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Impeachment Today Podcast: All Eyes On Alexander Vindman

In today's episode, we take you through the testimonies of NSC staffer Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams, who works for Vice President Mike Pence.

Posted on November 20, 2019, at 10:16 p.m. ET

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, National Security Council Director for European Affairs

It's Wednesday, November 20th, 2019, 57 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

You can listen to today's episode below, or check it out on on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

It's Wednesday, November 20, 2019. 57 days into the impeachment inquiry and day four of impeachment hearings. And this is Impeachment Today.

Good morning. I'm Hayes Brown, reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News. We're spending today catching you up on yesterday's hearings so you can be ready for more hearings today. Yay. We've got four witnesses and an estimated bajillion hours of testimony to go through, so let's get right to it.

The day started bright and early at 9:00 AM in the House Intelligence Committee. First up, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a White House National Security Council staffer and Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer detailed to Vice President Pence. Both have Ukraine in their portfolios and both were listening in on Trump's July 25th phone call with Ukraine's President Zelensky.

Here's what you need to know about the morning's hearing. Vindman and Williams provided firsthand knowledge of both the call and several meetings at the White House that they found troubling. Democrats teased out more details about what the witnesses saw and Republicans didn't. Instead, they opted to try to find the name of the whistleblower, diminish Vindman's role in the White House, accuse him of being a leaker to the press and play the two witnesses' recollections off each other. As ever, the hearing began with questions from the Chair, Adam Schiff and the Democrats' main lawyer in these hearings, Daniel Goldman. Goldman laid out exactly what both Vindman and Williams took away from Trump's July call.

Daniel Goldman:

So just to summarize, in this July 25th call between the Presidents of the United States and Ukraine, President Trump demanded a favor of President Zelensky to conduct investigations that both of you acknowledge were for President Trump's political interest, not the national interest and in return for his promise of a much desired White House meeting for President's Zelensky. Colonel Vindman, is that an accurate summary of the excerpts that we just looked at?

Alexander Vindman:

Yes.

Daniel Goldman:

Miss Williams?

Jennifer Williams:

Yes.

Hayes Brown:

Goldman also asked about a July 10th meeting at the White House with Ukrainian officials that was broken up when US Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, brought up the investigations. In a second meeting almost immediately after, Sondland apparently pushed even harder for those investigations.

Daniel Goldman:

The specific investigations that Ambassador Sondland referenced in the larger meeting also discussed in the ward room meeting?

Alexander Vindman:

They were.

Daniel Goldman:

And what did Ambassador Sondland say?

Alexander Vindman:

Ambassador Sondland referred to investigations into the Bidens, Burisma, in 2016.

Daniel Goldman:

How did you respond if at all?

Alexander Vindman:

I said that this request to conduct these meetings was inappropriate. These investigations was inappropriate and had nothing to do with national security policy.

Hayes Brown:

Then over to the Republicans' lawyer, Steve Castor. When questioning Williams, he honed in on one point. If Trump's call with the Ukrainian President was such a concern, why didn't she talk about it with any of her supervisors or the Vice President? She said she flagged it to her superiors and then left it alone after that.

Then Castor spent a solid chunk of time questioning Lieutenant Colonel Vindman about an offer he got to be Ukraine's Defense Minister. Vindman said that he basically brushed it off, but informed his chain of command and counter intelligence officials. Castor pushed him on that point, all but insinuating that the Lieutenant Colonel cares more about Ukraine than the US, which Vindman smacked down.

Alexander Vindman:

These are honorable people. I'm not sure if he meant it as a joke or not, but it's much more important what my civilian White House National Security Council chain of command thinks more so than anybody else. And frankly, if they were concerned about me being able to continue my duties-

Steve Castor:

Of course.

Alexander Vindman:

They would have brought that to my attention. Doctor-

Hayes Brown:

The Daily Beast quickly got comment from the Ukrainian official that made the offer to Vindman. He noted it was clearly a joke. And then came everyone's favorite time, members questioning. The Democrats stuck to their guns, pushing the idea that, yeah, it's really weird that there was an unofficial secret policy towards Ukraine, that Trump wanted the same things as everyone pushing that policy on Ukraine, and that it's very uncool of the President to want political rivals investigated.

New York's representative, Elise Stefanik, continued to be a standout on the Republican side. She again highlighted that corruption in Ukraine is a real problem and got the witnesses to say as much. She also got the witnesses to say that Joe Biden's son having a role on a Ukrainian natural gas company's board could be seen as not great.

