WASHINGTON - Three current and former Trump administration officials described Tuesday how they harbored a variety of concerns surrounding a July phone call in which President Donald Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former vice president Joe Biden - boosting Democrats' inquiry into whether Trump should be impeached and substantially undercutting the president's assertion that the conversation was "perfect."
Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been at the heart of Democrats' impeachment investigation, and on Tuesday, they solicited public testimony from the trio of firsthand witnesses, who had been tasked with listening in.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council's European affairs director, said he considered the president's demand of the Ukrainian leader "inappropriate," because it could have "significant national security implications" for the United States.
Jennifer Williams, Vice President Mike Pence's special adviser on Europe, said she thought the call was "unusual" because "it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter."
And Tim Morrison, the NSC's former top Russia and Europe adviser, said he worried what might happen if the call was made public - as it ultimately was, after an intelligence community whistleblower complained about it and helped jump-start Democrats' impeachment inquiry.
"I feared at the time of the call on July 25th how its disclosure would play in Washington's political climate," Morrison said. "My fears have been realized."
The three witnesses were joined Tuesday by Kurt Volker, a former Trump administration envoy to Ukraine. Their day-long testimony kicked off what is likely to be the most intense week yet in the impeachment inquiry.
Lawmakers are scheduled to hear from nine witnesses before Friday, as they seek to build a case not just that Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart for a political favor, but that he withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and a White House meeting to ensure he would get what he wanted.
The House Intelligence Committee will hear Wednesday from a witness who is perhaps the most critical: Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, who talked to Trump regularly and seemed to take a hands-on role in communicating the president's demands to the Ukrainians.
As they had behind closed doors, the witnesses testifying Tuesday, some in the face of public attacks from the president and his allies, offered a clear window into how Trump used the power of his office in a bid to get a political benefit from a foreign leader.
Republicans, meanwhile, intensified their attacks on the investigation - questioning Democrats' motives, scrutinizing witnesses and suggesting that Trump was merely concerned about Ukrainian corruption in general.
"The Democrats are no closer to impeachment than where they were three years ago," the House Intelligence Committee's top Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said during Tuesday's hearings.
Trump said Tuesday that impeachment was "a little pipe dream" of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and that Republicans "are absolutely killing it" with their line of questioning for the witnesses.
Vindman and Williams testified together in a morning session before the House Intelligence Committee, followed in the afternoon by Morrison and Volker. Republicans had requested Volker and Morrison as witnesses and treated them far more gently - though their remarks did not fully exonerate Trump.
Volker testified that while he was aware that the administration was holding back aid from the Ukrainians as Trump sought investigations, he was not aware of a quid pro quo. He said he believed that the president merely harbored a general view that corruption was rampant in Ukraine - a view that was not necessarily unfair, given the country's past leadership.
"The issue of the security assistance was one where I thought this was related to a general negative view about Ukraine," Volker said.
Volker said, too, that while he was involved in the administration's pressure on the Ukrainians to announce investigations of interest to the president, he did not connect those probes to Biden, Trump's political rival. He said he initially believed that the administration was pursuing investigations of potential Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma.
Biden's son Hunter was on the board at Burisma. Volker testified that he was trying to "thread a needle" in divorcing the two and believed that pursuing an investigation of the former vice president would amount to examining "conspiracy theories that have been circulated by the Ukrainians."
"The accusation that Vice President Biden was acting inappropriately didn't seem at all credible to me," he said.
Volker was not on the July 25 call in which Trump mentioned Biden specifically, and he said he "would have objected" to pursuing such an inquiry.
All four witnesses already had provided lawmakers with private depositions, and some had since been subjected to attacks from Trump and his allies. Their public appearances suggested that while they had noted the criticism, they would not be deterred.
Williams - whom Trump tweeted about over the weekend - said she was "surprised" by the president's tweet, which suggested that she was among a group of "Never Trumpers" who were trying to launch a "presidential attack."
"I was not expecting to be called out by name," Williams said, denying that she had attempted to launch an attack on Trump.
Vindman, in his Army dress uniform, initially spoke quickly and nervously, the sheets of paper containing his opening statement shaking in his hand as he read aloud. He called the attacks on those who have appeared before lawmakers "reprehensible" and - addressing his father, who brought the Vindman family to the United States from the Soviet Union decades ago - said: "Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth."
Later in the hearing, though, Vindman seemed to grow more confident. At one point, he corrected Nunes after the Republican called him "Mr. Vindman," rather than by his military rank.
