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What we learned from public testimony of officials on Trump’s July 25 call

Tuesday marked a significant day in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, as officials on the July 25th phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy testified in open hearings for the first time. Lisa Desjardins, Nick Schifrin and Yamiche Alcindor join Amna Nawaz to discuss the day’s highlights, including a personal attack on a witness in the middle of testifying.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The third day of public impeachment hearings brings four witnesses before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.

    For the first time, we hear testimony from individuals on the call between President Trump and Ukraine's leader at the center of the inquiry. Again, we see criticism of a witness as they testify, this time from the official White House Twitter account.

    There is a lot to unpack.

    And here to break it down and look at the highlights and why they matter, our Lisa Desjardins. She is at the Capitol and was in the hearing room today. Yamiche Alcindor is at the White House. And Nick Schifrin is with me at the table now.

    Lisa, I want to turn to you first, because those first witnesses we heard from today were both on that call in July between President Trump and President Zelensky. It prompted the whistle-blower's report in the first place.

    Let's just take a quick listen to what those witness, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams, had to say about that call.

  • Alexander Vindman:

    I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate, and I reported my concerns to Mr. Eisenberg.

    It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent.

    I was also clear that, if Ukraine pursued an investigation — it was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play.

    This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermining the U.S. national security, and advancing Russia's strategic objectives in the region.

    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.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    Approximately how many calls between the president — the president of the United States and foreign leaders had you listened to?

  • Jennifer Williams:

    I would say roughly a dozen.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    Had you ever heard a call like this?

  • Jennifer Williams:

    As I testified before, I believe what I found unusual or different about this call was the president's reference to specific investigations. And that struck me as different than other calls I had listened to.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    You testified that you thought it was political in nature. Why did you think that?

  • Jennifer Williams:

    I thought that the references to specific individuals and investigations, such as former Vice President Biden and his son, struck me as political in nature, given that the former vice president is a political opponent of the president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa, you were in the hearing room while those moments unfolded.

    We should also mention Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is on the National Security Council staff. Jennifer Williams is an aide to Vice President Pence.

    These — both of these witnesses, Lisa, were called by Democrats. Why? What's the case Democrats are making there?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Today, Democrats are trying to focus on what they see as a central piece of evidence here, Amna, the phone call from President Trump to President Zelensky of the Ukraine in July.

    And, here, they have first two people we have heard from publicly who listened in on that call in real time. And what's more, Democrats' point here is, both of these officials, who were not politically appointed, had immediate concerns.

    Democrats also have raised today throughout the hearings with Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and with another witness, Tim Morrison, who we will talk about more later, that those individuals raised their concerns up the chain very quickly, that they felt there were so serious.

    And, Amna, really important part of that sound that you just played, Jennifer Williams' conclusion that this was political, because it's not just about the president asking for investigations. It's about his motivations.

    And there you have a professional staffer, who herself is trying not to be political, say, that she felt, when the Bidens were mentioned, it was political, because it was an opponent of the president. That is the core of the case that Democrats are trying to make for impeachment.

    And, today, they were trying to connect those dots and make it real with the officials who heard it as it happened.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And that brings us to Yamiche over at the White House.

    Yamiche, both of those witnesses testified they had concerns about the president's behavior on that call. What does this mean for the White House?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, this is problematic for the White House, because, before today, Republicans and the president were making the case that these were not people coming before Congress that were actually on the call that had concerns.

    Today changed that. These were people who had heard President Trump on the — on phone calls with other foreign leaders and felt that the July 25 phone call between him and the president of Ukraine was unusual and improper.

    That other, also, thing that's problematic is, the White House has basically had the stance that no one should come before Congress. Instead, you have these two people who currently still work at the White House come before Congress to air their grievances.

    The other thing to note is, the president has been attacking both of these individuals. He's been saying that they were never-Trumpers. But both of them came and said, we are essentially apolitical. We are not here for one party or another. Instead, we're here out of a sense of duty.

    That's different than what President Trump is saying. He also said that he thought Republicans did very well when it came to questioning these witnesses. So, the president is pushing back on this narrative that Democrats really feel like they have, in these two individuals, star witnesses, people who can really tell the story from a firsthand account.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And for anyone who wasn't able to follow along with the day's proceedings, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman actually began the day by including much of his personal story in his opening statement.

    Nick Schifrin here with me. I want to ask you about this in a moment.

    We should point out Vindman was featured in a Ken Burns documentary at one point. His family's story were — was, rather.

    Let's just take a listen to part of that documentary and then hear what Lieutenant Colonel Vindman had to say this morning.

  • Child:

    We came from Kiev. And then we went to…

  • Child:

    Our mother died, so we went to Italy. Then we came here.

  • Alexander Vindman:

    When my father was 47 years old, he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States, so his three sons could have better and safer lives.

