So far, the closest that Adam Schiff has to a direct witness to alleged impeachable conduct has already the public stand this morning. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a staffer on the National Security Council and career officer in the US Army, will expound on his earlier testimony about his discomfort with Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky. Republicans have to step carefully around Vindman’s professional bona fides, but they do have contradictory witnesses to highlight in response:
The House impeachment hearing Tuesday is set to feature one of the Democrats’ star witnesses: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient who is expected to testify about his alarm at President Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate his political opponents. …
The spotlight will intensify the pressure on Vindman, who continues to serve in the White House as the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council. He previously told House lawmakers that he believed the president crossed a “disturbing” line when he asked the Ukrainian president for a “favor” during a July 25 call — that Ukraine investigate his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
Vindman, who was among those listening to the conversation, was so concerned that within an hour, he warned White House lawyers that the president’s actions were improper.
When Vindman’s name became known, a few Republicans and conservative pundits initially attacked his character and his loyalty to the US. That got shot down by sharp bipartisan criticism, and for good reason — Vindman has been in the US since the age of 3 after his family managed to leave the Soviet Union. He has spent his adult life serving in uniform, with apparently stellar results.
That doesn’t mean Vindman doesn’t have his biases, however. After a request from House Republicans to provide information on the Ukraine issue, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) blasted Vindman as a bureaucrat who is working to undermine Trump’s legitimate exercise of diplomatic policy:
Johnson (R-Wis.), in a letter sent Monday to House Republicans, questioned the credibility of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine specialist with the National Security Council who listened in on President Donald Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president, in which Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate his political rivals.
“A significant number of bureaucrats and staff members within the executive branch have never accepted President Trump as legitimate and resent his unorthodox style and his intrusion onto their ‘turf’,” Johnson wrote. “They react by leaking to the press and participating in the ongoing effort to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office. It is entirely possible that Vindman fits this profile.”
Jeff Dunetz notes another key passage from Johnson’s letter regarding Vindman’s earlier deposition:
Vindman’s testimony, together with other witnesses’ use of similar terms such as “our policy,” “stated policy,” and “long-standing policy” lend further credence to the point I’m making. Whether you agree with President Trump or not, it should be acknowledged that the Constitution vests the power of conducting foreign policy with the duly elected president. American foreign policy is what the president determines it to be, not what the “consensus” of unelected foreign policy bureaucrats wants it to be. If any bureaucrats disagree with the president, they should use their powers of persuasion within their legal chain of command to get the president to agree with their viewpoint. In the end, if they are unable to carry out the policy of the president, they should resign. They should not seek to undermine the policy by leaking to people outside their chain of command.
This is the tack we can likely expect Republicans to take with Vindman, attempting to avoid earlier missteps regarding his patriotism. Schiff made sure to note them in his opening statement:
Rep. Schiff: "Col. Vindman, we have seen far more scurrilous attacks on your character, and watched as certain personalities on Fox have questioned your loyalty. I note that you have shed blood for America, and we owe you an immense debt of gratitude." https://t.co/wJIckfThSv pic.twitter.com/QzsbOzGiJb
— ABC News (@ABC) November 19, 2019
That was enough of a concern that House Republican leadership took a direct hand in crafting their strategy for today’s testimony, the Washington Post further reported:
In a sign of the sensitivity of the matter, the Republican leadership was personally involved in developing the strategy for questioning Vindman, one person familiar with the discussions said. As of late Monday afternoon, the plan for handling Vindman had not yet been finalized. …
Republicans plan to cast Vindman as a low-level aide who operated outside proper channels — and someone who they suggest may have been agitating against Trump and leaking information.
Potentially helping that along will be other witnesses to the Trump-Zelensky phone call, especially NSC staffer Tim Morrison. Morrison has left the NSC, but he told the committee during his deposition that he didn’t see anything wrong with the call, either at the time or afterward:
— Joel B. Pollak (@joelpollak) November 17, 2019
THE CHAIRMAN: Okay. I just wanted to follow up a bit on this. One of the concerns, and there may be an overlap between the first two concerns you mentioned about the caII, and if the call became public. First, you said you wene concerned how it would play out in Washington’s polarized environment and, second, how a leak would affect bipartisan suppont for our Ukrainian partners. Were those concerns nelated to the fact that the President asked his Ukrainian countenpant to look into on investigate the Bidens?
MR. MORRISON: No, not specifically.
THE CHAIRMAN: So you didn’t think that the President of the United States asking his counterpart to conduct an investigation into a potential opponent in the 2020 election might influence bipartisan support in Congress?
MR. MORRISON: No.
THE CHAIRMAN: And you weren’t concerned that the President bringing up one of his political opponents in the Presidential election and asking a favor with respect to the DNC server or 2016 theory, you weren’t concerned that those things would cause people to believe that the President was asking his counterpart to conduct an investigation that might influence his reelection campaign?
MR. MORRISON: No.
THE CHAIRMAN: That never occurred to you?
MR. MORRISON: No.
THE CHAIRMAN: Did you recognize during the — as you listened to the call that if Ukraine were to conduct these investigations, that it would inure to the President’s political interests?
MR. MORRISON: No.
According to Pollak, Morrison was peeved at Vindman for not coming to him first with the concerns, as the chain of command at NSC should have dictate. Contra Johnson, Morrison doesn’t think Vindman purposefully leaked, but that “I had concerns that he did not exercise appropriate judgment as to whom he would say what.”
This paints Vindman’s assessment less as a firm fact and more as a difference of opinion in the NSC. It further suggests, although Republicans may not explicitly level the accusation, that the difference of opinion resulted from a broader disagreement over the policy, as Johnson suggests. This would once again downgrade this from impeachment hysteria to the kind of policy difference that should either be broached up the chain of command or result in a resignation by the staffers. The president sets policy; either the bureaucracy carries it out or they find other work more to their taste.
The media would probably still take this as an attack on Vindman’s patriotism regardless of how careful GOP panel members are today. That’s why Schiff set that tone at the beginning of today’s hearing, as a signal to the media. Let’s hope someone had a word with the president about moderating his Twitter feed during today’s testimony.
Also testifying is Mike Pence’s aide Jennifer Williams, who also found the call “unusual” for its mention of a “domestic political matter.” Whether she goes farther than that is the question, but she also did state that the president sets foreign policy, and that her job was to carry it out. That will certainly get much more exploration from the GOP side of the panel as the day wears on.
Williams says she found President Trump's call with Ukraine's president "unusual" because it "involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter" https://t.co/OZ2lHu07Z6 pic.twitter.com/h4wBl0odqI
— CBS News (@CBSNews) November 19, 2019
Pence aide Jennifer Williams delivers opening statement: "I swore an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution…I am committed to serving the American people and advancing American interests abroad in support of the president's foreign policy objectives" https://t.co/SfAn7Bnx4h pic.twitter.com/t0UxMbLQm7
— ABC News (@ABC) November 19, 2019
Just how far Williams can go is a big question. She already told Mark Meadows during her deposition that she was unaware of any “conditionality” attached to Ukraine aid:
MR. MEADOWS: And so, as we go even further, in terms of the readouts and, in terms of what I think your nomenclature is, due-outs, there was no due-out that would suggest that there had to be any conditionality to releasing the aid, other than what Ambassador Bolton brought up in terms of real aggressive anticorruption measures that I guess happened in late August. Is that correct?
S. WILLIAMS: I guess I would say, I did not know the motivation behind the hold in the first place.
MR. MEADOWS: Right.
MS. WILLIAMS: So I was not aware of any conditionality on what the reason for the hold was, and what that might be dependent on. It’s only later on through this process that I understand there were other conversations happening outside of what we would consider to be official diplomatic channels.
MR. MEADOWS: And you’ve learned that through —
MS. WILLIAMS: Press reporting.
MR. MEADOWS: — open-source press reporting?
MS. WILLIAMS: Correct.
MR. MEADOWS: So everything that you know about any nefarious purpose actually came through press reports, no official channels?
MS. WILLIAMS: That’s correct, and we had no understanding of what the actual reason for the hold was.
That’s not a ringing denial, but it is a denial that any official quid pro quo policy was in place on this aid.