Photo: AP/Evan Vucci
Photo: AP/Evan Vucci
Updated: October 28, 2019 09:05 PM
For the first time, House investigators expect to hear Tuesday from a current White House official as the impeachment inquiry reaches deeper into the Trump administration and Democrats prepare for the next, public phase of the probe.
Alexander Vindman, a military officer and director for European affairs at the National Security Council, appears to be a possible key witness to events surrounding President Donald Trump's interactions with Ukraine. He attended President Voldymyr Zelenskiy's inauguration with a delegation led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, was part of Ukraine briefings that irritated John Bolton at the White House and may have been on the phone call that launched the impeachment inquiry.
The focus comes after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will vote this week on a resolution to affirm the impeachment investigation, set rules for public hearings and outline the potential process for writing articles of impeachment against Trump.
It would be the first formal House vote on the impeachment inquiry and aims to nullify complaints from Trump and his allies — amplified last week when Republicans stormed a secure room used for impeachment interviews — that the process is illegitimate, unfair and lacking in due process.
Democrats insisted they weren't yielding to Republican pressure for a vote. Pelosi dismissed the Republican argument that impeachment can't begin without formal approval from the House and brushed off their complaints about the closed-door process.
"I do not care. I do not care. This is a false thing with them," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. "Understand it has nothing to do with them. It has to do with how we proceed."
Trump has cited the lack of a House vote as a reason to refuse cooperation with the impeachment investigation. In the wake of Pelosi's announcement, the White House said nothing had changed.
Pelosi "is finally admitting what the rest of America already knew — that Democrats were conducting an unauthorized impeachment proceeding, refusing to give the President due process, and their secret, shady, closed door depositions are completely and irreversibly illegitimate," said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.
A draft of the resolution was expected ahead of Thursday's vote, but Pelosi said it would establish procedure for public hearings, authorize the disclosure of closed-door deposition transcripts and set forth "due process rights for the President and his Counsel."
It's unclear if that means that White House lawyers will be able to interview witnesses, or if Republicans will be able to call their own. Republicans have noted that the minority had those powers in previous impeachment investigations.
House critics of the process were unmoved. Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, said Pelosi is "admitting guilt" by holding a vote. "The problem is, they are already starting a tainted process," he said.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, took a wait-and-see approach. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said it was a "good thing" the House was considering a vote. But when asked if Trump should cooperate fully once it passes, he replied, "I'll leave that up to the White House."
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said the impeachment process had been "disreputable from the beginning." Like other Republicans, he wanted the full details.
Many government officials have cooperated with the inquiry despite Trump's orders, but Vindman would be the first current staffer at the White House to appear. Another official on the National Security Council staff, Tim Morrison, is scheduled for Thursday.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said the committees conducting the probe want to "flesh out all the facts" surrounding the Ukraine matter.
At its core, the impeachment inquiry is looking into Trump's call with Zelenskiy, when he asked the new Ukraine president for a "favor" in what Democrats say was a quid pro quo that could be an impeachable offense.
Witnesses have testified that the White House was withholding military aid to Ukraine, an Eastern European ally confronting Russia, as Trump wanted Zelenskiy to investigate Democrats in the 2016 election and the family of a potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden.
"We know that those efforts did not begin with the phone call between the two presidents, that there was months of groundwork for that call, and there were efforts after that call to continue the pressure on Ukraine," Schiff said. "There are any number of witnesses from the State Department, NSC, White House, Defense Department, and perhaps elsewhere — Energy Department — that have relevant information and that we'd like to hear from."
It's not clear if Vindman was on the call, but as a national security official handling the region he was involved in related matters. One witness in the impeachment probe, the current top diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, testified last week that Vindman and another official, Fiona Hill, told him the hold of security money for Ukraine had come at the direction of White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
Vindman and Hill also told Taylor about a White House meeting in which Ambassador Gordon Sondland linked the military aid to a state visit by Zelenskiy, "which so irritated" Bolton that the then-national security adviser abruptly ended it.
Pelosi's announcement Monday came just hours after a former White House national security official defied a House subpoena for closed-door testimony, escalating the standoff between Congress and the White House over who will testify.
Charles Kupperman, who was a deputy to Bolton, failed to show up for the scheduled closed-door deposition after filing a lawsuit asking a federal court in Washington to rule on whether he was legally required to appear.
The argument advanced by Kupperman's lawyers turns on his status as a close adviser to the president and may not be available for other administration officials who are lower down the executive branch organization chart or who did not have regular contact with Trump.
Democrats have indicated they are likely to use no-show witnesses to write an article of impeachment against Trump for obstruction of justice, rather than launching potentially lengthy court battles to obtain testimony.
Updated: October 28, 2019 09:05 PM
Published: October 28, 2019 12:00 AM
(Copyright 2019 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)