For the first time, members of the House Intelligence Committee heard public testimony from witnesses who were actually privy to the now-infamous July 25 phone call at the center of the Trump impeachment inquiry.
Jennifer Williams, advisor to Vice President Mike Pence, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, were both listening in when the U.S. and Ukrainian presidents spoke. Their impressions, and reactions, to the call were quite similar.
“I found the July 25 phone call unusual because in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter,” Williams testified.
“I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate,” said Vindman. “It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent.”
But even casual observers of these hearings could see the partisan divide permeating the process so far. On the one hand, Democrats were eager to point out how first-hand today’s testimony was. Meanwhile, Republicans went hard at Vindman, especially, trying to discredit him and by extension, everything he said today.
GOP counsel Steve Castor repeatedly pressed Vindman on whether he was offered a job as Ukrainian defense minister. Vindman said he had been asked about the job three times but that he had dismissed the offers immediately and told his superiors.
“Every single time, I dismissed it,” Vindman replied. “The whole notion is rather comical.”
And Rep. Jim Jordan asked Volker to respond to testimony alleging he leaked information.
“I never did. I never would. That is preposterous that I would do that,” Vindman replied.
John Farmer, former state Attorney General and director of the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, said the GOP approach to questioning Vindman was ill-advised.
“Which I think was a mistake in tactic on the part of the Republicans,” he said. “I think he presented well as a career military officer. He did acknowledge that they had offered him the post of defense minister in Ukraine, but he laughed it off and reported it up the chain. So, I think that’s a dead end for the Republicans, to try to discredit these public servants who have been testifying. I don’t think that’s their best approach.”
“And the president’s been pushing hard on his Twitter feed trying to discredit Ambassador Yovanovitch and Lt. Col. Vindman. I don’t think that attack is very availing for him,” he added.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters before a cabinet meeting today, mocked witnesses again and dismissed the whole process.
“It’s a big scam,” he said. “They’re doing something that the founders never thought possible and the founders didn’t want and they’re using this impeachment hoax for their own political gain to try and damage the Republican party and damage the president.”
Then, in the afternoon, two witnesses called by Republicans testified: former U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Timothy Morrison, the National Security Council’s expert on Russia and Europe.
“A great deal of additional information and perspectives have come to light,” said Volker. “I have learned many things that I did not know at the time of the events in question.”
“I feared at the time of the call on July 25 how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate,” said Morrison. “My fears have been realized.”
There are two more full days of public hearings scheduled this week.
Testimony is expected Wednesday from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who is said to have had direct conversations with Ukrainian officials tying investigations into the 2016 elections with U.S. military aid.
And then Thursday, we expect to hear from David Holmes, an aide to acting Ukraine ambassador Bill Taylor, who reported overhearing a cell phone conversation in which the president asked Sondland about the status of the investigations.