Colonel ‘tried to fill gaps’ in Trump’s Ukraine call transcript

Lt Col Vindman tells impeachment inquiry that key words were omitted, sources say

Lt Col Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the US National Security Council, arriving to speak with House impeachment investigators on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

Lt Col Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the US National Security Council, arriving to speak with House impeachment investigators on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

 

Lt Col Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, told House of Representatives impeachment investigators on Tuesday that the White House transcript of a July call between US president Donald Trump and Ukraine’s president omitted crucial words and phrases, and that his attempts to include them failed, according to three people familiar with the testimony.

The omissions, Lt Col Vindman said, included Mr Trump’s assertion that there were recordings of former vice-president Joe Biden discussing Ukraine corruption, and an explicit mention by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of Burisma Holdings, the energy company whose board employed Mr Biden’s son Hunter.

Lt Col Vindman, who appeared on Capitol Hill wearing his dark blue army dress uniform and military medals, told House impeachment investigators that he tried to change the reconstructed transcript made by the White House staff to reflect the omissions. But while some of his edits appeared to have been successful, he said, those two corrections were not made.

Lt Col Vindman did not testify to a motive behind the editing process. But his testimony is likely to drive investigators to ask further questions about how officials handled the call, including changes to the transcript and the decision to put it into the White House’s most classified computer system – and whether those moves were meant to conceal the conversation’s most controversial aspects.

The phrases do not fundamentally change lawmakers’ understanding of the call, which was first reported by the CIA whistleblower whose complaint set off the impeachment inquiry. There are plenty of other examples of Mr Trump referring to Ukraine-related conspiracy theories and asking for investigations of the Biden family. But Lt Col Vindman’s account offered a hint to solving a mystery surrounding the conversation: what Mr Trump’s aides left out of the transcript in places where ellipses indicated dropped words.

In hours of questioning on Tuesday by Democrats and Republicans, Lt Col Vindman recounted his alarm at the July 25th call, saying he “did not think it was proper” for Mr Trump to have asked Mr Zelenskiy to investigate a political rival, and how White House officials struggled to deal with the fallout from a conversation he and others considered problematic.

Public phase

His testimony about the reconstructed transcript, the aftermath of the call and a shadow foreign policy being run outside the National Security Council came as Democrats unveiled plans for a more public phase of the impeachment process.

They plan to vote on Thursday to direct the intelligence committee to conduct public hearings and produce a report for the judiciary committee to guide its consideration of impeachment articles. The measure will also provide a mechanism for Republicans to request subpoenas for witnesses and give Mr Trump’s lawyers a substantive role in the judiciary committee’s proceedings to mount a defence.

Some lawmakers indicated that Lt Col Vindman would make a good candidate to appear again at a public hearing next month.

It is not clear why some of Lt Col Vindman’s changes were not made, but the decision by a White House lawyer to quickly lock down the reconstructed transcript subverted the normal process of handling such documents, according to people familiar with the matter.

The note takers and voice recognition software used during the July 25th call had missed Mr Zelenskiy saying the word “Burisma”, according to people briefed on the matter, but the reconstructed transcript does refer to “the company” and suggests that the Ukrainian president is aware that it is of great interest to Mr Trump.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Mr Zelenskiy said, according to the document, “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue”. The rough transcript also contains ellipses at three points where Mr Trump is speaking.

Lt Col Vindman told investigators that at the point of the transcript where the third set of ellipses appears, Mr Trump said there were tapes of Mr Biden. Mr Trump’s mention of tapes is an apparent reference to Mr Biden’s comments at a January 2018 event about his effort to get Ukraine to force out its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin.

Supporters of Mr Biden have said Mr Shokin was widely criticised for his lax anti-corruption efforts. Republicans charge, without evidence, that Mr Biden was trying to stop an investigation into his son.

Lt Col Vindman told House investigators on Tuesday that he twice registered internal objections about how Mr Trump and his inner circle were pressuring Ukraine to undertake inquiries beneficial to the president, including of Mr Biden.

After the July 25th call, the colonel reported what happened to a superior, explaining that “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,” according to his opening remarks. He added, “This would all undermine US national security”.

He also described confronting Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, after the envoy pressed Ukrainian officials to help the Trump administration by investigating the Biden family. The colonel said he acted out of a “sense of duty” and emphasised his military service in his remarks. “I am a patriot,” he said, “and it is my sacred duty and honour to advance and defend our country irrespective of party or politics.”

As he spoke, House leaders were preparing for what was expected to be significant new private testimony from current and former White House officials in the coming days. On Wednesday, they will hear from two Ukraine experts who advised Kurt Volker, the former US special envoy to the country.

On Thursday, Timothy Morrison, the National Security Council’s Russia and Europe director, is scheduled to testify. And on Friday, investigators have called Robert Blair, a top national security adviser to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff. – New York Times