By Patricia Zengerle, Karen Freifeld and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House official testified in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump on Tuesday that the president’s request that Ukraine investigate a domestic political rival was an improper “demand,” as he fended off Republican efforts to cast doubt on his competence and loyalty to the United States.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the White House National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert and a decorated Iraq war veteran, testified at the third public impeachment hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, wearing his blue dress military uniform and medals.
Both Vindman and a second witness – Jennifer Williams, an aide to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence – raised concerns about requests made by Trump in a July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is at the heart of the impeachment investigation threatening Trump’s presidency.
During the call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to carry out two investigations that would benefit him politically, including one targeting Democratic political rival Joe Biden. The other involved a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Vindman and Williams were among the U.S. officials who listened in during the call.
“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,” Vindman said.
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.”
Ahead of the July call, Trump had frozen $391 million in U.S. security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. Trump was seeking a Ukrainian investigation of Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and Biden’s son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm called Burisma.
Kurt Volker, a former diplomat who was involved in discussions to get Zelenskiy’s government to investigate corruption, said he did not know that was effectively a request to investigate Biden.
“In retrospect, I should have seen that connection different, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections,” he said in prepared testimony.
Former National Security Council Russia expert Tim Morrison also was due to testify later on Tuesday.
Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union four decades ago when he was 3 years old and settled in the United States, told lawmakers that “character attacks” against public servants testifying in the impeachment inquiry were “reprehensible.”
Even as he was testifying, the White House’s official Twitter account attacked his judgment – even though he is a current White House official, 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, a U.S. citizen born in Ukraine, was asked by a Republican lawyer at the hearing whether he would consider becoming part of the Ukrainian government – an offer that was made by a Zelenskiy adviser. Vindman responded that he is an American and would not consider such an offer, calling it “comical.”
Republican Representative Jim Jordan told Vindman that his White House bosses had questioned his judgment, but Vindman read from a July employee evaluation that called him “brilliant” and said he exercised “excellent judgment.”
Trump has attacked both Williams and Vindman on Twitter as “Never Trump” witnesses, a term he uses to describe Republicans who oppose him. Some of Trump’s allies in the conservative media have questioned Vindman’s loyalty to the United States.
Asked by Democratic Representative Jim Himes if he would call himself a “a Never Trumper,” Vindman responded: “I’d call myself never partisan.”
Williams said she would not consider herself a “Never Trumper” and that she was surprised by Trump’s charge.
Himes said Trump’s Twitter attack on Williams looked like “witness intimidation and tampering.”
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.
A U.S. official said Vindman had recently raised concerns over his personal security and the Army had been carrying out security assessments. The official said Vindman and his family could be moved to a military base if the security threat warranted such action but that had not yet occurred.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and attacked the Democrats leading the inquiry.
Last Friday’s testimony attracted an average audience of 12.9 million viewers across seven U.S. 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.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Idrees Ali, Susan Cornwell, David Morgan, Richard Cowan and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Richard Valdmanis, Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)