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Top Ukraine adviser says he 'couldn't believe' what he heard from Trump

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman on Tuesday at the

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman on Tuesday at the public impeachment hearing. Credit: EPA/Erik S. Lesser

'Inappropriate'

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is now widely known as the National Security Council's top expert on Ukraine — and expresses pride in his role as a son of Soviet émigrés who was raised in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, wounded in Iraq and highly decorated.

Vindman thus brought unusual nonpartisan credentials to his testimony as a congressional witness about President Donald Trump's highly unusual efforts to get the Ukraine government to probe his U.S. rivals.

He blasted Trump's controversial July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, to which he listened, as derailing proper policy.

"I couldn't believe what I was hearing. ... Without hesitation, I knew I had to report this,” Vindman told the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. “It was inappropriate, it was improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent.” As for a quid pro quo, Vindman said: "[M]y impression is that in order to get [a] White House meeting, President Zelensky would have to deliver these investigations."

Jennifer Williams, a career State Department official who's worked for three administrations and considers Republican former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a “personal hero,” said the July 25 call marked the first time she had heard such a call. 

Trump's toxic reference to former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter in the conversation “struck me as political in nature,” as well as inappropriate, she said. Despite Republican committee members' efforts to suggest that their accounts were hearsay, opinion or even disloyal, their unshaken 4½ hours of testimony ended up pretty much as anticipated. One new detail: Vindman said he told an intelligence officer about the Zelensky call.

Neither witness emerged as a "never Trumper," despite tweeter-in-chief Trump's label for them. Vindman called himself a "never partisan." See this piece by Newsday's Tom Brune for major takeaways.

Diffusing damage?

Ex-envoy Kurt Volker, called by House Republicans as a witness, testified that he never bought into a fringe pro-Trump conspiracy theory spread by the Kremlin that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

Nor did he believe, Volker said, that Joe Biden would have any role in corrupt self-dealing, and called him "honorable." 

Not so good for Trump's side.

But committee Republicans could quote other Volker statements to offset troublesome revelations from other witnesses. At one point, Volker said diplomatically that he "would not have called it a condition" for releasing military aid that Zelensky make a requested public statement about probing the Bidens.

Volker also said he thought a controversial delay of White House security assistance to Ukraine stemmed from a "general" suspicion of Ukraine.

He said under GOP questioning he did not believe he took part in anything he'd define as extortion, bribery or quid pro quo. 

Rolling over Rudy

Volker also shifted weight to Trump private lawyer Rudy Giuliani for pushing the conspiracy theories and feeding them to Trump.

Also, Volker made several changes from his earlier, private deposition, conceding he should have noticed the link between demands to investigate the Burisma gas company and probing Hunter Biden's role on its board.

The Biden-Burisma tie, however, is key to what Giuliani had been pushing in public since May. 

The former mayor is also drawing heat for taking no security precautions in his international communications while presenting himself as a cybersecurity expert.

Trump's snark 'defense'

Trump didn't contest details of star witness Vindman's analysis so much as try to caricature him in a snippy way.

"I never saw the man. I understand now he wears his uniform when he goes in," Trump told reporters at a Cabinet meeting when asked if Vindman was credible. "No, I don't know Vindman at all."

Before the committee, pro-Trump Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) was trying to dent Vindman's story when he said "Mr. Vindman" and the officer asked to be addressed by his rank. Trump later said: "I understand somebody had the misfortune of calling him 'mister' and he corrected them."

The president seemed more comfortable returning to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a target, calling her "grossly incompetent." Regarding impeachment, he said: "What is going on is a disgrace and it’s an embarrassment to our nation." Pelosi said this week that Trump insults people because he knows he's in over his head.

Democrats debate onward

Ten Democratic presidential candidates are set to take the stage Wednesday night for the fifth debate of the primary election, though voter support has consolidated around four of them.

Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are expected to clash among themselves as they seek more secure leads while fending off attacks from the other six contenders still seeking breakout moments.

Political experts note that good performances in past debates this year haven’t yielded lasting momentum. But they warn that, by contrast, bad performances can do lasting damage. Newsday's Emily Ngo summarizes the big points to watch for.

Federal fiasco

Two federal correction officers responsible for guarding Jeffrey Epstein the night the convicted billionaire sex offender was found hanging in his cell were charged Tuesday with falsifying prison records. The scandal has splashed up on Attorney General William Barr's Justice Department, which runs the Bureau of Prisons.

The pair, Toval Noel and Michael Thomas, were accused in a grand jury indictment of neglecting their duties by failing to check on Epstein for nearly eight hours, and of fabricating log entries to show they had been making checks every 30 minutes.

Prosecutors allege that instead of making their required rounds, the two guards sat at their desks, browsed the internet and walked around the unit’s common area. During one two-hour period, the indictment said, both appeared to have been asleep. Barr has already expressed outrage over the incident.

What else is happening:

  • Trump denied suspicions he had a heart attack or other serious medical episode over the weekend and insisted his visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center "routine," Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez reports.
  • Aides talked about a "Gordon problem" regarding Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who communicated with the president on Ukraine.
  • White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham faces backlash after a dubious claim that departing Obama administration staff left disparaging messages behind for Trump aides to find.
  • The Senate unanimously approved a resolution in support of pro-democracy protesters by empowering the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Hong Kong or Chinese officials who violate human rights.
  • New citizens could influence next year's election if mobilized, according to a progressive group's study.
  • The House approved a spending authorization bill to keep government functioning through Dec. 20.

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