House investigators heard Tuesday from four senior national security officials with direct knowledge of President Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, marking a long day of marathon hearings on Capitol Hill as Democrats press their case for impeachment with the TV-viewing public.
All four witnesses had testified previously, leaving few lingering questions about their role in the affair or their assessment of Trump’s handling of foreign policy in Kyiv. But the public forum allowed for an amplification of those messages, as both parties fight to pull voter sentiment to their side.
Two witnesses — Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council (NSC), and Jennifer Williams, a top national security aide to Vice President Pence — both testified that Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was irregular and inappropriate, lending support to Democratic allegations that Trump abused his office for political gain.
Two others — Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Kyiv, and Tim Morrison, another top NSC aide, who were both called by Republicans — stopped short of accusing Trump of wrongdoing, but raised concerns about Trump’s shadow policy in Ukraine, led by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, which undermined U.S. interests.
Here are five things to know about a lengthy day of testimony.
Eyewitnesses testify for first time
For weeks, Trump’s Republican allies have dismissed many of the witnesses’ testimonies as “hearsay,” portraying the figures as too far removed to know anything concrete about Trump’s intentions.
That changed on Tuesday, as three of the four officials appearing before the House Intelligence Committee had listened in directly to the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky. Two of them relayed concerns about the propriety of Trump’s message to his Ukrainian counterpart.
“I was concerned by the call. What I heard was improper, and I reported my concerns to [NSC lawyer John] Eisenberg,” Vindman said. “It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.”
On the July 25 call, Trump had requested “a favor” from Zelensky, a reference to a pair of investigations Trump was pushing the Ukrainians to open: one into the 2016 elections and another into the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 presidential contender.
The call came shortly after the White House had frozen almost $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, and Vindman has said he had “no doubt” the release of those funds hinged on Kyiv’s willingness to launch the investigations Trump sought.
Williams testified that Trump’s message on the call was “unusual,” because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.”
Asked if there was any disagreement in the national security community about the importance of the funds to support Ukraine’s defense against an aggressive Russia, she was terse.
“No,” she said.
Volker, Morrison raise stakes for Sondland
Volker testified that Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, spoke of “investigations” during a July 10 meeting between U.S. and Ukrainian officials at the White House, confirming the testimony of others including Vindman and Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia expert.
That was a break from Volker’s Oct. 3 closed-door deposition where he replied “no” when asked whether anything about the two investigations was raised at that July meeting.
This raises the stakes for Sondland, who privately testified that he didn’t recall much from the July 10 meeting, let alone if he pressed the Ukrainians about Trump’s “investigations.”
Morrison’s testimony added to the pressure on Sondland, who he said told a top Ukrainian official on Sept. 1 that the release of the military aid hinged on Kyiv opening the investigations Trump sought. Morrison also said Sondland was taking his orders directly from Trump.
“That’s what he represented,” Morrison said.
GOP attacks the media
Facing witnesses with years of military and national security experience, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the top Intelligence Committee Republican, turned to a favorite GOP punching bag: the media.
The California Republican, a close Trump ally, accused the media of being “puppets of the Democratic Party” who want to “tarnish and remove” the president from office. Nunes cited stories by CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Slate, New York Magazine and The Guardian.
“What you read in the press were accounts of shocking, damning and explosive testimony that fully supports the Democrats’ accusations. If these accounts have a familiar ring, that’s because this is their same preposterous reporting the media offered for three years on the Russian hoax,” Nunes said.
“On a nearly daily basis, the top news outlets in America reported breathlessly on the newest bombshell revelations showing that President Trump and everyone surrounding him were Russian agents.”
In the eyes of Nunes and other Trump allies, there is one journalist who has been a truth-teller: John Solomon, a former opinion columnist for The Hill who wrote about a debunked theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election to hurt Trump.
His columns are now under review by The Hill, a development that has irked Republicans.
“Now that Solomon’s reporting is a problem for the Democrats,” Nunes said, “it’s a problem for the media as well.”
Two sides fight over ‘bribery’
Democrats have dropped references to a “quid pro quo” in favor of allegations of “bribery,” a term adopted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week — and one cited explicitly in the Constitution’s impeachment clause.
That shift was not overlooked by Republicans, and it sparked one of the most notable exchanges Tuesday.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) was quick to point out that neither Vindman nor Williams had characterized Trump’s appeal to Zelensky for investigations as “bribery,” and both agreed they did not.
“The problem is, in an impeachment inquiry that the Speaker of the House says is all about bribery or where bribery is the impeachable offense, no witness has used the word ‘bribery’ to describe President Trump’s conduct. None of them,” Ratcliffe said.
“The word ‘bribery’ appears in these 3,500 pages [of deposition transcripts] exactly one time, and ironically, it appears not in a description of President Trump’s alleged conduct, it appears in a description of Vice President Biden’s alleged conduct,” he added.
Ratcliffe’s line of questioning drew a response from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who warned the witnesses against making any legal determinations surrounding Trump’s behavior.
“The reason we don’t ask witnesses that are fact witnesses to make the judgment about whether a crime of bribery has been committed — or rather, more significantly, what the Founders had in mind when they itemized bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors — is you are fact witnesses,” Schiff said. “It will be our job to decide whether the impeachable act of bribery has occurred.”
GOP tries to out whistleblower
Republicans have accused the anonymous whistleblower of being a partisan who filed a complaint to destroy Trump. It’s why they’ve pushed to have the whistleblower step forward and testify in public. On Tuesday, they tried to get Vindman to name the whistleblower, who is a member of the intelligence community who had been detailed to the White House.
Nunes pressed Vindman to identify the two individuals with whom he spoke about serious concerns he had about the July 25 Trump-Zelensky phone call.
One was George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of State who has Ukraine in his portfolio, Vindman said. The second was a member of the intelligence community, Vindman said, prompting Nunes to ask what specific agency the individual worked for.
Schiff quickly intervened: “If I could interject here.”
“It’s our time,” Nunes argued.
“But we need to protect the whistleblower,” Schiff replied. “I want to make sure there is no effort to out the whistleblower throughout these proceedings.”