'Couldn't believe what I was hearing': White House aides testify in impeachment probe

Former US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker stands up during a break in his testimony before a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington November 19, 2019. — Reuters pic
Former US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker stands up during a break in his testimony before a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington November 19, 2019. — Reuters pic

WASHINGTON, Nov 20 — Senior US officials told impeachment investigators in Congress yesterday they were concerned by President Donald Trump's effort to get Ukraine to investigate a political rival, with one White House official calling it a “shock.”

The third day of impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives marked the first time that officials from inside the White House publicly expressed their misgivings about a freewheeling pressure campaign that now threatens Trump's presidency.

The White House's top Ukraine expert, wearing his Army dress uniform, said Trump had made an “improper” demand of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July 25 phone call that has become the centrepiece of the Democratic-led impeachment probe of the Republican president.

“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 Ukrainian policy could play out was playing out,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman said.

Two other senior White House aides, Jennifer Williams and Tim Morrison, also said they were concerned by the political nature of that phone call.

Williams told the committee that Trump's call with Zelenskiy was unusual and inappropriate because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.”

Morrison said he did not see anything improper in the call but was concerned that its contents could leak, hurting bipartisan support for Ukraine. “I wanted access to be restricted,” he said.

During that call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to carry out two investigations that would benefit him politically, including one targeting Joe Biden, the former vice president who is a leading Democratic presidential contender to face Trump in next year's election, and his son Hunter Biden.

The other involved a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election.

Kurt Volker, a former US envoy to Ukraine, said he believed those two concerns were “conspiracy theories.” He added that allegations of corruption involving Biden and his son, who was a director of Ukrainian energy company Burisma, were “not credible.”

Trump has denied wrongdoing, called the inquiry a witch hunt and a sham and assailed some of the witnesses.

Missed connection

Ahead of the July call, Trump had frozen US$391 million (RM1.62 billion) in US security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.

Volker testified that Trump described Ukraine as “a corrupt country, full of terrible people.”

“He said they 'tried to take me down,'” Volker added.

Volker said he did not know that a request to tackle corruption in Ukraine and investigate Burisma, a natural gas company, was effectively a request to investigate Biden.

“In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections,” he said.

Volker's testimony conflicted in some aspects with an earlier account he gave to lawmakers.

In closed-door testimony in October, Volker said he had not heard any references to investigations during a July 10 White House meeting between US and Ukrainian officials.

Yesterday, he said Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, made a “generic” comment about investigations that everyone regarded as inappropriate.

'Character attacks'

Trump has attacked both Williams and Vindman on Twitter as “Never Trump” witnesses, a term he uses to describe Republicans who oppose him.

Democratic Representative Jim Himes asked Vindman: “Lieutenant Colonel, would you call yourself a Never Trumper?”

“I'd call myself never partisan,” Vindman replied.

As he was testifying, the White House's official Twitter account attacked his judgement and the president's son Donald Trump Jr assailed him in a separate Twitter post as “a low level partisan bureaucrat and nothing more.”

Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union four decades ago when he was three years old and settled in the United States, told lawmakers that “character attacks” against public servants testifying in the impeachment inquiry were “reprehensible.”

A US official said Vindman and his family might be moved to a military base because of security threats.

Vindman said he was not worried that he would suffer reprisals for speaking out.

“This is a country I have served and defended, that all of my brothers have served — and here, right matters,” he said, drawing applause.

The investigation could lead the House to approve formal charges against Trump — called articles of impeachment — that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office. Few Republican senators have broken with Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday it was “inconceivable” that two-thirds of the Republican-controlled chamber would vote to convict Trump.

According to Reuters/Ipsos polling, 46 per cent of Americans support impeachment, while 41 per cent oppose it.

Last Friday's testimony attracted an average audience of 12.9 million viewers across seven US television networks that aired lived coverage, according to data from the Nielsen ratings agency, down slightly from the audience on the first day. The numbers did not include people who streamed the event on phones or computers or followed the proceedings via social media. — Reuters

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