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Transcript: The Witnesses: Williams and Vindman

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, The Witnesses: Williams and Vindman.


Article II: Inside Impeachment

Bonus: The Witnesses: Williams and Vindman

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Tuesday, November 19th. That's right, this is a bonus episode. And here's what's happening.

Archival Recording: Committee will come to order. (Music) Today's witnesses, like those who testified last week, are here because they were subpoenaed to appear, not because they are for or against impeachment. That question is for Congress, not the fact witnesses.

Kornacki: There was back to back public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee today. Kurt Volker, the Statement Department's Special Envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, the former top Russia official on the National Security Council are testifying now. We will cover that hearing on this podcast tomorrow. But this morning kicked off with Jennifer Williams.

Jennifer Williams: It was the greatest honor of my career to be asked to serve as a special advisor to the vice president for Europe and Russia.

Kornacki: And Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

Alexander Vindman: In July 2018 I was asked to serve at the White House National Security Council. I'm the principal advisor to the national security advisor on Ukraine and other countries in my portfolio.

Kornacki: Both Williams and Vindman were on that July 25th call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky.

Williams: I found the July 25th phone call unusual because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic, political matter.

Vindman: I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate.

Kornacki: So today on Article II, we're asking what strategies did Republicans and Democrats use in questioning these key witnesses? And will those strategies work? Leigh Ann Caldwell is a correspondent for NBC News. She has been following these hearings on Capitol Hill and she joins us now. Leigh Ann, welcome.

Leigh Ann Caldwell: Hi, Steve.

Kornacki: Let me just start on this question. There does seem to be a choreography to all of this. Williams and Vindman, why were they both chosen to testify together today?

Caldwell: Well, Steve, both of these people were on the infamous July 25th phone call. So that was a big reason why they were set to testify today. They both also expressed concerns with the call as well. And they were also both witnesses that the Democrats wanted to hear.

One worked for the president in the National Security Council. And the other worked for the vice president. Of course, she's a State Department official who is detailed to the vice president's office. But they both have their own little niches of expertise on this issue. And they were both, most importantly, on this phone call.

Kornacki: So let's get into what each of them said. They each had a chance to give opening statements here to kinda lay out the basics of their perspective. And, of course, you know, Democrats have kind of indicated throughout all of these hearings that they see most of these witnesses, all these witnesses, as folks they just want to let speak for themselves.

They almost, you know, wanna sorta step back and let the witnesses be the stars. That seems to be a lotta the Democratic approach here. So let's just get on, on the record here, first of all, Jennifer Williams, what did she tell the committee today?

Caldwell: Well, in her opening statement, she kinda jumped right in into the nuts and bolts of this about this July 25th call. And she said that she had some concerns about it. The reason is because she thought that it was odd that the president was asking for favors into investigations. She also talked about how she put an update in the vice president's briefing book about the July 25th phone call as well.

Williams: I provided an update in the vice president's daily briefing book indicating that President Trump had a call that day with President Zelensky. A hard copy of the memorandum transcribing the call was also included in the book. I did not discuss the July 25th call with vice president or any of my colleagues in the office of the vice president or the NSC.

Caldwell: And so while she couldn't say specifically if there was a specific quid pro quo or what the president specifically, if there were any demands that the president was asking of Zelensky, she was able to characterize this call in a call that she thought was odd. In her experience had never heard before, a president of the United States asking a president of another country for a favor.

Kornacki: Okay, so that's Williams. Now let's talk about Alexander Vindman. This is somebody whose testimony behind closed doors caused a lot of headlines. This was sorta the country's first chance to size him up for themselves. So Vindman, part of the National Security Council at the White House, a principal advisor on Ukraine. What did he say when he got his turn at the microphone?

Caldwell: So Vindman's testimony was interesting. When he started, of course, this is the first time we're hearing him speak publicly. And so when he started his testimony, he seemed quite nervous. He was speaking really quickly, actually very softly. Being in the hearing room, it was difficult to hear what he was saying. Thankfully, we had a paper copy of his opening statement. But he was talking about his military experience and how important his military experience was to him.

Vindman: The uniform I wear today is that of a United States Army, is that of the United States Army. The members of our all volunteer force are made up of a patchwork of people from all ethnicities, regions, socioeconomic backrums (SIC), backgrounds, who come together under a common oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. We do not serve any political party. We serve the nation.

Kornacki: And he also talked about the fact that his family, that his father, left the Soviet Union when his father was 47 years old and came to the United States.

Vindman: His courageous decision inspired a deep sense of gratitude in my brothers and myself and instilled in us a sense of duty and service. All three of us have served or are currently serving in the military. My little brother sits behind me here today.

In Russia, my act of expressing concern to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe, personal and professional repercussions. And offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life. Dad, I'm sitting here today in the US capital 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.

Caldwell: And so that was a really ah-ha moment for many in the room. And the room became really silent because it indicated that there was a worry of what he was doing. That there were gonna be repercussions for him. But the fact that in the United States he's able to do that, it was quite a proud moment for him.

Kornacki: Let's turn to the Republicans then and the strategy that they put together. Devin Nunes. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee. He got a crack at Vindman, at both witnesses, but at Vindman in particular. One thing that he zeroed in on, that Nunes zeroed in on, was Vindman's testimony that he had expressed concerns with several people about that July 25th phone call.

He identified a few of the people. There was one name he didn't identify. And this opened a dispute and accusations from, from Adam Schiff and other Democrats that what Nunes was trying to do was to out the whistleblower. Explain what was going on in that moment.

Caldwell: Yeah, so this has been a theme throughout these hearings and even these closed door depositions that Republicans have been trying to, as you said, out the whistleblower. And they tried again today. Of course, Devin Nunes, a fierce supporter of the president, defender of the president, tried to do so again as well. And what he was doing, he was asking Vindman about all the people he relayed concerns to about this July 25th call because there's a lot of speculation that Vindman talked to the whistleblower.

Devin Nunes: Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistleblower.

Vindman: Ranking Member, it's Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please.

Nunes: Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, you testified in the deposition that you did not know who the whistleblower was or is.

Vindman: I do not know who the whistleblower is, that is correct.

Nunes: So how is it possible for you to name these people and then out the whistleblower?

Vindman: Per the advice of my counsel, I've, I've been advised not to answer que, specific questions about members of the intelligence community.

Caldwell: What the Republicans were doing is when Vindman was unable to specifically name one of the people he talked to, they were getting at the point that that was perhaps the whistleblower. And so it caused a huge stir in the room. Adam Schiff,

Adam Schiff: Please stop.

Caldwell: Interjected.

Schiff: Wanna make sure that there's no effort to out the whistleblower (BACKGROUND VOICE) through these, these proceedings. If the witness has a good faith belief that this may reveal the identity of the whistleblower, that is not the purpose that we are here for.

Caldwell: So it was a really (BACKGROUND VOICE) dramatic moment between the Republicans and the Democrats. And it also set the scene for what the hearing was to come. That it was likely not going to be the only time Republicans tried to get Vindman to talk about the whistleblower 'cause they assume that he knows full well who the whistleblower is.

Kornacki: Another approach that, that Republicans tried that I, I think was noteworthy, their lawyer, you know, each side has a lawyer that gets 45 minutes to talk to the witnesses. Steven Castor, the Republican lawyer, used some of that time to talk about the idea. It seemed to suggest that Vindman potentially had conflicted loyalty. This, this was what it sounded like at least. Take us through what Castor was getting at there in terms of conflicted loyalty. What, w, what was going on there?

Caldwell: So we knew that Republicans had brought up this idea of dual loyalty about Vindman behind closed doors in his deposition. So the big question was were they going to do it again in a public hearing. The Republican members didn't do it, but they used the Republican attorney to plant that seed.

And the way they did it is the GOP counsel, Castor is his name, he started asking about this meeting that Vindman had in Ukraine with some senior Ukrainian officials. And one of the Ukrainian officials said to Vindman, "Oh, you should be the defense minister in Ukraine." Well, Castor, the Republican attorney, was asking a lot of questions about that. Asking if he reported that up the chain in the United States, if he ever thought twice, perhaps considered that as an option for him in his career path.

Steven Castor: When he, when he made this offer to you initially, did you leave the door open? Was there a reason that he had to come back and ask a second and third time? Or was he just tryin' to convince you?

Vindman: Counsel, you know what? It, it's, the whole notion is, is rather comical that I was being asked to consider whether I'd wanna be the minister of defense. I did not leave the door open at all. But it, it is pretty funny for a lieutenant colonel of the United States Army, which really is not that, not that senior, to be offered that illustrious a position.

Caldwell: So Vindman dismissed it. He said that he thought it was more of a joke. Vindman also said he did report it when he returned to the United States. He told one of his superiors about it, which is the appropriate thing to do. After the Republican lawyer kept pressing him about this, Vindman finally said, "Look, if my superiors thought it was a problem, they would've brought it up with me.

"But there was never any follow up discussion." So Vindman really dismissed this. And no Republican member brought this up on their own. What the Republican attorney was trying to do was just to insert that line of questioning to not only appease the Republican base, but also get that into people's consciousness.

Kornacki: And then when it came to that, the open question portion, each member getting five minutes to talk with the witnesses, Jim Jordan, again, playing a role there, he went after Vindman, it seemed, based on test, he took testimony, I should say, from Vindman's supervisor at the National Security Council, a man he reported to, Morrison. He read from that testimony that seemed to question Vindman's judgment. What was Jordan getting at there and what was Vindman's response to that?

Caldwell: We expected this all along. It seems like from the closed door depositions, that Republicans are really trying to pit Vindman against his boss, Tim Morrison. What Morrison said in his closed door deposition is that he did question Vindman's judgment. It doesn't seem like Vindman and Morrison got along extremely well. Remember, Morrison came in late. He's the one who replaced Fiona Hill. So he didn't start until the end of July in his position.

Jim Jordan: Your boss had concerns about your judgment. Your former boss, Dr. Hill, had concerns about your judgment. Your colleagues had concerns about your judgment. And your colleagues felt that there were times when you leaked information. Any idea why they have those impressions, Colonel Vindman?

