Article II: Inside Impeachment
Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is a special bonus episode of Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Tuesday, October 29th. And we're breaking our usual format because it has turned into a very big day on Capitol Hill. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman is now testifying behind closed doors.
He is the first witness to testify who was actually on that July 25th phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian president Zelenskiy. There wasn't much hype around his deposition until late last night. That is when Vindman's opening statement was leaked to the press.
Vindman says in it that he reported two incidents involving the president's handling of Ukraine to higher-ups at the National Security Council. I've got Rebecca Shabad on the line from Capitol Hill. She's a Congressional reporter for NBC News. Hey, Rebecca, how are you?
Rebecca Shabad: I'm good. How are you, Steve?
Kornacki: Well, I'm good. But obviously you're in the center of the storm there. I mean, we're just up here in New York watching this on television. We've got the video of Vindman showing up this morning. He's in full military uniform as he heads into the Capitol complex, obviously then behind closed doors.
So just tell us to start, maybe before we get to all the details here, maybe just set the scene up there on Capitol Hill. What is it like there right now? And Vindman, another one of these names I think a lot of people, myself included just didn't know anything about him, weren't even talking about him until the last couple days. So, so who is he? Who is this person that, that we're all suddenly talking about here?
Shabad: Alexander Vindman is a lieutenant colonel. He has served multiple overseas tours as an infantry officer and received the Purple Heart after being wounded by an IED. Now, in terms of how important he is, he's pretty high up the food chain at the White House. He is the top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council at the White House.
So his testimony is pretty significant that lawmakers are really delving into today. I should note that he is appearing under subpoena which has been happening with a number of these witnesses in the House Democratic impeachment inquiry because the White House has been trying to block their testimony. But Alexander Vindman showed up anyway today.
Kornacki: And I mention again, the way these things seem to keep going, it's a name none of us knew about, none of us talked about until really the last 24 hours. And then as I said late last night, this has been the case with a number of these, the opening statement is leaked to the press. So now we've all seen the opening statement.
There are two specific incidents that he seems to be drawing attention to here. Let's go through those, the first of the two. We mentioned he was on the phone call, but before the phone call, about two weeks before the phone call, July 10th, 2019, he's talking about an incident involving a visit from a government official from Ukraine who was dealing with the administration. What is he saying happened there?
Shabad: Right. So Vindman in his opening statement that he's given to lawmakers today, he talks about how he reported his concerns to the National Security Council's lead attorney John Eisenberg, once after this July 10th meeting that you just referenced, about comments comments made by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
And he talks about this visit by Ukraine's secretary of national security and then National Security Advisor John Bolton. And what Vindman says in his opening statement is, "Sondland started to speak about Ukraine delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the president." And at that time Bolton cut the meeting short. Now, he expressed concerned to again the NSC's lead attorney about this call.
Kornacki: So this is July 10th. And we're saying that's the first incident. The second incident then is two weeks later. After what you're just describing, he then says he's on this phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. But what's the connection he's drawing between the two incidents?
Shabad: Exactly. So Vindman is telling lawmakers today that he was on this phone call that stems initially from the whistleblower's complaint. The phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine's president. And he expressed concern that what Donald Trump was pushing for, you know, pushing Ukraine to look into the Bidens in exchange for the release of military aid, Vindman expressed concern that the potential quid pro quo here would be damaging to U.S. national security. And so he reported it to his superior, a top lawyer at the National Security Council.
Kornacki: So he raised the concerns, he says, to the National Security Council's lead counsel, I guess, the, the top lawyer for the National Security Council. Do we know what happened with that?
Shabad: Well, it sounds like nothing really, you know, materialized from that. Of course, as we know the whistleblower communicated his or her concerns about this July 25th phone call to, you know, a colleague who then relayed it to the White House. And nothing was done about the complaint. So Vindman is obviously trying to bring his perspective and concern straight to lawmakers here.
Kornacki: By the way, and one of the things that I think a lot of people might have wondered (LAUGH) when they started to see the reporting on this, I know I did when I saw the initial reporting last night, Vindman is saying it his opening statement that he had raised these concerns. I started to wonder, "Wait a minute. Was this the whistleblower?" But Vindman says here he's not the whistleblower, correct?
Shabad: Right. I mean, I think it would be pretty interesting if he were the whistleblower. He says that he's not. So we still don't know who the whistleblower is. And I don't know if we'll find out at least in the near future.
