WASHINGTON — As Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman sat in a stately chamber testifying on Tuesday, the White House posted on its official Twitter account a message denouncing his judgment. His fellow witness, Jennifer Williams, had barely left the room when the White House issued a statement challenging her credibility.
In President Trump’s Washington, where attacks on his enemies real or perceived have become so routine that they now often pass unnoticed, that might not seem all that remarkable — but for the fact that Colonel Vindman and Ms. Williams both still work for the very same White House that was publicly assailing them.
With the president’s allies joining in, the two aides found themselves condemned as nobodies, as plotting bureaucrats, as traitors within and, in Colonel Vindman’s case, as an immigrant with dual loyalties. Even for a president who rarely spares the rhetorical howitzer, that represents a new level of bombardment.
Mr. Trump has publicly disparaged cabinet secretaries, former aides and career officials working elsewhere in the government, but now he is taking aim at people still working for him inside the White House complex by name.
“This White House appears to be cannibalizing itself,” said William C. Inboden, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush. “While many previous White House staffs have feuded with each other and leaked against each other, this is the first time in history I am aware of a White House openly attacking its own staff — especially for merely upholding their constitutional duties.”
Day 3: Trump Impeachment Hearings Highlights
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee today were: Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the top Ukraine expert for the National Security Council; Jennifer Williams, an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence; Tim Morrison, a senior national security aide and Trump loyalist; and Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine.
“On July 25th, along with several of my colleagues, I listened to a call between President Trump and President Zelensky, the content of which has since been publicly reported. I found the July 25th 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.” “Dad, I’m sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected professionals — talking to our elected professionals, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth. It was improper for the president to request an — to demand an investigation into a political opponent, especially a foreign power where there is at best dubious belief that this would be a completely impartial investigation.” “What is it about the relationship between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine that leads you to conclude that when the president of the United States asks a favor like this, it’s really a demand?” “Chairman, the culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it’s polite and pleasant, it’s not — it’s not to be taken as a request. It’s to be taken as an order. In this case, the power disparity between the two leaders — my impression is that in order to get the White House meeting, President Zelensky would have to deliver these investigations.” “In no way shape, or form in either readouts from the United States or Ukraine did you receive any indication whatsoever or anything that resembled a quid pro quo — is that correct?” “That’s correct.” “And the same would go for this new allegation of bribery?” “I’ve only seen an allegation of bribery in the last week.” “It’s the same common set of facts — it’s just instead of quid pro quo, now it’s bribery.” “I was never involved in anything that I considered to be bribery at all.” “O.K. Or extortion?” “Or extortion.” “O.K.” “Ambassador Volker thinks it’s inappropriate to ask a foreign head of state to investigate a U.S. person, let alone a political rival. But you’ve said you had no concern with that. Do you think that’s appropriate?” “As a hypothetical matter, I do not.” “Well I’m not talking about a hypothetical matter. Read the transcript — in that transcript, does the president not ask Zelensky to look into the Bidens?” “Mr. Chairman, I can only tell you what I was thinking at the time. That is not what I understood the president to be doing.” “But nonetheless, this was the first and only time where you went from listening to a presidential call directly to the national security lawyer, is it not?” “Yes, that’s correct.” “Ms. Williams, on Sunday the president personally targeted you in a tweet. This is after he targeted Ambassador Yovanovitch during her hearing testimony. I’d like to show and read you the tweet. It reads: ‘Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read both transcripts of the presidential calls and see the just-released statement from Ukraine. Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know and mostly never even heard of, and work out a better presidential attack.’ Did that tweet make an impression on you when you read it?” “It certainly surprised me. I was not expecting to be called out by name.” “Lt. Col. Vindman, did you discuss the July 25th phone call with anyone outside the White House on July 25th or the 26th? And if so, with whom?” “Yes, I did. I spoke to two individuals.” “And what agencies were these officials with?” “Department of State, and an individual in the intelligence community.” “What agency was this individual from?” “If I could interject here. We don’t want to use these proceedings —” “It’s our time, Mr. Chairman —” “I know, but we need to protect the whistle-blower.” “Lt. Col. Vindman, you testified in the deposition that you did not know who the whistle-blower was or is.” “I do not know who the whistle-blower is. That is correct.” “So how is it possible for you to name these people and then out the whistle-blower?” “Per the advice of my counsel, I’ve been advised not to answer specific questions about members of the intelligence community.” “You’re here to answer questions and you’re here under subpoena. So you can either answer the question or you can plead the Fifth.” “Excuse me. On behalf of my client, we are following the rule of the committee, the rule of the chair with regard to this issue. And this does not call for an answer that is invoking the Fifth or any theoretical issue like that. We’re following the ruling of the chair.” “What — counselor, what ruling is that?” “If I could interject: Counsel is correct. The whistle-blower has the right, statutory right to anonymity. These proceedings will not be used to out the whistle-blower.”
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee today were: Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the top Ukraine expert for the National Security Council; Jennifer Williams, an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence; Tim Morrison, a senior national security aide and Trump loyalist; and Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine.CreditCredit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
In part, that reflects the challenge for a president facing an impeachment inquiry where every witness called so far either currently or previously worked in the government over which he presides. To defend against potential charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, Mr. Trump evidently feels he must undercut the believability of the witnesses testifying about his pressure campaign on Ukraine for help against his domestic rivals.
It also reflects the president’s longstanding distrust of the career professionals who populate his White House, just as they have every other. While such officials characterize their work as nonpartisan in service of presidents of either party, Mr. Trump has felt burned since the early days of his administration when internal documents were leaked, including transcripts of two of his phone calls with foreign leaders.
