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Republicans And Democrats Spar During 3rd Day Of Public Impeachment Hearings


Another marathon day on Capitol Hill today.


ADAM SCHIFF: Good afternoon. This is the fourth in a series of public hearings the committee will be holding as part of the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry.

CHANG: Impeachment hearings are still ongoing at this hour. Today, for the first time, we heard public testimony from witnesses with firsthand knowledge of events at the heart of the inquiry - including the July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the call in which Trump asks Zelenskiy for a, quote, "favor."

Also today, the first public testimony from witnesses requested by Republicans - that's happening right now.


Now, the day started just after 9:00 this morning with two witnesses that President Trump has disparaged - first, Jennifer Williams, a State Department official assigned to Vice President Mike Pence's office.


JENNIFER WILLIAMS: I found the July 25 phone call unusual.

KELLY: Also, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman - he is the Ukraine expert on the National Security Council whose loyalties have been questioned by conservatives. He was born in the former Soviet Union.

CHANG: Vindman sat before the committee in a blue U.S. Army uniform adorned with medals. He explained why he had twice raised concerns with the NSC's top legal adviser.


ALEXANDER VINDMAN: I want to emphasize to the committee that when I reported my concerns on July 10 relating to Ambassador Sondland and then July 25 relating to the president, I did so out of a sense of duty.

CHANG: Vindman spoke proudly of his military service and of his country. And he concluded his opening statement with a message for his father.


VINDMAN: 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, 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.

KELLY: Alexander Vindman testifying earlier today.

With me now is NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Hey, Ryan.


KELLY: All right. So this first pair of witnesses - Jennifer Williams, Alexander Vindman - why were they called to testify? What were lawmakers hoping to learn?

LUCAS: Well, one of the main points of criticism that Republicans have made is that witnesses that we've heard from so far in public don't have firsthand knowledge of the president's actions. Williams and Vindman do because they listened in as part of their official roles on Trump's July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president. And more generally, Williams and Vindman corroborate the broad brushstrokes of the story that we've heard from other witnesses so far.

And this, of course, is all part of Democrats trying to build their case for impeachment. And the case that they're making is that President Trump abused his office by trying to pressure a foreign government to investigate his political rivals - Joe Biden, former vice president, and Democrats more generally - and that Trump withheld some 400 million or so in military aid to Ukraine and dangled a potential visit to the White House for the - Ukraine's new president as leverage to compel the Ukrainian government to open investigations that the president was asking for.

KELLY: OK. So the first two witnesses in public testifying today who had firsthand knowledge who were listening to the call - what did they say about it?

LUCAS: Well, we heard at the top that Williams found it unusual. She also mentioned that it seemed political in nature. She said that she didn't report it to anybody, though, because her supervisor was on the call as well. Vindman, though, he had serious concerns about the propriety of what the president was asking for on that call. He had concerns about the possible ramifications on U.S. policy on Ukraine and U.S. national security more generally. Here's how Vindman put it.


VINDMAN: 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 elections, the Bidens and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermining U.S. national security and advancing Russia's strategic objectives in the region.

LUCAS: And the important thing to remember here is that Ukraine is fighting Russian-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine. Some 14,000 people or so have been killed in that conflict. And Vindman himself described in his testimony today that Ukraine is a bulwark of sorts against further Russian aggression in Europe. And peace in Europe, of course, is important to the United States.

KELLY: Ryan, there has been pushback from Republicans, from the president, from his allies questioning both of these witnesses, questioning their credibility and their possible motivations...

LUCAS: Right.

KELLY: ...For testifying. We had - we heard from President Trump. He was on Twitter over the weekend suggesting that Jennifer Williams was a Never Trumper. She got asked about that today. And I want to play you a little bit of this and then ask you about it. This is Democrat Jim Himes of Connecticut asking Williams about this Never Trumper claim.


JIM HIMES: Ms. Williams, are you a Never Trumper?

WILLIAMS: I'm not sure I know an official definition of a Never Trumper. But...

HIMES: Would you describe yourself that way?

WILLIAMS: I would not, no.

HIMES: Did that make - did that tweet make an impression on you when you read it?

WILLIAMS: It certainly surprised me. I was not expecting to - to be called out by name.

HIMES: Which surprised me, too - and it looked an awful lot like witness intimidation.

KELLY: Ryan Lucas, explain the significance of this particular exchange.

LUCAS: So the questioning there from Himes is basically pushing back against this frequent argument that we've heard from the president and his Republican allies, in the House in particular - suggestions that these career public servants who are testifying are part of an anti-Trump movement within the government - a deep state, as some people like to call it. Himes was also nodding to Democrats considering the president's attacks on these witnesses as possible evidence of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice in this broader impeachment inquiry.

KELLY: Quickly, before I let you go, this was just the first pair of witnesses in the impeachment hearings today. As we speak, there are two witnesses requested by Republicans who are testifying. Who are they? Why are they important?

LUCAS: So they are former U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker and an outgoing - well, actually now former member of the National Security Council, Tim Morrison. He was responsible for European affairs.

Volker was part of what has been described as an irregular channel on Ukraine policy that was guided, in a sense, by the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. And that policy channel was pushing Ukraine to commit to these investigations. Morrison is someone who has testified of that irregular channel, although he said that nothing illegal took place. Democrats say that's not for you to judge, Tim Morrison; that's part of our job as part of this impeachment inquiry.

KELLY: And he was - also had firsthand knowledge of that call. So...

LUCAS: Indeed.

KELLY: ...Another witness testifying now about that call. NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.

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