Kornacki: And Rebecca, you mentioned a minute ago Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador. He testified two weeks ago. It sounds like these two pieces of testimony might be at odds with each other. Is that right?
Shabad: Right. You know, Gordon Sondland, he was one of the first witnesses to testify behind closed doors in one of these depositions before three different Congressional committees in the House. And Gordon Sondland, you know, he was aware of all of this.
He was part of these text messages that were released by Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine. And Gordon Sondland's testimony is really being questioned, especially by a number of Democrats. Because his testimony is not lining up with a lot of other testimony from witnesses who came before these committees after the fact.
And especially after Bill Taylor's testimony before these Congressional committees last week. So I think, and we have been hearing from a number of Democrats. They want Sondland to come back before lawmakers to kind of set his story straight.
Kornacki: Also getting a reaction to this today from the president and from Twitter. He likes to put his thoughts there as everybody knows. The president, one of the things he tweeted this morning about Vindman's testimony was this. He said, "Supposedly according to the corrupt media, the Ukraine call concerned, in quote marks, today's never Trumper witness.
"Was he on the same call that I was? Can't be possible. Please ask him to read the transcript of the call. Witch hunt." That's Trump's reaction on Twitter. In some ways that's kind of been his reaction to a lot of the revelations that have been reported from some of these witnesses and their testimony.
The other piece of it is though, I've seen some of his allies who've gone on cable news in the last 12 hours or so. They are going more directly at Vindman. Do you have a sense of the case they're trying to make, and if this is something that Republicans are comfortable with?
Shabad: Right. You know, Democrats have been saying that a lot of this testimony is pretty consequential. And it's really not supporting the case being made by the president. And so what Republicans are trying to do, and of course what Trump seems to be doing on Twitter and whatnot is trying to discredit these witnesses.
And of course, what's especially noteworthy is that Vindman is still working at the National Security Council at that White House. So this kind of puts him in a very awkward, uncomfortable position of course. But Republicans are just trying to discredit these witnesses who may not have a track record of, you know, being loyal to the president or the administration.
Kornacki: The political question that I think might be coming to the fore here when it comes to this is again some of this reaction, I think this was on Laura Ingraham's show on Fox News last night, basically is accusing Vindman, who is an immigrant, essentially accusing him of doing the Ukrainian government's bidding.
Laura Ingraham: Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president's interest. And usually they spoke in English.
Kornacki: I saw this morning, Liz Cheney, one of the top House Republicans, she was telling Republicans she wasn't comfortable with that.
Liz Cheney: I think that we need to show that we are better than that as a nation. Their patriotism, their love of country, we're talking about decorated veterans who have served this nation, who have put their lives on the line. And it is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this nation. And we should not be involved in that process.
Kornacki: Do you have a sense right now that there's some division among Republicans about that line of attack?
Shabad: Oh, it definitely seems that way. Liz Cheney did speak about this. And she did defend Alexander Vindman this morning, you know, talking about his patriotism and how he served his country. So it definitely seems like there is, you know, a split in the Republican caucus in terms of how to respond to, you know, these witnesses, their backgrounds, their records, and the testimony that they're giving to lawmakers.
Kornacki: We also know House Democrats are planning this vote on Thursday. Are we getting any clues from today's testimony about where they're going in terms of their strategy here?
Shabad: In terms of today's testimony, I don't know if that will guide at all, you know, what will be included in this resolution. But what we are expecting from this measure is to, you know, lay the ground rules, lay out, you know, the next steps in the impeachment inquiry as, you know, pressure builds on Democrats to have a more open, more public process.
And I think what we are expecting from the resolution is to maybe get some sense of potentially when there might be public hearings, how the public hearings might be conducted, and with different witnesses. Of course, Republicans have been calling for some sort of impeachment related voted for, you know, more than a month now. Calling on Democrats to authorize this ongoing impeachment inquiry. This resolution will not do anything along those lines. It really lays out what's coming next.
Kornacki: Yeah, it's gonna be very interesting to watch the final roll call on this vote to see how each party kind of breaks down on it. Rebecca Shabad, thanks so much for joining us.
Shabad: Thank you.
Kornacki: And as we were just talking about at the end there, lots of attention now on that resolution that Democrats are going to be offering for a vote in the House on Thursday. The text of that resolution has now been publicly released. It's gonna be marked up tomorrow. And then on Thursday, that will be the vote. We'll be keeping a close eye on it.
Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Naboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. And we'll back tomorrow.