"It's Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please," Vindman said. He later declared himself "never partisan" in response to accusations that he is a "never Trumper" and, when asked about Trump's attacks, asserted of his testimony: "I knew I was assuming a lot of risk."
On Tuesday, Trump said of Vindman: "I never saw the man. I understand now he wears his uniform when he goes in."
Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, tweeted: "What a joke . . . Can anyone watch this and believe that Vindman has any credibility?"
Military officials have been monitoring Vindman's personal security and are ready to move him and his family to an Army base if necessary to protect them from threats, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, read a negative assessment of Vindman from Morrison, Vindman's former boss, questioning his judgment and suggesting he might leak information. The White House later tweeted some of Morrison's claim, which Vindman disputed.
During his testimony later, Morrison confirmed that he had heard concerns from other officials about Vindman's judgment, and he said he wished Vindman had complained to him first about the Trump-Zelensky call before taking his concerns to the NSC's counsel.
Officials do not seem to unanimously view the conversation as problematic. Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, Pence's national security adviser, said in a statement Tuesday that he had been on the call and heard "nothing wrong or improper."
Morrison said he was disappointed over the call because it was "not what we recommended the president discuss," though he said he did not believe, in real time, that Trump was making an improper request, and he evaded Democratic efforts to pin him down on the point. Morrison reported the call to a top NSC lawyer so that access to it could be restricted.
"I was hoping for a more full-throated statement of support from the president concerning President Zelensky's reform agenda," Morrison said.
Vindman testified that he immediately reported the matter to National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg "out of a sense of duty." After that, he said, he seemed to have been excluded from some meetings to which he thought he should have been invited.
Vindman said he also told two other officials about the call: State Department official George Kent and someone in the intelligence community. The remark - and Republicans' reaction to it - prompted committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to pause the hearing and express concern that Vindman's naming the official could publicly identify the whistleblower who filed a complaint about the call.
Republicans objected, noting that Vindman has said he does not know the whistleblower's identity. Vindman ultimately did not reveal the name of the intelligence official in whom he confided.
"It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent," he testified.
Asked about the forcefulness of the president's entreaty, he responded, "The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it's polite and pleasant, it's not to be taken as a request." He said a rough transcript of Trump's call with Zelenksy was moved to a secure location, where fewer people would be able to access it, but he noted, "I didn't take it as anything nefarious."
While the July phone call was the focal point of much of Tuesday's testimony, the four officials also described unusual actions the United States took toward Ukraine that, even now, they said they do not fully understand.
Williams, for example, described how Trump, after speaking with Zelensky in April, had wanted Pence to attend the new Ukrainian leader's inauguration. But in May, before the inauguration date was set, she was informed by the White House chief of staff's office that Pence would not be going, per a new request from Trump, Williams testified.
She said she did not know the reason for the change. A lower-level delegation headlined by Energy Secretary Rick Perry ultimately went instead.
Williams, Vindman and Volker testified that around this time, they were aware of an effort by the president's allies, in particular his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, to press Ukraine for a number of investigations. Unlike the others, though, Volker described how he involved himself directly in the matter - essentially trying to humor Giuliani so he could help Zelensky get a White House meeting.
"If it threads the needle between what is reasonable for Ukraine to do, and if it resets the negative perceptions held by Mr. Giuliani and then the president, then why not?" he said.
Vindman testified that at a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials, Sondland declared that if his foreign counterparts wanted to get a White House meeting, the Ukrainians would have to provide a "deliverable": the investigations the president wanted.
Vindman testified that the remark was so unnerving that it prompted then-national security adviser John Bolton to abruptly cut the gathering short. He said it was not "entirely clear" that Sondland was speaking for the president, but his demand seemed to have been developed after a conversation with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
After the meeting, Vindman said, Sondland told others that he was referring to investigations into the Bidens and Burisma. Vindman said he responded that such probes were "inappropriate - and had nothing to do with national security."
Morrison told lawmakers that his predecessor on the NSC had warned him about the "Gordon problem," referring to Sondland, and that he responded by tracking Sondland's efforts in the context of Ukraine.
Tuesday's testimony could raise questions for Sondland, who has previously claimed he did not fully understand that the president wanted an investigation of Biden.
In a video posted by CNN on Tuesday, Zelensky refused to confirm or deny whether he was prepared to publicly announce an investigation into Burisma after his July call with Trump.