    His courageous decision inspired a deep sense of gratitude IN my brothers and myself and instilled in us a sense of duty and service. All three of us have served or are currently serving in the military.

    My little brother is behind me here today.

    I — our collective military service is a special part of our family's history, story in America.

    I also recognize that my simple act of appearing here today, just like the courage of my colleagues who have also truthfully testified before this committee, would not be tolerated in many places around the world.

    In Russia, my act of expressing concern to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions. And offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.

    I'm grateful to my father's — for my father's brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free, and free of fear for mine and my family's safety.

    Dad, I'm sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol. Talking to our elected professionals — talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America, in search of a better life for our family.

    Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nick, it was an incredibly compelling moment, incredibly compelling piece of testimony, really personal.

    Who is Lieutenant Colonel Vindman? What do we know about him?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He and his brother, as we saw in that Ken Burns documentary, and the other brother, who we didn't see in the documentary, are Jewish immigrants from Ukraine from the former Soviet Union.

    And the father that he mentions there came to the United States with $700 in cash and nothing else, and has seen his sons grow into members of the National Security Council staff.

    Currently, Vindman is lieutenant colonel, a foreign area officer in the Army. It's basically equivalent of an Army diplomat, or the closest thing that the Army has to diplomats. They have area expertise or country expertise. In Vindman's case, of course, it's Ukraine and Russia.

    These people are groomed to be defense attaches, groomed to serve in embassies. And Vindman has served in both Kiev and Moscow. And that goes to some of the requirements for these foreign area officers, which is language.

    Vindman speaks both Ukrainian and Russian. And the military is proud to have these people. They find — the military finds that these people are incredibly important, the language, the area expertise, and they groom them to really be stars within the military.

    And Secretary Esper, the defense secretary, recently came out to defend Vindman. There's some concern that Vindman would speak out against the president. He used very specific language, very critical language of the president.

    Secretary Esper recently said that Vindman shouldn't have any fear of rejection at all.

    So, the military really defending him. And later, in his testimony, Vindman was asked, why are you willing to criticize the commander in chief, the most powerful man in the world? And why did you tell your dad not to worry? His simple answer: This is America. This is a place where I can speak out and even criticize the president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's striking, the secretary — to say he will be fine for testifying in this way, which brings me to Yamiche back at the White House.

    You have got some additional reporting around this, Yamiche, I'd love for you to share here.

    Are there concerns about any fallout, any repercussions for Lieutenant Colonel Vindman for speaking as forcefully and clearly as he did today?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Sources close to Lieutenant Colonel Vindman told me that an official, high-ranking official from the Army has actually called his family and reassured them that Lieutenant Colonel Vindman will not face any sort of retaliation.

    And that's important to note, because Army Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is actually essentially deployed to the White House. This is an Army assignment for him. He's not someone who came and worked for the White House as a political appointee. But, rather, this is in some ways — this is in some ways his — part of his service as an Army officer.

    And as a result, this is a sort of deployment to him. So, when you think about that, it's — the Army is feeling under so much pressure that they want to make sure they reach out to him and say, look, in your time where you think that you're doing what's best for your country, where you're putting yourself out there and testifying publicly, we want you to know that we have your back.

    That's incredibly important. I think it's also important that we — to note that Vindman put his story as an immigrant, his family's story as an American story, at the center of his testimony today.

    And there are critics of the president who say this is a president who has had real issues when it comes to immigration, who has, in some ways, people think, challenged the very idea of America welcoming immigrants from all parts of the world.

    And now you have a lieutenant Army colonel coming before Congress and saying, as — this is my duty as an American to come forward and tell you that I have concerns with the president of the United States.

    I can't underscore enough how important that is and also how important it is that the Army wanted to make sure that he knew that they — that they — that military service, that military agency has his back. That's — that's incredibly important here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, at the same time, it's worth noting that he took some tough questions from Republican members of Congress today.

    Let's just play a quick exchange, show some of those questions that Lieutenant Colonel Vindman faced. And I'd like to ask you about them on the back end.

  • Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah:

    Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, I see you're wearing your dress uniform, knowing that's not the uniform of the day, that you normally wear a suit to the White House.

    I think it's a great reminder of your military service. I too come from a military family. These are my father's Air Force wings. He was a pilot in World War II. Five of his sons served in the military.

    So, as one military family to another, thank you and your brothers for your service, your example here.

    Very quickly, I'm curious. When Ranking Member Nunes referred to you as Mr. Vindman, you quickly corrected him and wanted to be called Lieutenant Colonel Vindman.

    Do you always insist on civilians on calling you by your rank?

  • Alexander Vindman:

    Mr. Stewart, Representative Stewart, I am in uniform wearing my military rank. I just thought it was appropriate to stick with that.

  • Rep. Chris Stewart:

    Well, I assure you he meant no disrespect.

  • Alexander Vindman:

    I don't believe he did.

    But the attacks that I have had in the press, in Twitter have kind of eliminated the fact — either marginalizing me as a military officer or…


  • Rep. Chris Stewart:

    Listen, I just — I'm just telling you that the ranking member meant no disrespect to you.

  • Alexander Vindman:

    I believe that.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I don't know him. I don't know, as he says, the lieutenant colonel. I understood somebody had the misfortune of calling him Mr., and he corrected them.

    I never saw the man. I understand now he wears his uniform when he goes in. No, I don't know Vindman at all. What I do know is that even he said that the transcript was correct.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, that, of course, was President Trump when he was asked about Lieutenant Colonel Vindman in a Cabinet meeting earlier today.

    What did you make of the way the president and the White House responded to his testimony?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president was really trying to put some distance between him and Army Colonel Vindman — Army Lieutenant Colonel Vindman.

    But let's remember that the president has been lashing out at Vindman. He's been saying that he's a never-Trumper. So, he was really attacking his character.

    We saw the official White House Twitter account go after Vindman, quoting his superiors saying that he had concerns about his judgment, though, when Vindman was asked specifically about that, he said: Actually, I have a evaluation from work that says that I'm actually a very good Army officer, and that I actually have good remarks.

    But the White House didn't acknowledge that. Instead, the president went after him. And Republicans largely didn't go after Vindman's character today. But the president has been very consistent in the fact that he's been going after him.

    And I think what the president was doing today was essentially saying, look, I understand that he might be in the Army, but I also think that he was nitpicking a bit there.

    So you saw the president trying to, in some ways, walk a fine line by saying, I don't really know him.

    But, in fact, the president has been tweeting over the last couple of days and even weeks that he is essentially very angry at Vindman and wanted to disparage his character.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa, take us back inside the hearing room now.

    Republicans spent a lot of time questioning Lieutenant Colonel Vindman. Talk to me about their strategy in the moment. What was it you think they were working towards in that line of questioning?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think Republicans know that Lieutenant Colonel Vindman feels strongly and that he is — has some very sincere beliefs there.

    But they wanted to question his credibility on a number of levels. And I think part of that was, talking to one Republican lawmaker, thinking this might be a staffer who just went overboard in his theory.

    They raised questions about how his co-workers have seen him in the past. Lieutenant Colonel Vindman was ready for that. He brought a — brought one of his own past evaluations.

    But I think, for Democrats, they have always seen Vindman's testimony as some of the strongest. So it was important for Republicans to say, hey, wait a minute. Not only is this someone that we're going to question his credibility, but they also question his function in the White House, bringing up that he, for example, has never personally met with the president.

    Vindman also countered that and said, yes, but I have prepared many documents for him. I am, of course, staffer to him.

    But Republicans, again, are trying to show this is not the direct link that Democrats say it is. That is part of the debate that they're having.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa, there was another particularly tense moment in the back and forth there in Republicans' questioning of Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, when it looked like they were getting towards the identity of the whistle-blower.

    Chairman Schiff actually had to intervene at one point and try to straighten things out. Explain to us what happened in the moment and why it's important.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's exactly right.

    Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is thought by many to be a person who probably briefed the whistle-blower. This is because we know the whistle-blower, from their own complaint, was not actually on the original call with President Zelensky and Trump, but instead heard about it from someone else.

    We know that the Lieutenant Colonel Vindman did brief others. And the idea from Republicans is, they say they want to know who the whistle-blower is because they question whether the whistle-blower is biased.

    Democrats say, no, Republicans just want to out this person for political reasons.

    Whatever the rationale is, Republicans today were going down the road of asking Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, who is it that you spoke to about this? Who did you brief?

    That is information Democrats believe could reveal the whistle-blower. Vindman says he himself does not know who the whistle-blower is. But he didn't say whether he has suspicions of who it could be.

    He did say he's following guidance of the committee to not talk about this, as per Chairman Schiff's rules. That's something that Republicans object to.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That, of course, was the testimony from this morning's panel.

    Nick, this afternoon, we saw two new witnesses, one of whom, Ambassador Kurt — Kurt Volker, rather, had a few things to say about the Bidens and also about the Ukrainian company that Hunter Biden served on the board of. That is Burisma.

    Let's take a listen to what he had to say.

  • Kurt Volker:

    There is a history of corruption in Ukraine. There's a history with the company of Burisma. It's been investigated. That is well-known.

    There is a separate allegation about the vice president acting inappropriately. His son was a board member of this company. But those things I saw as completely distinct.

    And what I was trying to do in working with the Ukrainians was to thread a needle, to see whether things that they can do that are appropriate and reasonable as part of Ukraine's own policy of fighting corruption that helped clarify for our president that they are committed to that very — that very effort.

    If there's a way to thread that needle, I thought it was worth the effort to try to solve that problem. As it turns out, I now understand that most of the other people didn't see or didn't consider this distinction, that, for them, it was synonymous.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nick, we heard Ambassador Volker say that a few times, this threading the needle idea. What did you make of his testimony?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is the story of the failure of traditional diplomacy and the triumph of the irregular policy when it comes to Ukraine.

    So, he tries to distinguish between Burisma and Biden. So, let's do that for a second.

    Burisma, the largest energy company in Ukraine, notoriously corrupt. After 2014, when the Brits and the Americans moved into Ukraine and tried to help with corruption in Ukraine, the very first company that the Brits investigated was Burisma.

    And there was a Ukrainian investigation into Burisma that got stopped. And so that leaves us with Burisma. Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, was on the board of Burisma while the vice president was working on Ukraine policy. And we have — we have heard that a lot from Republicans.

    What Trump is — or what Ambassador Volker is trying to say is that he thought that the Ukrainians should investigate Burisma and investigate the Ukrainians on Burisma.

    What the president was trying to do is investigate Burisma in order to investigate Hunter Biden and Joe Biden. It is the difference between the Trump administration policy of investigating corruption in Ukraine and President Trump's own policy when it comes to who to investigate in Ukraine in terms of corruption.

    And Volker admitted today for the first time that he failed, that he said, in hindsight, he should have realized that other people weren't making the distinction and that, for other people, Burisma meant Biden, because the single person that he failed to convince was President Trump.

    He finally admitted that President Trump did not make that distinguishing, and that he should have, and he would have done policy different.

    Of course, the story of why we're here is that that distinguishing point was never made for President Trump, and he didn't believe in it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A fascinating revelation to hear. Of course, that was one piece of testimony from one witness.

    The other, Lisa, I want to ask you about was Tim Morrison. He was the former senior director for Russia and Europe on the National Security Council.

    Let's just take a listen to part of his testimony.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    On September 7, you spoke again to Ambassador Sondland, who told you that he had just gotten off the phone with President Trump. Isn't that right?

  • Tim Morrison:

    That sounds correct, yes.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    What did Ambassador Sondland tell you that President Trump said to him?

  • Tim Morrison:

    If I recall this conversation correctly, this was where Ambassador Sondland related that there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelensky had to make the statement and that he had to want to do it.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    And, by that point, did you understand that the statement related to the — Biden and 2016 investigations?

  • Tim Morrison:

    I think I did, yes.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    And that that was a — essentially a condition for the security assistance to be released?

  • Tim Morrison:

    I understood that that's what Ambassador Sondland believed.

  • Daniel Goldman:

    After speaking with President Trump?

  • Tim Morrison:

    That's what he represented.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa, what did you make of that exchange?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That was a very important exchange. You're going to hear Democrats talk about that a lot. And you're going to hear a lot about it tomorrow, when Mr. Sondland testifies.

    And what is happening here is, Tim Morrison is recalling a conversation that Ambassador Sondland testified he didn't recall. And it's an important conversation, Sondland passing on basically that this — there's a connection between the security assistance and the investigations, after he spoke to the president.

    And Sondland, in his testimony, said he didn't recall that connection. And he just has stressed the president said no quid pro quo. So that's important testimony from Mr. Morrison.

    It has been a day of ups and downs for both sides. And I think we're going to get more of that tomorrow.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, Lisa just mentioned we are going to hear from Ambassador Sondland tomorrow.

    Look ahead for us. What do we expect in day four of the public impeachment proceedings?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The European ambassador, Ambassador Sondland, is going to be in some ways a star witness for both sides, because both sides don't exactly know what they want to get out of him or what they might get out of him and how he might help their cases.

    But both of them desperately want to ask him questions, because he was in direct contact with President Trump multiple times. Now, the White House has been telling me, as well as our producer — our White House producer, Meredith Lee, that this is really all about — all about the Democrats wanting to overthrow the 2016 election, wanting to overturn the election results, and wanting to really get President Trump out of office.

    But Ambassador Sondland is someone who is an ally of the president. He donated more than a million dollars to President Trump's political campaign. He was then appointed ambassador to the European Union.

    So, we have to really watch closely about how Ambassador Sondland answers some of these questions about what President Trump directly told him to say, because, by his own admission, he said that he told Ukrainian officials, look, we need to get this investigation into the Bidens started in order for you to get that military aid, that $391 million in military aid.

    So, tomorrow is going to be probably, if not one of the most important days, possibly the most important day, because this is someone who can speak directly to what President Trump was telling him to do and how he was telling him to make the case to the Ukrainians.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Another busy day on Capitol Hill.

    Thanks to you, Yamiche Alcindor, at the White House, Lisa Desjardins down on Capitol Hill, and Nick Schifrin here with me.

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