Elise Stefanik:

Every witness who has testified and has been asked this has answered, yes. Do you agree that Hunter Biden on the board of Burisma has the potential for the appearance of a conflict of interest?

Alexander Vindman:

Certainly the potential, yes.

Elise Stefanik:

And Ms. Williams?

Jennifer Williams:

Yes.

Hayes Brown:

That's been developed into a talking point to imply that Trump was right to ask for an investigation into that specific company. Other Republicans spent a lot of time trying to suss out if Vindman knows the name of the whistleblower who first filed a complaint about the July phone call. And Chair Adam Schiff was like, what? No, you all need to stop. Okay. Here's the T. Vindman says he spoke about the phone call to two people outside the White House, one of whom is a member of the intelligence community who he declined to name. Vindman also said under oath that he doesn't know who the whistleblower is, but he knows who he talked to and probably at least suspects that person might be the whistleblower.

So the Republicans kept on pushing for him to name the person he spoke to, knowing that they might be revealing the whistleblower's identity or at the very least getting a clue that might lead them there. That's why Schiff and Vindman's lawyer intervened. Outside the hearing room, members of the alt right and conservative media spun up to say that Vindman himself is probs the real whistleblower, and he laundered his complaint through another person who these yabbos have been saying is the whistleblower. I hope to not say whistleblower as much during the next segment.

And then the White House tweeted out a piece of closed-door testimony from Tim Morrison, who appeared later in the day before Congress. He was Vindman's direct boss and said he had concerned about Vindman's judgment. Well, here's Vindman citing his last performance review in July before Morrison took over as his boss.

Alexander Vindman:

Alex is a top 1% [inaudible 00:06:16] officer and the best Army officer I've worked with in my 15 years of government service. He's brilliant, unflappable, and exercises excellent judgment.

Hayes Brown:

What a flex. Okay, that was the morning. Stick around and we'll give you an update on the afternoon's testimony and our Nixometer reading of the day.

Welcome back. Okay. Now on to part duex of le hearing Impeachment Today. I did not take French. Okay. At the witness stand were Tim Morrison, who was briefly the Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council and Kurt Volker, the former US Special Envoy for Ukraine.

Here's what you need to know about the afternoon session. Republicans hoped that these two witnesses would be a bit more helpful to their defense of the President, and it turned out to be about 50/50. While the witnesses confirmed the basics of a lot of the Democrats' case, the Republicans found plenty of holes to poke into the idea that the President committed a crime.

Volker handed over a ton of text messages that have been a core source of information for investigators since he resigned in September. On Tuesday, Volker explained that he was working with Rudy Giuliani to try to keep the US-Ukraine relationship from getting worse. And in his mind, trying to get an investigation of Burisma was totally unrelated to the Bidens, but he now realizes that everyone else working around him on the unofficial Ukraine team Giuliani led did not see it that way.

Kurt Volker:

As I said, there is a history of corruption in Ukraine. There's a history with the company Burisma. It's been investigated. That is well known. There is a separate allegation about the Vice President acting inappropriately. His son was a board member of this company, but those things I saw as completely distinct.

Hayes Brown:

Now this next bit takes the GOP members of the panel's argument, sure, investigate Burisma. It's bad, and showed how that was not what the real issue was. It was always about the Bidens.

Kurt Volker:

And what I was trying to do in working with the Ukrainians was to thread a needle. To see whether things that they can do that are appropriate and reasonable as part of Ukraine's own policy of fighting corruption. That helped clarify for our President that they are committed to that very effort. If there's a way to thread that needle, I thought it was worth the effort to try to solve that problem. As it turns out, I now understand that most of the other people didn't see or didn't consider this distinction. That for them it was synonymous.

Hayes Brown:

Volker didn't always go where Democrats wanted though. A White House meeting between Presidents Zelensky of Ukraine and Trump has been brought up repeatedly as a necessity for the Ukrainians. But Volker testified that he didn't think that the proposed meeting was being used as leverage to get the investigations that Giuliani and Trump wanted. But we know how this turned out. The statement from Ukraine about the investigations never came and the meeting at the White House still has not happened. Goldman, the Democrats' lawyer, pressed Morrison on his previous testimony that there wasn't anything illegal in Trump's call with Zelensky. Here's what Morrison said.

Hayes Brown:

But you would agree, right, that asking a foreign government to investigate a domestic political rival is inappropriate, would you not?

Tim Morrison:

It's not what we recommended the President discuss.

