Unusual. Improper. Inappropriate. Wrong: Officials decry Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to probe Bidens
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” Those were the words of Army Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman during Tuesday’s House impeachment inquiry hearings, describing his reaction to a July phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. During the call, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma. Vindman, who is the director for European affairs at the National Security Council, testified along with Jennifer Williams, a Russia adviser for Vice President Pence, in the first of two hearings on Tuesday. Former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council, also testified. Republican lawmakers repeatedly criticized the impeachment process, while Democrats defended it. From Washington, D.C., we speak to Andy Kroll, D.C. bureau chief for Rolling Stone.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” Those were the words of Army Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman during Tuesday’s House impeachment hearing, describing his reaction to a July telephone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. During the call, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma, at the time that his father was vice president. Vindman, who is the director for European affairs at the National Security Council, testified in the first of two hearings on Tuesday, along with Jennifer Williams, a Russia adviser for Vice President Mike Pence. Here they are being questioned by Democratic Congressman Sean Maloney of New York.
REP. SEAN MALONEY: You heard the call with your own ears, right?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.
REP. SEAN MALONEY: Not secondhand, not hearsay, you heard the president speak. You heard his voice on the call.
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: Correct.
REP. SEAN MALONEY: And your conclusion was what he said about investigating the Bidens was — your words — “unusual and inappropriate,” I believe. Am I — am I right?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: That was my testimony.
REP. SEAN MALONEY: And, Mr. Vindman, you were treated to a July 10th meeting in the White House where you heard Ambassador Sondland raise investigations conditioning a White House meeting on that, investigations that you thought were unduly political. I believe that’s how you described them. And you went to NSC counsel, and you reported it, right?
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Correct.
REP. SEAN MALONEY: And then, later, you, too, were on the White House call. Am I right? You heard it with your own ears.
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Correct.
REP. SEAN MALONEY: Not secondhand, not from somebody else, not hearsay, right?
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Correct.
REP. SEAN MALONEY: You heard the president’s voice on the call.
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN: I did.
REP. SEAN MALONEY: And you heard him raise that subject again, that Ambassador Sondland had raised before, about investigating the Bidens, right?
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN: I did.
REP. SEAN MALONEY: And I want to ask you: When you heard him say that, what was the first thought that went through your mind?
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Frankly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was probably an element of shock that maybe, in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out. Now this is likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security.
AMY GOODMAN: Army Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman, responding to a question from Democratic Congressman Sean Maloney of New York. Earlier during the impeachment hearing, Vindman detailed why he was so concerned with Trump’s actions.
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN: I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate, and I reported my concerns to Mr. Eisenberg. It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent. I was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation — it was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 elections, the Bidens and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermining U.S. national security and advancing Russia’s strategic objectives in the region.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The second hearing on Tuesday featured testimony from Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Both witnesses were requested to testify by Republicans, but Volker debunked conspiracy theories about Ukraine pushed by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and defended Joe Biden’s honor. Volker also revised part of his private testimony and admitted he should have reported Trump’s actions.
KURT VOLKER: In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company Burisma as equivalent to investigating former president — Vice President Biden. I saw them as very different, the former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable. In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently. And had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.
AMY GOODMAN: During Tuesday’s hearing, Republican lawmakers repeatedly criticized the impeachment process. Devin Nunes, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, accused Democrats of attempting to overthrow President Trump.
REP. DEVIN NUNES: Welcome back to act two of today’s circus, ladies and gentlemen. We are here to continue what the Democrats tell us is a serious, somber and even prayerful process of attempting to overthrow a duly elected president. If they’re successful, the end result would be to disenfranchise tens of millions of Americans who thought the president is chosen by the American people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But Democrats defended the impeachment process. Here’s how House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff closed Tuesday’s marathon hearing.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Indeed, I think when the Founding Fathers provided a remedy, that remedy being impeachment, they had the very concern that a president of the United States may betray the national security interests of the country for personal interests. They put that remedy in the Constitution, not because they wanted to willy-nilly overturn elections; no, because they wanted a powerful anti-corruption mechanism when that corruption came from the highest office in the land. We are adjourned.
AMY GOODMAN: House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff speaking Tuesday. Today, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland will testify, the wealthy hotel magnate, real estate developer in Oregon. He received his ambassadorship after donating a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration. When we come back, we’ll speak to Andy Kroll, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Rolling Stone. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “It Never Stops Being Absurd” by Kramer. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest in Washington, D.C., is the D.C. bureau chief for Rolling Stone, Andy Kroll. He has been closely covering the Trump impeachment hearings.
So, Any, we just played a series of clips. The hearing was, what, around 10 hours long, with various breaks, ending about 8:30 Eastern last night. What most stood out for you?
