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4 big takeaways from Fiona Hill’s and Alexander Vindman’s transcripts

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/8/2019 Aaron Blake
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We got our latest transcripts Friday in the House impeachment inquiry — this time from the depositions of National Security Council officials Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman.

Vindman, you might recall, testified last week that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland started talking to Ukrainian officials about the need for specific investigations for them to secure a meeting with President Trump, before national security adviser John Bolton cut the meeting short. Hill, too, was in that July 10 meeting and is a key witness to internal discord in the White House.

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Here are some key takeaways from their testimony: 

1. Mick Mulvaney is now implicated in the quid pro quo.

Both Vindman’s and Hill’s testimony fills out the picture of the quid pro quo — and brings it closer to Trump.

Sondland emphasized in his clarified testimony this week that Trump had not explicitly conveyed a quid pro quo to him. But both Hill and Vindman lay it at the feet of Trump’s top aide, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

“Ambassador Sondland, in front of the Ukrainians, as I came in, was talking about how he had an agreement with Chief of Staff Mulvaney for a meeting with the Ukrainians if they were going to go forward with investigations,” Hill said of the July 10 meeting that Bolton broke up.

Vindman added that Sondland said the quid pro quo “had been coordinated with White House chief of staff Mr. Mick Mulvaney.”

“[Sondland] just said that he had had a conversation with Mr. Mulvaney, and this is what was required in order to get a meeting,” Vindman said.

Compare that with this exchange from Sondland’s testimony:

Q: Did you have a conversation with Mr. Mulvaney about a White House visit for President Zelensky?
SONDLAND: I don’t recall.

Sondland testified that he had conveyed the other quid pro quo — the one involving hundreds of millions of dollars in withheld military aid — based upon the lack of a “credible” alternative. (He said that it was merely what he “presumed” to be the case.) In the case of an Oval Office meeting being leveraged, we now have two witnesses explicitly saying Sondland got his quid pro quo marching orders from Mulvaney.

Sondland has some explaining to do, and Mulvaney certainly does — even as he is refusing to testify.

Republicans are reportedly going to try to blame this on Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sondland. But one big question: How could this have involved Trump’s top aide and not the president himself — a president who was pushing for these same investigations, no less?

2. Sondland has even more explaining to do.

It goes from bad to worse for Sondland. Not only is his testimony about Mulvaney at issue, but Vindman also indicates another key element of Sondland’s testimony is bogus.

Sondland testified that he pushed for Ukraine to investigate Burisma, the company that employed Hunter Biden, but he said he was not aware that the Bidens had any proximity to the company — even as late as August. That strained credulity, given Giuliani’s push for these investigations and his transparency that the Burisma one was about the Bidens had been in the news as early as early May.

And now Vindman says Sondland, in that July 10 meeting, explicitly mentioned Biden as part of the Burisma investigation:

VINDMAN: The conversation unfolded with Sondland proceeding to kind of, you know, review what the deliverable would be in order to get the meeting, and he talked about the investigation into the Bidens, and, frankly, I can’t 100 percent recall because I didn’t take notes of it, but Burisma, that it seemed — I mean, there was no ambiguity, I guess, in my mind. He was calling for something, calling for an investigation that didn’t exist into the Bidens and Burisma.
Q: Okay. Ambiguity in your mind is different from what you —
VINDMAN: Sure.
Q: — actually heard?
VINDMAN: Right. Correct.
Q: What did you hear Sondland say?
VINDMAN: That the Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens.
Q: Into the Bidens. So in the Ward Room he mentioned the word “Bidens”?
VINDMAN: To the best of my recollection, yes.
Q: Okay. Did he mention 2016?
VINDMAN: I don’t recall.
Q: Did he mention Burisma?
VINDMAN: My visceral reaction to what was being called for suggested that it was explicit. There was no ambiguity.

“To the best of my recollection” isn’t quite a 100 percent “yes.” But, as I have written, it would be amazing if Sondland somehow really did not know about the Burisma/Biden connection in July, because pretty much everyone else apparently did.

Nonetheless, he was adamant about it in his testimony, saying he simply had not read the New York Times stories about Giuliani’s efforts — or cared to ask Giuliani, apparently.

3. An incoherent chain of command

Another emerging GOP defense here — besides the idea that Trump wasn’t personally involved — is that the Trump White House’s Ukraine policy was too incoherent to actually execute some kind of scheme like this.

And both testimonies suggest there might be a kernel of truth to that. Hill describes arguing with Sondland about who was really in charge of Ukraine policy — and not actually resolving the issue.

After Sondland said he was in charge, Hill said she responded: “No, you’re not. . . . Who says you’re in charge of Ukraine?”

He replied: “The president.”

Hill said she didn’t know whether that was true and that “nobody else seemed to be aware of that either,” including Bolton and State Department officials.

She added at another point in her testimony: “We had an awful lot of people in the early stages of the administration doing all kinds of things that were not in their portfolio.”

Vindman confirms that there was something of a free-for-all on Ukraine policy. He says at one point that Hill told him not to attend a debriefing of Trump, because there was a “personal risk.”

“I was told that there was a gentleman that was providing information, representing himself as director for Ukraine, and that I would be confused with this person,” Vindman said. Vindman said Hill identified the person as Kash Patel, another NSC aide and ally of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) who had no discernible Ukraine expertise. (The testimony confirms a report from Politico last week.)

The idea that this incoherence means there could not have been any corruption, of course, is taking things a few steps further. There are plenty of inept criminals, after all, and you don’t necessarily need to execute the quid pro quo for it to be illegal; the mere offer could be a campaign finance violation, an impeachable offense or arguably even bribery or extortion.

There is also the possibility that the White House did not want to formalize Sondland’s and others’ irregular diplomacy back channel, because that would raise suspicions. So better not to confirm he was actually in charge.

4. Sondland’s removal — and reinstatement — on a Ukraine trip

It has become clear at this point that Sondland is not the steadiest character in this whole saga. He has already had to clarify his testimony, and many of his claims make no sense next to others’ versions of events. (See Nos. 1 and 2 above.)

And Vindman furthers the picture of a top official in Europe who is not exactly the steadiest diplomatic hand. He says Sondland was removed from a May delegation for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration because he couldn’t be trusted to stay on message.

Curiously, though, Sondland was restored to the delegation:

VINDMAN: I think that Dr. Hill may have possibly removed him, because of the understanding that she didn’t think that Ambassador Bolton wanted him on the delegation.
Q: Yeah. Do you know why not?
VINDMAN: Because it was outside of his portfolio, and he tended to go off script so there was some risk involved.
Q: What does that mean, he tended to go off script?
VINDMAN: He’s not a professional diplomat. And this is not critical of him, but he didn’t necessarily act as a diplomat and he wouldn’t necessarily, you know — if we had a consistent position and a consistent set of talking points, he would not necessarily be consistent with our — with the rest of the consensus view.
Q: Do you know how Sondland got back on the list?
VINDMAN: I don’t recall.

This is an event worth probing further, certainly — as is Sondland’s apparent unwieldiness and inconsistencies as a witness.

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