First, both stressed they had served presidents of both parties. Their by-the-book, unemotional and somewhat stiff presentations were not those of publicity-seeking partisans. Reading from a prepared text, Vindman explained: “It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent … My intent was to raise these concerns because they had significant national security implications for our country.” He defended his fellow Foreign Service and civil service officials, calling character attacks “reprehensible,” a term that would apply both to Trump and House Republicans.
In the most moving part of his opening statement, he addressed his father, whom he praised for fleeing his homeland and bringing his family here. “Dad, my sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America,” he said. “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.” Republican smears and baseless attacks looked patently ridiculous in light of Vindman’s and Williams’s testimony and demeanor. That will not, of course, deter Republicans bent on smearing anyone who tells the truth.
Second, Vindman made clear under questioning that in neither the April 21 nor the July 25 phone calls did Trump ever mention any concern about corruption. This undercuts the notion that Trump was pursuing U.S. anti-corruption policy; in fact, he was pursuing his own agenda for political advantage over former vice president Joe Biden, based on scurrilous rumors. (Both Williams and Vindman said there was no evidence Biden did anything wrong; Vindman made clear the CrowdStrike conspiracy theory was utterly false and contrary to the unanimous finding of our intelligence community that Russia was responsible for meddling in the 2016 election.)
Third, their testimony made clear that Ukraine was fully aware of the link between aid and Trump’s demand for dirt on Biden. (Vindman explained that Trump’s July 25 comment was not a request but a demand, given the imbalance in power and Ukraine’s dependence on U.S. support.) Vindman testified that he heard U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland tell the Ukrainians in a July 10 meeting that the “deliverable” was needed for a White House meeting; both heard Trump convey to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the July 25 call the need for investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 conspiracy theory; Fiona Hill and Vindman admonished Sondland not to bring up domestic political concerns; and in the Sept. 1 meeting with Pence, Zelensky immediately brought up the assistance hold, which remained in place for another 10 days.
Fourth, Williams’s testimony opened the question as to what Pence knew and when he knew it. She testified that she did a write-up about the July 25 call and included it and the transcript of the call in a briefing packet to Pence, but she did not know whether he read it. When Pence was asked about the aid holdup in the Sept. 1 meeting, he said he would talk to Trump about it. On Sept. 18, Pence spoke to Zelensky, but Williams was not allowed to discuss that conversation in an open setting. If Pence knew of the extortion plot, what did he do to stop it? It seems at the very least Pence needs to answer some questions in writing.
Fifth, Sondland, who will testify on Wednesday, has been caught dead to rights. He claimed in deposition he never spoke to Ukraine about the investigations and later amended his testimony. Did he really not recall the July 10 meeting with the Ukrainians or being read the riot act by Hill and Vindman? Sondland also denied speaking to the State Department or the White House about the dirt-for-aid extortion, but as we now know, his conversation with Trump was overheard by others. Sondland’s centrality in the scheme to extort Ukraine is clear from other witnesses and from written evidence. We will have to wait until Wednesday before we find out how he gets himself out from under a possible charge of lying to Congress.
Finally, Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine, also has a problem. Vindman revealed his presence in the July 10 meeting when the inappropriateness of the demand for investigations was discussed. The committee counsel also read from a text from Volker to a Ukrainian official just minutes before the July 25 call in which Volker references the 2016 investigation, which was part of Trump’s extortion plan. Volker has pleaded ignorance to his awareness of the skulduggery. In the afternoon session, he’ll have some explaining to do as well.
In sum, these two witnesses, certainly not political operators, made clear that Trump was improperly inserting his political agenda into U.S. foreign policy, resulting in withholding aid and a critical White House meeting. They knew full well that it was wrong. The question remains why Republicans choose to smear them rather than recognize that extorting an ally for political dirt is deeply wrong and damaging to our national security.