WASHINGTON • A White House official has testified that he was so alarmed to hear President Donald Trump ask Ukraine's President to investigate a political rival, Democrat Joe Biden, that he reported the matter to a White House lawyer.
Army Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman became the first current White House staff member to testify in the Democrat-led House of Representatives inquiry into whether to impeach the President.
The Ukraine specialist gave a closed-door deposition for more than 10 hours on Tuesday as Democrats unveiled legislation calling for public hearings and a public report in the impeachment inquiry to blunt Republican criticism that the probe has been conducted with too much secrecy.
Appearing on Capitol Hill in his military dress uniform, Lt-Col Vindman, a Ukraine-born US citizen and decorated Iraq War veteran, became the first person who listened in on the July 25 call at the heart of the scandal to testify.
The inquiry has focused on Mr Trump's request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the call that he investigate Mr Biden, a former vice-president, and his son, Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
Mr Trump also asked Mr Zelensky to probe a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election.
Mr Trump made his request after withholding US$391 million (S$533 million) in security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine fight Russia-backed separatists.
Mr Zelensky agreed to Mr Trump's requests. The aid was later provided.
"I was concerned by the call," Lt-Col Vindman said in his opening statement to the three House committees conducting the inquiry.
"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."
He added: "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. This would all undermine US national security."
His testimony was some of the most damaging to date for Mr Trump, who faces the possibility of impeachment as he prepares to run for re-election.
Meanwhile, House Democrats have unveiled new procedures for the impeachment inquiry, responding to Republican demands for due process by setting out rules for future public hearings delving into whether Mr Trump should be removed from office.
AN IMPROPER DEMAND
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.
ARMY LIEUTENANT-COLONEL ALEXANDER VINDMAN, in his opening statement to the three House committees conducting the inquiry.
The resolution hands the lead role to the House intelligence committee and its chairman, Mr Adam Schiff, who would have broad latitude to organise extended questioning of potential public witnesses.
Two other committees that have so far participated in the closed-door investigation into Mr Trump's dealings with Ukraine - foreign affairs, and oversight and reform - would not be permitted to take part directly in the open proceedings.
It also sets out for the first time the ability of House Republicans to make their own requests for testimony and documents, though those requests will be subject to a vote of the Democratic-majority committee - a practice that matches the minority powers in the 1998 impeachment of then President Bill Clinton.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST