Trump is hung up on telling people that he is smart enough to do quid pro quo.
“As Donald Trump gets dragged deeper, and deeper, and deeper into his Ukraine scandal and the impeachment inquiry accelerates toward a likely House vote before the year’s end, the president is increasingly insistent that, if he wanted to commit a crime, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to get caught.
At other times, Trump has privately avowed that if he wanted to commit the crimes or outrageous actions he’s accused of, he’d be smart enough to do it—and that people should stop saying he’s too dumb or incompetent to do crimes.”
House committees heard testimony on Tuesday from an official who listened in on the pivotal July 25 call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart and said he was so alarmed by the call that he reported his concerns to a White House lawyer.
In the call, Mr. Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations into matters related to the 2016 election and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Those requests, and a temporary hold on aid to Ukraine, are at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment probe.
Alexander Vindman, the director of European affairs at the National Security Council, said he was concerned by Mr. Trump’s July 25 call because he didn’t think it was appropriate to ask another country to investigate a U.S. citizen. According to his opening statement obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Vindman said he was worried that the requests could be viewed as a “partisan play” that would cause Ukraine to lose the bipartisan support that is the basis for years of American aid in Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression.
Mr. Vindman, who arrived at the Capitol Tuesday morning to offer his closed-door testimony, is the ninth witness to be interviewed by Democratic-led committees and the first person who was on the summer call to speak before the panels. His testimony comes as Democrats prepare to launch a new phase of the investigation that will include public hearings and release transcripts of witnesses who have testified previously.
Mr. Vindman reported to Fiona Hill, the NSC’s former top Russia adviser, who has already testified. Ms. Hill in turn reported to John Bolton, the former national security adviser. Mr. Vindman, who was three years old when his family emigrated from Ukraine in the former Soviet Union, is an Army officer who served in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart.
Mr. Vindman said that he raised concerns to colleagues inside the White House about two critical moments—the July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and Ukraine’s President Zelensky, as well as a July 10 meeting that Mr. Vindman attended between White House and Ukrainian officials. After both, Mr. Vindman said he reported his concerns to the National Security Council’s lead counsel.
Mr. Vindman, who appears pursuant to a subpoena, said that at the July 10 meeting, U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland started speaking about Ukraine delivering specific investigations to secure a meeting with Mr. Trump when Mr. Bolton cut the meeting short. Mr. Vindman said that at a debriefing after the meeting, Mr. Sondland “emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma,” the Ukrainian company where Hunter Biden was a board member.
In his prepared testimony, Mr. Vindman said that he then told Mr. Sondland that his statements were inappropriate as the request to investigate Mr. Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security.
Mr. Sondland, in his own testimony earlier this month, acknowledged raising investigations in the July 10 meeting but said he doesn’t recall any NSC officials expressing concerns to him. His testimony is at odds with that of Mr. Vindman; Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine who testified last week; and Ms. Hill, who testified earlier this month.
Mr. Sondland’s lawyer declined to comment on Mr. Vindman’s testimony.
Mr. Trump sought to play down the testimony Tuesday morning, tweeting: “Why are people that I never even heard of testifying about the call.” He added: “How many more Never Trumpers will be allowed to testify about a perfectly appropriate phone call when all anyone has to do is READ THE TRANSCRIPT!”
The White House, under pressure from Capitol Hill following an unnamed whistleblower filing a complaint about the call, released the rough transcript of the July 25 call last month. Mr. Vindman said in his prepared testimony that he is not the whistleblower and doesn’t know who it is.
Some allies of the president, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham and former Rep. Sean Duffy (R., Wis.), questioned on cable news shows whether Mr. Vindman’s stance on Ukraine and Mr. Trump’s comments was related to his being born there, and they questioned his motivations. But prominent House Republicans rejected doubts about his loyalty or patriotism.
“We’re talking about decorated veterans who have served this nation,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.), a member of GOP leadership. “And it is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this nation, and we should not be involved in that process.”
Democrats panned the criticism of Mr. Vindman.
“If that’s all they’ve got, to question the patriotism of a lieutenant colonel who took a bullet for us and has a Purple Heart on the battlefield, well, good luck to them,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D., Wis.). “My goodness.”
Mr. Vindman’s brief opening statement sheds no light on another facet of the controversy involving Ukraine—the holdup of nearly $400 million of aid to Ukraine over the summer. The hold on U.S. aid to Ukraine came at the request of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on direction from Mr. Trump.
Mr. Vindman’s testimony took place behind closed doors but could become public under a resolution expected to be voted on later this week. House Democrats will use the vote to formally set up a process for the next stage of the inquiry, including holding hearings, authorizing the disclosure of transcripts and outlining procedures to transfer evidence to the Judiciary Committee, which traditionally drafts articles of impeachment. The resolution will also set forth due-process rights for the president and his counsel.
Republicans have said that the resolution does little to legitimize an inquiry that they deride as a sham. They claim that the damage to the president has already been done by a closed-door probe that they say has been marred by selective leaks of information harmful to the president. A federal judge late last week determined that the House inquiries have legal standing as an impeachment investigation.
THE UKRAINE WITNESSES
- Oct. 3: Kurt Volker, former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, testifies and hands over text messages with other State Department officials that showed officials attempting to use a potential meeting between Mr. Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart as leverage to press Kyiv to investigate Joe Biden.
- Oct. 11: Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testifies that Mr. Trump sought for over a year to remove her and that his allies, including Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, targeted her in a “concerted campaign.”
- Oct. 14: Fiona Hill, President Trump’s former top Russia adviser, testifies that she and other White House officials grew so alarmed by the administration’s efforts to push Ukraine to open certain investigations that they raised objections with a White House lawyer.
- Oct. 15: George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state, testifies that he had grown concerned that he had been sidelined from Ukraine diplomacy and that he raised concerns in 2015 about Joe Biden’s son serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
- Oct. 16: Michael McKinley, former top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, testifies that he left his post over frustration with Mr. Pompeo regarding the treatment of Ms. Yovanovitch.
- Oct. 17: Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, criticizes President Trump over his efforts to enlist Ukraine in investigating a political rival and says he and other U.S. officials were “disappointed” by the president’s directive to work with Mr. Giuliani on Ukraine matters.
- Oct. 22: William Taylor, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, testified that President Trump made nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine contingent on the Ukrainian president investigating two matters related to U.S. politics.
- Oct. 23: Laura Cooper, Defense Department official overseeing Ukraine, was the first Pentagon official to testify before investigators.
- Oct. 26: Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of European and Eurasian affairs, said that top officials stymied a show of solidarity for Ms. Yovanovitch.
- Oct. 29: Alexander Vindman, the director of European affairs at the National Security Council who attended the Ukrainian president’s inauguration in May.
Scheduled to Testify:
- Oct. 30: Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs; Catherine Croft, who served at the State Department as special adviser for Ukraine; Christopher Anderson, who was a special adviser to Kurt Volker, the former U.S. envoy for Ukraine negotiations
- Oct. 31: Tim Morrison, the National Security Council’s Russia and Europe director
BREAKING: Mike Pence was just asked FOUR TIMES if he knew about Trump’s quid pro quo.
President Trump doubled down on his impeachable behavior on Thursday, using his ‘Chopper Talk’ time with reporters to signal that he wants China to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. #Monologue #ChopperTalk #Colbert
Vice President Mike Pence defended President Trump’s call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saying there was no request made for Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
BREAKING: Jim Jordan was just asked COUNTLESS times if it’s okay for Trump to collude with foreign countries.
Love your nation. Celebrate its sovereignty. Never buy into the misguided idea that someone else’s country should tell you how to run yours. President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week was an ode to chest-thumping nationalism. But in one specialized field of human endeavor, Trump seems to believe that America is not nearly great enough: sliming political rivals.
As a presidential candidate, now and in 2016, Trump has tried to outsource opposition research to countries whose legal systems are awash in corruption or tainted by political influence.
Three years ago, he looked into a bank of TV cameras and implored Russia, “if you’re listening,” to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted State Department emails. (Russia was listening and, we’ve since learned, hopped right to it, as Robert Mueller’s investigation showed.) Trump now faces an impeachment investigation in the House for pressuring Ukraine to dig up damaging information about the 2020 Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. Heedless of the impeachment machinery whirring on Capitol Hill, he stood outside the White House on Thursday and told reporters that he’d like to see the Chinese investigate the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter in their country.
In so many other arenas, Trump has denounced and ditched international cooperation. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of which Barack Obama had negotiated. He’s questioned whether the NATO military alliance is worth the price. “America first” was the slogan that helped Trump win the presidency. But he doesn’t seem to believe it’s the tactic that will help him keep it.
Trump sees foreign-policy priorities as bargaining chips, advancing or discarding them as his needs change. In an example from 2017, he dialed back public criticism of China because he wanted the country’s help ending North Korea’s nuclear program. That summer, his aides had drafted a speech aimed at intellectual-property theft, which they viewed as a bedrock Chinese trade practice. At Trump’s insistence, they eliminated virtually all references to China in hopes of not offending its leadership at a time when he was coaxing them to lean on North Korea.
These sorts of calculations fall within the bounds of traditional statecraft. What happens, though, when Trump tosses domestic politics into the mix? What if China agreed to plow forward with an investigation into the Bidens at Trump’s behest? Could that induce Trump to go softer in U.S.-China trade talks—negotiations that influence the price of consumer goods, the livelihood of American farmers, and employment levels? When a president conflates personal politics with the national interest, we’re left to wonder.
If Trump was worried about possible corruption involving Americans overseas, he could turn to his own country’s investigators for help examining their dealings. There is, of course, a law-enforcement agency with a long tradition of investigatory work here in the sovereign United States: the FBI. It would be an abuse of power for Trump to order the FBI or the Justice Department to fast-track an investigation into any political opponent, but he would be within his rights to pass along what information he may have, Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, told me.
But Trump doesn’t want the bureau on the case. He’s spent much of his presidency savaging the FBI and the broader U.S. intelligence community, airing baseless accusations that they spied on him during the 2016 election. In an interview with ABC News in June, Trump was dismissive of the notion that it’s wrong for foreign governments to provide dirt on political opponents, and that the right thing for campaigns to do when they’re contacted is to involve the FBI.
“But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research, ‘Oh, let’s call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it,” Trump told the network’s George Stephanopoulos.
Trump conveyed his disdain for the bureau’s leadership—officials he appointed—when Stephanopoulos reminded him that FBI Director Christopher Wray had recently testified to Congress that campaigns should report instances of foreign interference in U.S. elections. “The FBI director is wrong, because frankly it doesn’t happen like that in life,” Trump said. What’s wrong is not only saying, as Trump once did, that you’d accept help from foreign countries in an election, but strong-arming them into tarring a political opponent. After he said he’d like China to probe the Bidens, the Federal Election Commission chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, retweeted a message she’d sent over the summer that it’s illegal to solicit something of value from a foreign national as part of a U.S. election.
“Is this thing on?” Weintraub wrote, cheekily, using a microphone emoji.
Between the entreaties made to China and Ukraine, it’s clear the blowback from 2016 has not made the president any more cautious, and he continues to blur the lines between his own interests and his duties as head of state. Take the batch of text messages released by House Democrats late Thursday night. Right before a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, sent a message to a Zelensky aide. The note suggests that a summit meeting between the two leaders was conditioned on Ukraine’s willingness to investigate a discredited theory that Russia might not have been the ones that pilfered Democratic emails in the 2016 race.
Writing that he had “heard from the White House,” Volker told the aide that if Zelensky would agree in the call to “get to the bottom of what happened in 2016,” the administration would “nail down” a meeting between the presidents.
The texts show Ukraine was reluctant to go along with the scheme, which smacks of a quid pro quo. In one note in July, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat there, wrote that Zelensky was “sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.” Yet Ukraine may have decided that defying Trump is too risky. New reports show that Ukraine’s prosecutor general is reviewing how the country handled an investigation into the energy company Burisma Group, on whose board Hunter Biden sat. That inquiry could ostensibly lead to the sort of renewed investigation into the Bidens that Trump wants done.
There’s no obvious parallel to a president so brazenly enlisting foreign countries in schemes to discredit political rivals. As a Republican candidate in the 1968 presidential race, Richard Nixon took steps to sabotage then-President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to reach a Vietnamese peace deal. Using private surrogates, Nixon delivered a message to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that if he delayed, he might get better terms in a Nixon presidency. Nixon’s aim was to deprive the Democrats of a breakthrough in the war that might tip the election in Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s favor. Johnson would later complain that the ploy amounted to “treason,” as the author John Farrell described in his biography of Nixon.
But Nixon was only a candidate at the time, a private citizen. Trump is a sitting president.
“If you want democracy, hold onto your sovereignty,” he said in his U.N. speech. In the months leading up to that address, we now know, he was compromising U.S. sovereignty and weakening its democracy, all to extinguish the chances of a campaign opponent. In the week after the speech, nothing’s changed.