Vindman: Yes,

Caldwell: And,

Vindman: Representative Jordan, (UNINTEL PHRASE).

Caldwell: Vindman, what he did (BACKGROUND VOICE) is he took out his review from Fiona Hill, as Fiona Hill left her position in early July and read parts of that.

Vindman: "Alex is a top 1% military officer and the best Army officer I have worked with in my 15 years of government service. He is brilliant, unflappable and exercises excellent judgment."

Jordan: So.

Vindman: It was exe, I'm sorry.

Jordan: Okay, I'm sorry.

Vindman: It was exemplary during numerous visits, so forth and so on. But I think you get the idea.

Caldwell: He just had an outstanding review. So he really tried to kneecap Republicans' argument and their effort to pit Morrison against him and as Morrison's claims that Vindman was untrustworthy.

Kornacki: (Music) We're gonna take a quick pause and we'll be right back. So we've been talking a lot here about Republicans, the different lines of inquiry, the different lines of attack that they tried today. Then there's the issue of how Democrats handled all of this. What did you hear from Democrats today, both from their lawyer, Daniel Goldman, and from Democratic members during the, the open portion of the hearing?

Caldwell: Well, Democrats throughout this, they are as much as possible trying to connect this to the president. For example, when talking to Williams and asking Williams questions, they were really interested in the fact that Williams was told by an aid that the president did not want Vice President Pence to attend the inauguration of President Zelensky.

Archival Recording: And did the president subsequently tell the vice president not to attend the inauguration?

Williams: I was informed by our chief of staff's office, by the vice president's chief of staff's office that the president had told the vice president not to attend. I did not witness that conversation.

Caldwell: And as far as Vindman is concerned, they were really playing up his credentials, the fact that he thought that it was a demand, that the president was demanding an investigation from President Zelensky based on this July 25th phone call. And also talking about how he did the right things.

Archival Recording: Colonel Vindman, what was your real-time reaction to hearing that call?

Vindman: Chairman, without hesitation, I, I knew that I had to report this to the White House counsel. I had concerns. And it was my duty to report my concerns to the proper people in the chain of command.

Caldwell: All things that Democrats say are brave and impressive and really critical moments in outing what they say is severe misconduct by this president.

Kornacki: One of the interesting things about these hearings is, in many ways, they feel like they are reenactments of events that have already taken place behind closed doors. Everybody kind of assuming their roles against in front of the cameras. Did you have a sense that either side was caught off guard by anything today?

Caldwell: That's a really good question. I think Vindman was a little caught off guard by Republican attacks on him and also his attempt to talk about the chain of command on who he notified after this July 25th call.

Archival Recording: And I understand and appreciate the importance of chain in command. In your deposition, you emphasize the importance of chain in command. You were a direct report to Dr. Fiona Hill and then Mr. Tim Morrison. And they were your seniors, correct?

Vindman: That is correct.

Archival Recording: When you had concerns about the 7:25 call between the two presidents, you didn't go to Mr. Morrison about that, did you?

Vindman: I immediately went to John Eisenberg, the lead legal counsel.

Archival Recording: So that doesn't seem like change in command (SIC).

Vindman: But that's not,

Archival Recording: So in the, in the deposition with (UNINTEL PHRASE),

Caldwell: Democrats (BACKGROUND VOICE) really tried to let the witnesses do the talking, lay out the timeline and lay out their concerns, while Republicans overall tried to dissect their arguments and just sow doubt in the American public that this is not an impeachable offense. And that's really what Republicans are trying to do throughout this process. Not trying to prove the president's innocence, but just ensure, trying to convince enough Americans this is not something that warrants removing a president.

Kornacki: So there's also the, the question here of the president himself, the White House, their reaction. We saw last week on, on Friday the president was tweeting in real-time response to testimony from Marie Yovanovitch. That ended up becoming a part of those proceedings on Friday, the, what he was saying on Twitter. Didn't hear that kind of commentary from him on Twitter today. He did address (BACKGROUND VOICE) the hearings at, at a Cabinet meeting though.

Donald Trump: I don't know him. I don't know, as he says, the Lieutenant Colonel. I understand somebody had the misfortune of calling him "Mister" and he corrected them. I never saw the man. I understand now he wears he uniform when he goes in. No, I don't know Vindman at all. What I do know,

Kornacki: What are you hearing from the White House (BACKGROUND VOICE) in terms of their response to today's events?

Caldwell: So the White House is telling our colleagues at NBC that the testimonies have been nothing more than endless debate over people's personal opinions about a call. The administration is continuing to defend the president, continuing to defend the call. And there was nothing wrong with it. (Music)

Kornacki: All right. Leigh Ann Caldwell, correspondent for NBC News, following all facets of this impeachment inquiry drama. Thank you for joining us, Leigh Ann.

Caldwell: Thanks, Steve.

Kornacki: Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, a person who is at the center of this impeachment inquiry, will testify tomorrow morning before the House Intelligence Committee. We will cover Sondland's testimony alongside what we learn this afternoon from the testimony of Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison.

And remember, if you're following these public hearings and have questions for us, send them to That is article two, the word two, T-W-O. We will try to answer some of those for you. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Wednesday.