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Takeaways: Trump request to Ukraine seen as a "demand"

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/19/2019 Ledyard King and Nicholas Wu, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – A key National Security Council expert testified Tuesday he considered President Donald Trump's request that Ukraine investigate Joe and Hunter Biden as a "demand" that was "improper" for Trump to make.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an expert on the eastern European country, was describing the July 25 phone call where Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to probe his political rivals while the Trump administration held up nearly $400 million in military assistance.  

Vindman testified before the House Intelligence Committee which is investigating whether Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine for the probe amount to an impeachable offense.

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Vindman appeared Tuesday morning alongside Jennifer Williams, an NSC aide  to Vice President Mike Pence. Both were among a handful of administration security officials authorized to listen in on the July 25 call.

Later Tuesday afternoon, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and NSC Senior Director for Russia and Europe Tim Morrison appeared before the panel.

Here are several key takeaways from Tuesday's hearing: 

Vindman: Trump request a 'demand'

In his phone call with Zelensky, Trump calls the request for the probe into the Bidens as a "favor," according to a summary of the conversation. (The White House has yet to release the full transcript).

But Vindman said he viewed it as more than a benign request. 

The army officer described how the "power disparity" between the United States and Ukraine made it clear Trump's asking for investigations was tantamount to a command.

"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 told lawmakers. "It's to be taken as an order. In this case, the power disparity between the two leaders, my impression is that in order to get the White House meeting, President Zelensky would have to deliver the investigations."

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Protecting the whistleblower's identity

Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, questioned Williams and Vindman on whether they leaked information regarding Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelensky.

When Nunes asked if either witness discussed the call with anyone outside the White House, Vindman said he discussed the call with State Department Deputy Secretary George Kent and an individual in the intelligence community.

Nunes asked who the member of the intelligence community was, prompting an interjection from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. Schiff wanted to ensure it was not an attempt to out the whistleblower, whose letter about the July 25 call sparked the impeachment probe.

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“I want to make sure that this is not an attempt to out the whistleblower,” Schiff said.

Vindman said he was advised by his lawyer not to identify anyone when asked about members of the intelligence community.

When asked by Nunes, Vindman repeated his previous assertion behind closed doors that he doesn't know who the whistleblower is "but I can offer that these people were properly cleared individuals with a need to know.”

Volker: no knowledge of Biden probe

Volker said he was not aware of, or knowingly took part in, any efforts to pressure Kyiv to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.

a man and a woman standing in a room: Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence, 2nd from left, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the National Security Council, arrive at Tuesday's Intelligence Committee hearing. © Jack Gruber, USA TODAY Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence, 2nd from left, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the National Security Council, arrive at Tuesday's Intelligence Committee hearing. Volker told lawmakers he thought there was "an important distinction" between investigations into Ukrainian gas company Burisma (on whose board Hunter Biden served) and Joe Biden. He added that he did not realize Trump or others had conflated an investigation of "possible Ukrainian corruption" with an investigation into the former vice president.

He continued that he saw the investigation into Burisma as "appropriate and unremarkable," and the probe into Biden as "unacceptable."

"In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections," Volker said.

Vol said Sondland had brought up investigations in a July 10 meeting with Bolton and Ukrainian officials, and he found it "inappropriate." Previously, Volker said there had been no discussion of investigations during the July 10 meeting. 

Volker praised Joe Biden as someone of integrity and said he rejected Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani's "conspiracy theory" that the then-vice president would have been influenced in 2016 by money Hunter was receiving from Burisma.

"I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years," Volker testified. "He is an honorable man and I hold him in the highest regard."

The mystery of the Sept. 18 phone call

A Sept. 18 phone call between Mike Pence and Zelensky emerged as a potentially important issue but the details of the classified call remain under wraps.

Schiff pressed Williams about the call but she declined to speak about it in the open hearing at the direction of her attorney, Justin Shur, who sat next to her at the witness table.

Twitter slam: Trump dismisses Mike Pence aide Jennifer Williams, who overheard Zelensky call, as 'Never Trumper'

After Williams testified she was on the call and took notes, Schiff asked her if there was anything she heard on the call "that you think may be relevant to our investigation."

Shur than jumped in and said that "as previously discussed (with) the committee," Pence's office considers the call classified. He referred lawmakers to a summary of the call the vice president's office released Sept. 18 and Williams' Nov. 7 testimony about the call to the committee behind closed doors.

A summary of the call released by the White House said the vice president called "to follow up on their productive September 1 meeting in Warsaw" and discuss Trump’s meeting with Zelensky the following week at the United Nations General Assembly session in New York City.

"The Vice President commended President Zelensky’s administration for its bold action to tackle corruption through legislative reforms, and offered full U.S. support for those efforts," according to the summary.

Williams said she would be "very happy" to discuss the matter further in a classified setting. In her Nov. 7 testimony, Williams said there was no discussion of any investigations.

Vindman moved by a 'sense of duty'

Vindman said he felt compelled to report his concerns about not only the July 25 call but also a July 10 meeting where Gordon Sondland, Trump's U.S. ambassador to the European Union, emphasized the importance of Ukraine delivering the investigations into the 2016 election and the Bidens.

"It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent," Vindman said. "This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermine U.S. national security, and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region."

Key witnesses: Read all the transcripts from the closed-door testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry

"I want to emphasize to the Committee that when I reported my concerns -- on July 10, relating to Ambassador Sondland, and on July 25, relating to the President -- I did so out of a sense of duty," he continued. "I privately reported my concerns, in official channels, to the proper authorities in the chain of command. My intent was to raise these concerns because they had significant national security implications for our country."

Williams testified she also found the July 25 phone call "unusual because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter."

Unlike Vindman, Williams did not share her concerns with anyone.

Contributing Bart Jansen and Courtney Subramanian

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Takeaways: Trump request to Ukraine seen as a "demand"

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