WASHINGTON — A former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine told a House impeachment hearing Tuesday that he was unaware President Donald Trump was holding up military aid to pressure the country to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
Ambassador Kurt Volker told the House Intelligence Committee that he never “knowingly took part in an effort to urge Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Biden.”
And Volker said he did not realize at the time that Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, was pushing for investigations into a Ukrainian gas company and the 2016 presidential election, probes that could focus on Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
“In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections,” Volker said.
The former special envoy said he now sees what was happening in Ukraine after reading testimony from other witnesses and the release of the rough transcript of a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Volker testified that Ukraine investigating its own citizens was fine, but Ukraine investigating other nations’ citizens was not so fine.
His testimony came after two White House security aides who listened to the call found the request for an investigation into Biden “unusual” and “improper.”
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukrainian specialist on the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer serving in Vice President Mike Pence’s office, became the first two witnesses who heard the call between Trump and Zelenskiy.
Williams said she found the call unusual because it contained “domestic political matter.”
Vindman told the panel, “What I heard was inappropriate.” He reported the call to his supervisor, former National Security Council official Tim Morrison, who moved the record of the call to a more classified computer system to make it less accessible to other administration officials.
Volker said that, despite his push for Trump to embrace Zelenskiy and offer him a visit to the White House, the president was being swayed with a negative view of Ukraine and its new government by Giuliani, a former New York mayor and short-lived 2008 candidate for president.
At no time, Volker said, did he urge the Ukrainians to investigate Biden. He said it wasn’t until later that he put the aid and investigations together.
Morrison told the committee that he was worried the transcript of the call between Trump and Zelenskiy, and the request for an investigation, would be leaked and that political opponents of the president would use the matter for nefarious reasons.
“My fears have been realized,” Morrison said. “I wanted access to be restricted.”
House Democrats began the impeachment inquiry after the call became public in September. After weeks of closed-door testimony and depositions, the House Intelligence Committee began public hearings last week.
Trump has repeatedly called the inquiry a “hoax,” and the administration has blocked many officials from testifying before the panel.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in his opening statement Tuesday, “Trump put his personal and political interests above the nation.”
Searching for the whistleblower
The ranking Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said that after three weeks Democrats are no closer to proving a case for impeachment than when they started.
Nunes shifted his questioning to get witnesses to name the whistleblower who first complained about the call and the request for foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election and an investigation into Biden.
Nunes asked: “Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistleblower.”
Vindman stunned the room with his retort: “Ranking member, it’s Lt. Col. Vindman, please.”
The testimony Tuesday moved the probe deeper into the White House with aides who were clearly concerned about the president’s request of Ukraine to get involved in U.S. political matters.
Vindman said he reported the demands for an investigation of a political opponent “out of a sense of duty.”
Both Vindman and Williams have been attacked by Trump over their loyalties and suggestions that they are sympathetic to the Democratic Party. But Williams, who worked on the Bush/Cheney political campaign, told the panel she considers former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a mentor.
Vindman, an Iraq War veteran, said: “The uniform I wear today is that of the United States Army. … We do not serve any political party. We serve the nation.”
Arranging a call
Volker and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, helped arrange the telephone conversation between the two presidents.
“I viewed it for its positive things,” Volker said.
Volker, Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, considered the “three amigos,” were trying to arrange connections between the new Ukrainian government and Trump and the administration.
Volker said he had never before heard the term “three amigos,” and to this day “I cringe when I hear it.” He said there was a push to help Ukraine that was apart from Giuliani and his ties to former Ukrainian officials.
Of the allegations against the Bidens, Volker said they were “not credible.” And of the smear campaign to remove former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, Volker said she served with distinction.
Last week’s hearings featured testimony from Yovanovitch, who said she was the victim of a smear campaign launched by Trump loyalists and removed because of her opposition to the unofficial agenda in Ukraine pushed by Giuliani.
Her testimony was backed by Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and foreign service officer George Kent, who were concerned about a rogue operation being waged by Ukraine and connected to a former Ukrainian official removed over corruption allegations.
The hearings continue Wednesday with testimony from Sondland.