ANDY KROLL: What stood out across these two marathon hearings, to me, was how unequivocal these four witnesses were — they were ambassadors, they were career staff, they were nonpartisan, they were picked by Democrats and Republicans for these hearings — how much in agreement they were that President Trump’s request, his pressure on the Ukrainian president to investigate, as Lieutenant Colonel Vindman put it, a private U.S. citizen and a domestic political rival, how beyond the pale that was. They used words like “improper,” “inappropriate,” “unusual” and “wrong” to describe this request by the president, and then, obviously, the campaign that followed that request, that surrounded that request, really, to get the Ukrainians to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden and to also investigate a conspiracy theory, since debunked, about the 2016 presidential election. There is no disagreement, there is no dispute, among these witnesses, coming from various different backgrounds — political backgrounds, government backgrounds, experience — that what president did was wrong — what President Trump did was wrong, and that they felt like they had to tell someone about this and even speak up in public, with this impeachment inquiry, about what happened on that call and what President Trump did.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the Republican responses to some of the testimonies, especially in Vindman, the attempt to go after him personally, questioning — even suggesting questions about his loyalty, as well?
ANDY KROLL: I’ve watched every minute of the public impeachment hearings so far. I’ve read every page of the transcript. Trust me, it took a long time. The Republican responses to what these witnesses have said have done everything but actually question facts and try to get at the truth of what happened. And so, what we saw yesterday was a pretty good encapsulation of that. You have Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, attacking the media, attacking Democrats, attacking the witnesses.
You have other members on the committee questioning, as you just noted, the loyalty and patriotism of someone like Lieutenant Colonel Vindman. Lieutenant Colonel Vindman was born in what is now Ukraine. He came to the United States as a toddler with his twin brother and his family. He went on to serve in the Iraq War, earned a Purple Heart; continued to serve, after suffering his injury, for almost a year in Iraq; and has since been a public servant who has sworn an oath to the Constitution on several occasions — questioning his loyalty because an official with the Ukrainian government — we now know, jokingly — offered Vindman a position in the Ukrainian Cabinet. And this was brought up seriously.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, he said to become defense secretary of Ukraine. He said each time he was offered that, whether or not it was a joke, he told his superior.
ANDY KROLL: He did. And not only did he turn it down, obviously, he reported this to his superior. Lieutenant Colonel Vindman said yesterday he is an American. He never entertained this notion once; he found it comical. And frankly, this line of questioning, which was also echoed, I would say, by the White House on Twitter, was really a way to get at the — challenge the patriotism of, again, someone who served in the Iraq War, Purple Heart, government career public servant, sworn an oath to the Constitution.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the Burisma and Hunter Biden issue, because it seems to me that this is going to be lasting damage to the candidacy of Joe Biden, because regardless of what the facts are, the reality is now that the Republican Party has latched onto this attempt to paint Joe Biden, through his son, as part of the swamp of Washington. I’m wondering your sense, since you’ve been covering this very closely, what the potential long-term damage is to Biden on this.
ANDY KROLL: Yeah, and I’ll take this — I’ll put my answer in sort of two categories here. The first one is, yes, what you’ve just described is true. What we see in these hearings, and what we’ve also seen from President Trump himself, his son, his surrogates, is an attempt to tarnish former Vice President Biden as a presidential candidate by saying that he was involved in some kind of corrupt deal, when he was vice president, with Ukraine, because his son Hunter Biden took a board position with this energy company, Burisma Holdings, a scandal-plagued company that brought Hunter Biden on, clearly to help burnish its image because Hunter Biden just happened to have the last name Biden. That is happening right now, that campaign against Joe Biden. It really is the origin of this whole impeachment inquiry, which was the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, two associates of Giuliani’s, who have since been indicted for campaign finance violations, trying to whip up a controversy around Joe Biden and Hunter Biden in Ukraine.
Now, the second part, that I will say quickly, is that Hunter Biden did not have any particularly sterling qualifications to be on the board of a scandal-plagued Ukrainian natural gas company. You don’t bring on Hunter Biden because he is an expert in the industry, for $50,000 a month. You bring on Hunter Biden because his last name is Biden. There is an appearance of a conflict of interest there. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent raised that issue several years ago, as he testified, that he thought it had the appearance of conflict. And so, that is something that is worth looking at, as well. It’s something we’ve looked at in our reporting, something other journalists have looked at, as well. So I want to make sure that that’s clear, too.
AMY GOODMAN: I guess the question is “Would Republicans keep on raising this during the presidential campaign?” because it also will remind you of President Trump and his involvement in this. I wanted to go to Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker, who was a witness requested by the Republicans.
KURT VOLKER: Third, I did not understand that others believed that any investigation of the Ukrainian company Burisma, which had a history of accusations of corruption, was tantamount to investigating Vice President Biden. I drew a sharp distinction between the two. … At the one in-person meeting I had with Mayor Giuliani, on July 19th, Mayor Giuliani raised, and I rejected, the conspiracy theory that Vice President Biden would have been influenced in his duties as vice president by money paid to his son. As I previously testified, I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years. He is an honorable man, and I hold him in the highest regard.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there’s Ambassador Volker actually defending Vice President Biden. But, Andy Kroll, talk about the significance of the changed testimony of Volker. And then we’re going to talk about what’s happening today, the significance of Sondland and his changed testimony and the damage he could do.