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The Washington Post's Devlin Barrett, Shane Harris, Rosalind S. Helderman, John Hudson, Colby Itkowitz, Greg Jaffe, Michael Kranish, Carol D. Leonnig, Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, Felicia Sonmez, Elise Viebeck and John Wagner contributed to this report.
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Video: Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman described his alarm over President Trump's call with his Ukrainian counterpart during his opening statement at the third public impeachment hearing on Nov. 19.(The Washington Post)
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Video: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a senior National Security Council official, denounced personal attacks on witnesses during his testimony at the third public impeachment hearing on Nov. 19.(The Washington Post)
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Video: Former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and former National Security Council official Tim Morrison gave testimony in the public impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 19.(The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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Video: Jennifer Williams, a top Russia adviser for Vice President Pence, described listening to President Trump's phone call with Ukraine's president during an impeachment hearing on Nov. 19.(The Washington Post)
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Video: Top White House aides Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams, shared concerns of President Trump's call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on day three of the House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearings on Nov. 19.(REF:poseym/The Washington Post)
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WASHINGTON - Only a handful of subordinates to a U.S. president have ever found themselves in the unenviable position of deciding whether to publicly implicate the commander in chief in impeachment proceedings - John Dean, Monica Lewinsky and others whose names are seared into American history.
No one, however, has faced quite the dilemma now confronting Gordon Sondland.
The evidence gathered to date points to Sondland as the witness who, more than any other, could tie President Donald Trump directly to the effort to persuade Ukraine to launch investigations that might benefit him politically.
On Wednesday, with cameras rolling, the millionaire Republican donor-turned-ambassador could solidify the case against Trump, though doing so would require that he revise his previous testimony or acknowledge significant omissions. Or he could stand by his statements and face withering questioning from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee over inconsistencies between his testimony and that of a growing number of witnesses.
"The impeachment effort comes down to one guy, Ambassador Sondland," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who like many Republicans has argued that only a first-person account of Trump leveraging U.S. power for personal gain could give Democrats grounds to impeach. "All the other testimony has a Sondland core to it and a Sondland connection."
Sondland's future - and possibly his freedom - could also rest on whether lawmakers believe he is telling the whole truth about his role and that of the president. Lawmakers in previous inquiries have referred witnesses to the Justice Department if they believe they have lied under oath.
One Republican appeared to raise such a possibility in a brief interview Monday night - particularly if Sondland backs away from his testimony that Trump did not direct a quid pro quo.
"I expect Ambassador Sondland to tell us the same thing he said in his deposition," said House Intelligence Committee member Michael Conaway, R-Texas. Asked what would happen if he does not, he said: "Well, there are legal ramifications for that, for changing your [testimony]. He's got to have good reasons."
Sondland's potential legal exposure is rooted in seven hours of closed-door testimony he provided to congressional investigators Oct. 17. Sondland said then that he had little contact with Trump and knew of no link between a freeze on U.S. aid to Ukraine and investigations sought by Trump into the energy company Burisma, where former vice president Joe Biden's son held a board position, or into a widely discredited theory that Ukraine had circulated misinformation to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Sondland told Congress that he would not have assisted in any effort by the president to press Ukraine to investigate a potential 2020 challenger and that he would have viewed such an effort as inappropriate.
Already, Sondland has reversed himself on a key point. In supplemental testimony, he wrote that the accounts of witnesses who testified after him had "refreshed" his memory.
Though he previously said he knew of no link, Sondland wrote that on Sept. 1 he warned a top Ukrainian official that $400 million in U.S. assistance would probably flow to the country only if its president publicly promised to launch the investigations. Sondland said he had come to "presume" that the White House had linked the aid to the investigations and so shared that presumption with the Ukrainians.
In recent weeks, additional inconsistencies have emerged between Sondland's account and those of at least a half dozen other Foreign Service and national security officials, all of whom will testify publicly before Congress by the end of the week.
Witnesses have said Sondland pressured Ukrainian officials over the investigations, including at a White House meeting July 10. Sondland last month said he recalled no such exchange.
The prospect that Sondland could further revise his initial testimony and more directly implicate the president - or that he could hold fast - adds an element of unpredictability to an already unprecedented impeachment investigation.
Where the probes into President Richard Nixon's culpability in the Watergate scandal and President Bill Clinton's lies about an affair with an intern were recounted in lengthy reports compiled by special prosecutors, Attorney General William Barr's dismissal of concerns about Trump's actions left Democratic lawmakers to conduct their own investigation. As a result, the Trump inquiry from the start has played out almost in real-time and often on national television.