Hayes Brown:

Morrison also confirmed that Trump's Ambassador to the EU told him that nearly $400 million in military aid would be held back until Ukraine agreed to announce the investigations. And we already knew that aid to Ukraine was held up on the order of Mick Mulvaney, Trump's acting Chief of Staff and head of the Office of Management and Budget. Others have testified that he did so on Trump's orders. Now, here's an interesting new detail from Morrison.

Daniel Goldman:

Final question. When was the the hold lifted?

Tim Morrison:

As I understand it, the President gave that direction the evening of September 11th.

Daniel Goldman:

Which was two days after the Congress announced an investigation. Were you aware of that?

Tim Morrison:

I believe I was familiar with the letter from the three committee chairmen.

Hayes Brown:

Now, that's the first confirmation that it was Trump himself who ordered the freeze lifted with just as little explanation given as when it was put in place. The Republicans' lawyer used his question time to paint the whole Ukraine thing as business as normal. Here's Volker talking with him about the aid freeze.

Kurt Volker:

No, it's something that had happened in my career in the past. I'd seen hold ups of assistance. I just assumed it was part of the decision making process. Somebody had an objection. We had to overcome it.

Steve Castor:

And in fact there were concerns that perhaps President Zelensky wasn't going to be the reformer that he campaigned on?

Kurt Volker:

That was a supposition that I made because of the meeting with the President on May 23rd. I thought that could be what's behind it.

Hayes Brown:

Volker also shared his take on the conspiracy theories floating around involving Ukraine interfering in the 2016 election, which became the basis of Trump's whole view on Ukraine. And you could summarize Volker's view as meh.

Kurt Volker:

And my view was, well if there are things like that, then why not investigate them? I don't believe that there's anything to them. If there is 2016 election interference is what I was thinking of, we would want to know about that. But I didn't really believe there's anything there to begin with.

Hayes Brown:

But again, Volker said earlier that the people around him did not see things the same way. We had one more round of questions from the lawyers and with that it kicked over to the committee members for questions, as people everywhere contemplated what they wanted for dinner. Now, I wish I could say that the members' questioning shed new light on the case, but as of 7:55 PM Eastern Standard Time, I'm sorry, I was taught growing up not to lie, so I cannot say that that was the case. Okay. But before we wrap up this recap, here's Adam Schiff explaining pretty dang clearly exactly what's under investigation here.

Adam Schiff:

Bribery does involve a quid pro quo. Bribery involves the conditioning of an official act for something of value. An official act may be a White House meeting. An official act may be 400 million in military aid. And something of value to a President might include investigations of their political rival.

Hayes Brown:

Okay. After all that, it's time to take our reading from the handy dandy Nixomoter.

On our scale a zero is a normal day in a normal White House and 10 is President Richard Nixon resigning and flying away in Marine One. This morning we're at a 7.1 again. There was a lot in Tuesday's testimony, but it lacked both the groundbreaking news from day one and the President refrained from injecting himself into the process as clearly as he did in day two. The witnesses clearly spelled out how the alleged scheme to exchange investigations for a White House meeting and then later for an aid worked out. In the back half of the day, though the witnesses were a bit more skeptical that that plot even existed. But by then most people were probably tuning out some. Me included. A little.

All right, it's time to testify, and I hope you're not too burned out because we have one more day of testimony after today's. On Thursday we have two more officials appearing before Congress. Dr Fiona Hill and David Holmes. Hill was the Senior Director for Russia on the NSC before Morrison took over for her when she resigned in July. She's got a lot to say about the conspiracy theories that influenced Trump's views on Ukraine and was in several meetings that Vindman described today. You can go back to yesterday's episode to learn more about her.

Next to her will be Holmes, who's a newcomer to this whole affair. He's the Political Counselor at the US Embassy in Ukraine and first came forward to Congress last week after his boss, Ambassador Bill Taylor, testified about a call that Holmes overheard between the President and Sondland. He also apparently said behind closed doors that it was very clear to him that there was a deal on the table for the aid to be released only after Ukraine launched these investigations.

Okay, that's it for today. Thanks for sticking with us and listening to all of that. Tomorrow we'll have your recap on the second day of impeachment hearings and this week's Grand Prix du snitching.

But before we go, as always we want to hear from you. And this week we want to know as the hearings start to pile up, what are you still or newly confused by? What just doesn't make sense? Open the voice memo app on your phone, record your message and send it to us @impeachmentatbuzzfeed.com or just send me a direct message on Twitter. I'm @hayesbrown and my DMs are always open. Be sure to subscribe on the the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows - and please leave us a rating or a review or both. Also, tell your friends about the show as we figure all this out together.

Jim Watson / Getty Images

House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes.

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