ANDY KROLL: So, Volker’s testimony was significant on the level that you just described, specifically special envoy Volker saying, as someone who had spent years in Ukraine on the frontlines of these issues, he saw no connection between the work that Vice President Joe Biden did in Ukraine and what President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and others were trying to push, this narrative that because Hunter Biden was on the board of this energy company, that Vice President Biden had been corrupted or influenced or had taken actions to benefit the company Hunter Biden was working for. We don’t have evidence of that. That is why Ambassador Volker referred to that as a conspiracy theory. Again, Hunter Biden’s position on this board is something worth looking into more; there are things we still need to learn there. But the line that the president and his allies are trying to draw, in such an obvious way, is not there right now.
Now, today, we have Ambassador Sondland, the president’s chief diplomat to the EU, testifying. This will probably be the most consequential witness of this entire impeachment proceeding. Ambassador Sondland, more than anyone else, had firsthand knowledge, firsthand involvement in the effort to get the Ukrainians to make a statement saying they would investigate the Bidens and that they would investigate, again, this debunked conspiracy theory involving the 2016 election. Sondland was on calls with the president. Sondland conveyed messages to the Ukrainian president and Ukrainian senior officials. He has more firsthand knowledge of anyone — of this whole episode, more than anyone else, apart from the president himself.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, his direct communications with President Trump put him in the position of being, effectively, the potential John Dean of this particular impeachment hearing, in that he could directly pin the president, if he so testifies, to the attempt to shake down the Ukrainian government.
ANDY KROLL: That’s right. What you’re going to hear a lot about today is a phone call that Ambassador Sondland received from President Trump himself on July 26th. Now, remember, that is the day after this now-infamous July 25th call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, during which President Trump says, “I need you to do me a favor, though. I need you to investigate the Bidens and investigate this conspiracy theory about 2016.” A day after that, President Trump calls Ambassador Sondland on his cellphone in Ukraine, which means that it is almost certain that Russia had a way to listen in on this call, seeing as they control most of the cellular network in Ukraine. And on that call, President Trump asks Ambassador Sondland, “Are they going to do these investigations?” Ambassador Sondland says, “Yes, they are.” Ambassador Sondland says, “They love your ass,” basically saying that “They’re in your pocket. They’ll do whatever you want them to do.”
And then they have a part of this conversation that I found the most striking, honestly, which is, President Trump is asked what he cares about in Ukraine, how much he cares about Ukraine. And his response, according to someone who overheard the call, that was sitting with Ambassador Sondland in Kiev, is that he only cares about the investigations. He doesn’t really care about Ukraine. He doesn’t care about the conflict with Russia in the eastern part of Ukraine. He doesn’t care about Ukraine’s attempts to stand on its own two legs as a democracy, its national security, our national security. What President Trump cares about is these investigations. He said that to Ambassador Sondland on that July 26th phone call. Expect to hear more about that today when Sondland testifies before the House.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, trying to completely distance himself from Sondland, saying he hardly knows the guy. So, you have Sondland, who’s the ambassador to the European Union, and you can talk about the significance of this, coming from Oregon, a hotel magnate — not that the Republicans are so different from the Democrats in choosing their ambassadors, as large contributors to inauguration or their parties — but that he is the ambassador to the European Union, Ukraine isn’t in the European Union, and the other one controlling all of this is the private attorney for President Trump, Rudolph Giuliani, and a criminal investigation also being launched against him, Giuliani.
ANDY KROLL: That’s right. When you think about it that way, you begin to understand why the president’s national security adviser at the time, John Bolton, described this whole effort as a, quote, “drug deal.” And you understand why John Bolton, as we learned yesterday, told his deputy, Tim Morrison — again, one of the witnesses in this impeachment inquiry — any time Morrison brought up something involving this supposed drug deal, Bolton’s response was the same: quote, “Tell the lawyers.” Even someone like John Bolton, as hawkish as they get, someone who leaps at the chance to invade a foreign country or launch a foreign intervention — even he saw how messed up this was, how the individuals carrying out this, quote-unquote, “drug deal” were far over their head and really had no clue what they were doing.
As you rightly point out, Ambassador Sondland is known mostly for operating and running hotels and giving a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration — a bipartisan tradition in this country, but usually those donors to the president, those wealthy hoteliers and financiers, don’t find themselves actually carrying out foreign policy in a country that is critical to our national security and a hotspot in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, we’re going to continue to follow all of this. Andy Kroll, thank you so much for being with us, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Rolling Stone, closely covering the Trump impeachment hearings. And by the way, Democracy Now! is broadcasting them live all day online, live-streaming them at democracynow.org.
When we come back, we look at Iran, where Amnesty International says security forces have killed over 100 protesters. Stay with us.