Timothy Naftali, a history professor at New York University and co-author of the book "Impeachment," said past probes into scandals that threatened U.S. presidencies contain few parallels to Sondland's upcoming testimony.
When former White House counsel John Dean testified against Nixon in 1973, he did so under a plea agreement that sent him to prison for obstruction of justice. When national security officials Oliver North and John Poindexter testified in televised hearings regarding the Iran-contra affair, under President Ronald Reagan, both had struck immunity agreements in advance that would later keep them out of jail.
Sondland is testifying with no such safety net.
"It's really an amazing moment - the first time an impeachment investigation has evolved in real time," Naftali said. And because Trump has so far blocked acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others closest to him from testifying, Sondland has emerged as the witness with potentially the most knowledge of the president's involvement in the matter.
"There is going to be enormous pressure on Sondland to minimize the president's role - even as we have people under oath saying Sondland has already misrepresented his position and the extent of the contacts he had with the president," Naftali said.
Indeed, no other impeachment witness has stirred up so much anxiety on Capitol Hill during the impeachment inquiry. Ahead of Sondland's testimony, both sides were engaged in a sort of tug of war trying to win Sondland to their side, while also coming up with contingency plans for what to do if he does not.
While Republicans have said they do not expect Sondland to change his testimony, Democrats have sought in public statements to encourage him to feel comfortable revising his testimony.
"If I was Ambassador Sondland, I would take a deep breath and start over," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. "Take into consideration everything we have learned from other witnesses. Tell us exactly what took place and his interactions with the president. . . . It's never too late to do the right thing."
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a former prosecutor, used similarly encouraging words. "It would be liberating for you to just be truthful," he said in an interview. "It's amazing how many people rise to the occasion to do that. The fact that [Sondland] amended his testimony should be encouraging."
At the same time, Democrats sought to downplay Sondland's testimony ahead of the hearing, lest he refuse to confirm his conversations with the president - or say he lied or exaggerated to colleagues about how much he was in touch with Trump.
Perhaps the most important discrepancy that has emerged is the number of contacts Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, had with Trump. Sondland testified that they spoke or met just three times from late May to early September, the time frame in which the White House sought to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly commit to the two political investigations.
Last week, David Holmes, a counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, told Congress that he and others witnessed a fourth interaction, a July 26 call Sondland placed from a Kyiv restaurant. Sitting at an outdoor table, as waiters passed by, Holmes said Sondland told him and two other aides that he was going to update the president, then called the White House on his cellphone.
Holmes said he remembers the moment vividly for the colorful language Sondland used with the commander in chief. At one point, Holmes testified, Sondland told Trump that "President Zelensky 'loves your a--.' "
Trump's voice could initially be heard across the table, Holmes said, because it was so loud that Sondland grimaced and pulled the receiver away from his year.
"I then heard President Trump ask, 'So, he's gonna do the investigation?' " Holmes testified, according to a transcript. "Ambassador Sondland replied that 'he's gonna do it,' adding that President Zelensky will do 'anything you ask him to.' "
Holmes testified that after the call, he asked Sondland whether it was true that Trump did not care about Ukraine.
"Nope, not at all, doesn't give a s--- about Ukraine," Holmes recalled Sondland saying. "I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated, the President only cares about 'big stuff.' I noted that there was 'big stuff' going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia.' Sondland said 'no, big stuff that matters to him, like this Biden investigation that Giuliani is pushing.' "
Other witnesses have said Sondland was speaking about a Biden investigation well before the call.
On July 10, Sondland went off-script at a meeting with Ukrainian officials, according to testimony from White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill and White House Ukraine adviser Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.
At the White House meeting, Sondland pressed a top aide to Zelensky and the head of Ukraine's national security council for "investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma," Vindman testified. Hill and Vindman said they confronted Sondland afterward.
Sondland testified he has no recollection of making such demands or of having tense words with Hill or Vindman afterward.
Tim Morrison, the top Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council, testified that in all, he understood Sondland had spoken to Trump about half a dozen times from mid-July to mid-September. Sondland has acknowledged only two calls with Trump in that time.
Trump tweeted about Sondland last month, calling him a "great American" when the State Department initially instructed him to decline to testify without a subpoena. Asked about Sondland this month, as the details of his testimony fell into dispute, Trump said, "I hardly know the gentleman."