has urged witnesses subpoenaed by Congress not to participate in the impeachment inquiry, failing to comply with a congressional subpoena would be a risky career move for an active-duty military officer.

As tensions grew over Ukraine policy, the White House appears to have frozen out Mr Vindman.

Since early August, he has been excluded from a number of relevant meetings and events, including a diplomatic trip to three countries under his purview: Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.

Mr Vindman said he had reported concerns up his chain of command because he believed he was obligated to do so.

"On many occasions I have been told I should express my views and share my concerns with my chain of command and proper authorities," he said. "I believe that any good military officer should and would do the same, thus providing his or her best advice to leadership."