One word makes United States erupt
A bitter argument has erupted over the credibility of the latest witness in the Trump impeachment inquiry, US Army officer Alexander Vindman.
Lieutenant Colonel Vindman testified overnight, telling the inquiry he was "concerned" by Donald Trump's phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
He also revealed more about the Trump administration's internal machinations, shedding new light on the effort to pressure Ukraine into opening investigations that would benefit Mr Trump politically.
Lt Col Vindman is a decorated officer who was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq. He then moved into diplomacy, becoming a foreign area officer specialising in Eurasia and eventually joining the White House's National Security Council (NSC). He is currently the NSC official in charge of Ukraine policy.
And after years of working quietly behind the scenes, he has suddenly become a very public figure.
'ESPIONAGE': US ERUPTS OVER ONE WORD
The debate about Lt Col Vindman's credibility started before he even spoke to Congress.
His planned opening statement was published yesterday, revealing a basic outline of his testimony and sparking criticism from Mr Trump's defenders.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham interviewed John Yoo, a lawyer who served under the Bush administration, to preview the testimony. The pair seized on a specific passage from a New York Times report on Lt Col Vindman.
"While Lt Colonel Vindman's concerns were shared by a number of other officials, some of whom have already testified, he was in a unique position. Because he emigrated from Ukraine along with his family when he was a child and is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, Ukrainian officials sought advice from him about how to deal with Mr Giuliani," the report read.
Lt Col Vindman's family fled the Soviet Union, which the Ukraine was formerly a part of, when he was three years old.
Previous witnesses before the impeachment inquiry have alleged Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump's personal lawyer, led the "unofficial" diplomatic effort to pressure Ukraine.
"Here we have a US national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the President's interest," Ingraham said.
"Isn't that kind of an interesting angle on this story?"
"You know, some people might call that espionage," Mr Yoo replied, calling the revelation "astounding".
He went on to argue that Lt Col Vindman's concern over Mr Trump's phone call with Mr Zelensky did not add any new facts to the impeachment debate.
"Whether you have one person or five people all saying, 'Well, we objected to what the President said with the President of Ukraine', - we have the transcript of the call, we can all make our judgment. I don't see how this breaking news actually adds more facts to what we know about whether this is an impeachable offence or not."
Mr Yoo's use of the word "espionage" sparked an immediate backlash, which continued as the debate blew up today. We'll get to that broader reaction after digging into the substance of Lt Col Vindman's testimony.
"I find that astounding. Some people might call that espionage."— Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) October 29, 2019
On @IngrahamAngle, Jon Yoo — a law professor at Berkeley — reacted to revelations that the latest @realDonaldTrump impeachment witness "is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian," according to a NYT report. pic.twitter.com/GTwCj2538r
WHAT VINDMAN ACTUALLY SAID
The man himself was clearly expecting to face accusations of political bias, because he pre-emptively addressed them in his written statement.
"My family worked to build its own American dream. I have a deep appreciation for American values and ideals and the power of freedom. I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honour to advance and defend our country, irrespective of party or politics," he said.
"For over 20 years as an active duty United States military officer and diplomat, I have served this country in a nonpartisan manner, and have done so with the utmost respect and professionalism for both Republican and Democratic administrations."
Lt Col Vindman told the impeachment inquiry a strong and independent Ukraine was "critical to US national security interests", because it was a "bulwark" against Russian aggression.
"In Spring of 2019, I became aware of outside influencers promoting a false narrative of Ukraine inconsistent with the consensus views of the interagency. This narrative was harmful to US government policy," he said.
The "false" narrative here appears to be the idea, promoted by Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani, that Ukraine interfered in America's 2016 presidential election.
That is one of the two things Mr Trump pushed Mr Zelensky to investigate during their phone call; the other being Burisma, a company that employed former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter on its board.
Lt Col Vindman listened to the call in the White House Situation Room.
"I was concerned by the call. I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a US citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the US government's support of Ukraine," he said.
"I realised that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine US national security."
According to The New York Times, he told the inquiry the official transcript of the call released by the White House last month omitted several quotes, including an assertion from Mr Trump that Joe Biden had been caught on tape "bragging" about getting Ukraine's prosecutor-general sacked, and an explicit mention of Burisma by Mr Zelensky.
There are three sets of ellipses in the transcript. White House officials previously said those ellipses showed Mr Trump trailing off. Lt Col Vindman said they represented omitted words or phrases.
He said he had tried and failed to get those quotes added to the transcript.
He also described a pivotal meeting involving Mr Trump's Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, during which Mr Sondland spoke about Ukraine "delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the President".
At the time, Ukraine was pressing for an official White House meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky.
"Following this meeting, there was a scheduled debriefing during which Ambassador Sondland emphasised the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma," Lt Col Vindman said.
"I stated to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the NSC was going to get involved in or push."
He then reported his concerns to the NSC's lead counsel, John Eisenberg.
THE CREDIBILITY DEBATE
The President reacted to Lt Col Vindman's appearance before Congress by dismissing him as a "Never Trumper" - the term invented in 2016 to refer to Republicans who would never vote for him.
