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6 things we learned from Vindman's and Williams' impeachment testimony

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Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, left, are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 19, 2019. -
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Jacquelyn Martin Pool via AP
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Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams — who both listened in on the July 25 call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy at the center of the House's impeachment inquiry — spent more than four hours testifying before the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday.

During the hearing, both Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, and Williams, a special adviser on Europe and Russia to Vice President Mike Pence, said that call gave them cause for concern, while Vindman faced repeated personal attacks by Republicans on the committee.

Here are six takeaways from their public appearance.

1. July 25 call was "unusual," "improper"

Vindman and Williams offered stark, critical assessments of the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy, which they listened in on as part of their normal duties.

Vindman said he was "concerned" with what he'd heard on the call and that he felt it was "improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent."

Williams, meanwhile, said she "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."

Both Vindman and Williams, the first two witnesses who heard the call firsthand to testify publicly, had made similar criticisms during their closed-door testimony last month. But doing so again publicly, and with such unambiguous language, set the tone early in Tuesday's hearing for Democrats trying to paint a picture that what occurred was harmful to the country.

2. Robust efforts to unmask — and protect — the whistleblower

House Intelligence Republicans repeatedly used their time to question Vindman about who he told about his concerns surrounding the July 25 call — an apparent effort to get him to unmask the still-unnamed intelligence community whistleblower.

During two particular exchanges, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Ranking Member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., suggested Vindman had contact with the whistleblower, despite having said in his closed-door testimony that he did not know the identity of the whistleblower.

Both times on Tuesday, Vindman said he'd simply spoken with someone in the intelligence community. His lawyer also interjected to advise his client not to answer.

Schiff also cut in on both occasions to instruct everyone present that the "committee will not be used to out the whistleblower."

Republicans have claimed — falsely — that Democrats coordinated with the whistleblower ahead of his or her filing a formal whistleblower complaint and have demanded the whistleblower testify.

3. Vindman gets personal

A poignant, poised and at times, visibly nervous Vindman — who was born in Kyiv, then part of the USSR, and fled with his family to the U.S. as a child — used a large part of his opening statement to deliver a stunningly personal message about how his family had come to America for a better life and how escaping an authoritarian regime instilled in him and his brothers a sense of duty to serve in the U.S. military.

He said that he never expected to testify about the president's actions but he did so out of a "sense of duty" and said he recognized that his actions "would not be tolerated in many places around the world."

"In Russia, my act of expressing my concerns to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions and offering public testimony involving the President would surely cost me my life," he said. (Trump, in fact, has already publicly criticized at least two of the witnesses — Williamsand Marie Yovanovitch — in the impeachment inquiry and said earlier Tuesday he didn't know Vindman.)

Addressing his father, Vindman concluded his statement by saying 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," Vindman said.

4. Republicans question Vindman's loyalty

Nevertheless, Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel who received a Purple Heart after he was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2004, faced repeated character attacks from several House Intelligence Republicans.

In one case, Steve Castor, the counsel for committee Republicans, asked a series of questions about whether Vindman had at one point been offered the post of Ukrainian defense minister by a Ukrainian politician.

Vindman, for his part, said such a request occurred three times, but that he dismissed the offers immediately, reported them to his superiors and to counterintelligence authorities, and told Castor it's no secret where his allegiance is.

"I'm an American," he said.

That the topic came up at all seemed to be part of a clear effort by Republican to discredit the allegiance of Vindman. Several conservatives have used the same tactic, including multiple Fox News personalities.

At another point, Jordan asked Vindman about comments from Tim Morrison, another National Security Council official, who expressed skepticism about Vindman's judgment.

Vindman, in this case, was prepared for the attack and responded by reading from a recent performance review filed by Trump's former top Russia analyst Fiona Hill, which praised his abilities and labeled him a top military official.

5. First testimony about secret server

The September release of the whistleblower complaintrevealed the existence of secret electronic filing systemthat White House officials used, perhaps improperly, to "lock down" the transcript of the July 25 call.The whistleblower claimed in the complaint that the serverwas designed to house sensitive national security information, not politically sensitive information, and that its use for the latter constituted an "abuse."

In what amounted to the first account in public testimony by witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, Vindman explained under questioning that the summary of the July 25 call was transferred to a private, more secure server "to avoid leaks" and to help "preserve the integrity of the transcript."

Vindman, however, said he "didn't take it as anything nefarious" and that "concerns about leaks … seemed valid," but that the decision to have it "segregated into a separate security system" was "made on the fly."

Meanwhile, Vindman, at another point, also testified that Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that Hunter Biden joined as a board member in 2014, had come up during the July 25 call — even thoughthe summary of the call released by the White House did not. Vindman said he'd recommended that the summary mention Burisma, but told the committee that there was nothing "nefarious" about that mention being omitted.

6. Trump's concerns about corruption

Vindman testified that he'd prepared talking points for Trump for his April phone call with Zelenskiy on which Trump congratulated his counterpart on his election win.

Those talking points, Vindman testified Tuesday, included addressing corruption in Ukraine.

Trump, however, did not address corruption on the call, according to a record of the call released by the White House last week — even though a readout of the call released earlier this year by the White House stated that Trump had expressed his commitment to work with Ukraine "to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity and root out corruption."

Vindman said Tuesday that he wouldn't call the readout false, but rather "not entirely accurate," because readouts are often used as messaging to promote policies consistent with U.S. policy and indicate what is important to an administration.

Nevertheless, that Trump didn't bring up corruption, despite the wishes of his advisers, contradicts the White House's claims that Trump's desire to see an investigation into Burisma was merely part and parcel of a broader concern within the administration over widespread corruption in the country.

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