“Nothing is the same anymore,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for Mr. Bush. “Clearly, when the staff leaks presidential phone calls with foreign leaders the first week of the president’s job, the staff is not what the staff used to be. It taints everyone, even good and loyal staffers.”
All three witnesses who testified publicly last week still work for the State Department, and Mr. Trump directly denigrated one of them, Marie L. Yovanovitch, who was recalled as ambassador to Ukraine. But Colonel Vindman, the top Ukraine policy official on the National Security Council staff, and Ms. Williams, a national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence, were the first to appear before the House Intelligence Committee while still working in the White House.
Even before raising his hand to take the oath on Tuesday, Colonel Vindman had come under particularly sharp fire. Mr. Trump’s allies on Fox News and elsewhere have questioned his patriotism by noting that he was born in Ukraine, a critique the naturalized citizen rebutted by showing up Tuesday in his Army dress uniform with Combat Infantry Badge and a Purple Heart from his service in Iraq.
Colonel Vindman opened his testimony by deploring smears on government officials who have been subpoenaed to testify in the inquiry. “The vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible,” he said.
Amid the threats, the Army has been assessing potential security threats to Colonel Vindman and his brother Yevgeny, who also works at the National Security Council. There have also been discussions about moving the Vindmans and their families onto a military base for their protection, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions.
The committee’s Republican counsel questioned Colonel Vindman on Tuesday about an offer from Ukraine’s new government to become defense minister, a proposal he said he dismissed out of hand and reported to his superiors and counterintelligence officials. Fox News quickly picked up on the issue, sending out a news alert moments later: “Vindman says Ukrainian official offered him the job of Ukrainian defense minister.”
Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, grilled Colonel Vindman about comments by two former bosses at the National Security Council, Tim Morrison and Fiona Hill, raising questions about his judgment.
Colonel Vindman replied by pulling out a copy of a performance evaluation that Ms. Hill wrote in July and read it aloud. “Alex is a top 1 percent military officer and the best Army officer I have worked with in my 15 years of government service,” Colonel Vindman read.
The White House nonetheless posted a Twitter message: “Tim Morrison, Alexander Vindman’s former boss, testified in his deposition that he had concerns about Vindman’s judgment.”
Speaking with reporters, Mr. Trump seemed to scorn Colonel Vindman for appearing in uniform. “I never saw the man,” the president said. “I understand now he wears his uniform when goes in. No, I don’t know Vindman at all.”
Democratic lawmakers responded angrily to attacks on Colonel Vindman. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, accused Republicans of trying to “air out some allegations with no basis and proof, but they just want to get them out there and hope maybe some of those strands of spaghetti I guess will stick on the wall if they keep throwing them.”
As for Ms. Williams, the president tweeted about her over the weekend. “Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls, & see the just released ststement from Ukraine,” he wrote, misspelling “statement.” “Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!”
Ms. Williams, a career official who got her start under Mr. Bush and called former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “a personal hero of mine,” denied that she was a “Never Trumper.” So did Colonel Vindman. “I’d call myself Never Partisan,” he said.
Asked her reaction to the president’s tweet, Ms. Williams said: “It certainly surprised me. I was not expecting to be called out by name.”
But she would be again before the day was out. Mr. Pence’s two most senior aides pushed back against her after she testified that she considered Mr. Trump’s July 25 telephone call with Ukraine’s president “unusual” because of the president’s request that the Kyiv government investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats.
“I heard nothing wrong or improper on the call,” retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, the vice president’s national security adviser, said in a written statement released after her testimony. “I had and have no concerns. Ms. Williams was also on the call, and as she testified, she never reported any personal or professional concerns to me, her direct supervisor, regarding the call.
“In fact,” he added, “she never reported any personal or professional concerns to any other member of the vice president’s staff, including our chief of staff and the vice president.”
Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, went on Fox News to make the same point. “She said she found the call unusual, yet she never raised any concerns with her supervisor, General Kellogg, she never raised any concerns with the chief of staff, she never raised any concerns with the vice president,” he said.
He added, “We have impeachment in pursuit of a crime.”
Neither Ms. Williams nor Colonel Vindman weighed in on whether Mr. Trump should be impeached. As career officials, they generally stuck to factual accounts of their experiences and gave dispassionate though at times pointed assessments of what they saw while clearly trying to avoid being drawn into the larger political debate about what Congress should do about the situation.
But they presumably will have to return to work at some point, back to the same White House complex where they have served knowing that the president they serve blames them for his political troubles.
Charles A. Kupchan, who was President Barack Obama’s Europe adviser, said it should come as no surprise that Colonel Vindman and Ms. Williams would be targeted from within. “It is quite unusual for a White House to eat its young,” he said. “But Trump is a president who seems unable to tolerate dissent.”
Andrew Weiss, who was President Bill Clinton’s Russia adviser, said the attacks on Colonel Vindman “must be incredibly demoralizing for career people” still at the National Security Council. “During my time at the N.S.C., there was a bright red line between national security and domestic politics,” he said. “Under Trump, that line has completely disappeared.”
Even some more supportive of Mr. Trump suggested on Tuesday that he stop going after witnesses. “The president should just ignore this whole thing,” Brian Kilmeade, a host on “Fox and Friends,” one of Mr. Trump’s favorite shows, said before the day’s hearings got underway. “Don’t tweet during it. Don’t get outraged over it. It ticks you off.”
That was advice the president did not take.
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