Supposedly, according to the Corrupt Media, the Ukraine call “concerned” today’s Never Trumper witness. Was he on the same call that I was? Can’t be possible! Please ask him to read the Transcript of the call. Witch Hunt!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2019
That is the same label he used against America's Ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who testified before the inquiry last week.
Neither man has a public record of political opposition to Mr Trump, and both were appointed to their current role during his presidency.
Meanwhile one of Mr Trump's most vocal surrogates, former Republican congressman Sean Duffy, suggested Lt Col Vindman cared more about Ukraine's interests than America's.
"It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defence. I don't know that he's concerned about American policy, but his main mission was to make sure that the Ukraine got those weapons. I understand that," Mr Duffy said.
While pushing for the investigations he wanted, Mr Trump was also holding up military aid for Ukraine, which had already been approved by Congress. And during the phone call between the two leaders, Mr Zelensky indicated he wanted to obtain more Javelin missiles from the United States. Those are the weapons Mr Duffy referred to.
"We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from," he continued.
"Are we saying that by giving this money to the Ukraine, that absolutely is the money that's going to secure American national defence against Russia? I don't believe that.
"He's entitled to his opinion. He has an affinity, I think, for the Ukraine. He speaks Ukrainian, and he came from the country, and he wants to make sure they're safe and free."
Why was Vindman, an 0-5, engaging in unsanctioned foreign policy discussions with Ukrainian officials behind the back of the President of the United States?— John Cardillo (@johncardillo) October 29, 2019
There is nothing remotely OK with that.
Those comments echoed Mr Yoo's sentiments - though the former Bush administration lawyer today denied he had accused Lt Col Vindman of espionage.
"I want to clear up a misconception of my remarks," Mr Yoo told The Washington Examiner.
"I did not accuse Lt Col Vindman of committing the crime of espionage. I have tremendous respect for a decorated officer of the US Army and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"What I was addressing was a report that Ukrainian officials had sought to contact Vindman for advice on how to handle Rudy Giuliani acting as a presidential envoy.
"I meant to say that this sounded like an espionage operation by the Ukrainians. I think it deliberately misconstrues my words to say that the separate issue of the phone call between the US and Ukrainian President through the chain of command constitutes espionage by Vindman, or that Vindman is some kind of double agent."
That clarification came after a fierce backlash, as Mr Trump's critics and even some members of his own party defended Lt Col Vindman.
This is just shameful. I really cannot believe that Mr. Yoo, a law professor @UCBerkeley , would insinuate that Colonel Vindman, was practicing "espionage" without a shred of evidence. In some countries, that would be a crime called libel. https://t.co/tp8nlWB4J2— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) October 29, 2019
"It's absurd, disgusting and way off the mark. This is a decorated American soldier and he should be given the respect that his service to our country demands," Republican Senator Mitt Romney said of the implication that Lt Col Vindman was putting Ukraine's interests ahead of his own country's.
"Questioning the dedication to country of people like Mr Vindman and others who have testified - I think we need to show that we are better than that as a nation," said his fellow Republican, Congresswoman Liz Cheney.
"We're talking about decorated veterans who have served this nation. It is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this country."
"He is an honourable man. I think it's inappropriate," said Joni Ernst, a Republican Senator who also served in Iraq.
Mr Trump's political opponents were even more strident.
"This guy won the Purple Heart. This guy's a hero. This guy's a patriot. It's despicable to do this," said Joe Biden.
"Republicans have no defence for Donald Trump's conduct, so they are smearing Col Vindman, a decorated combat veteran. That's all they've got. It's pathetic," said Senator Mazie Hirono.
Ingraham addressed the fierce debate on her program today.
"While we of course salute Vindman's service to this country, that service does not insulate him or any member of the armed services from criticism or scrutiny, especially when they're still on active duty," she said.
"Let's face it. If the Lieutenant Colonel had been on the call and dismissed any wrongdoing by the President, the Democrats and the media probably wouldn't sound like this."
Perhaps the most awkward thing here is that Lt Col Vindman, who is now at the centre of so much controversy, still works at the White House.
When he returns there tomorrow, a lot more people will know his name.
Vindman says he was scared Ukraine “would lose its bipartisan support.” Why would someone focused primarily on America’s interests care about THAT? Sounds like a guy who’s putting Ukraine—not America—first!— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) October 29, 2019
Vindman testified he was "worried Ukraine would lose its bipartisan support"— NYT Owner Poso (@JackPosobiec) October 29, 2019
Is that his job?
A short while ago, men such as Robert Mueller, William Taylor, and Alexander Vindman would have been pin-ups for (us) American conservatives: decorated combat veterans; patriots; straight arrows. The urge to prop up Trump changed all of this. A heartbreaking and infuriating era.— Jay Nordlinger (@jaynordlinger) October 29, 2019
We shouldn't be surprised by this. Trump trashed a Gold Star family, and the sycophants rallied to his side.— David French (@DavidAFrench) October 29, 2019
All Vindman did was provide evidence that Trump meant what he so obviously said on that "perfect" call.
Trumpists can't argue the facts so they try to trash the man.
If your first instinct is to smear Lt. Col. Vindman, or worse, question his loyalty to this country, go take a long walk off a short pier. You’ve lost it.— Rory Cooper (@rorycooper) October 29, 2019