In congressional testimony Tuesday, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman acknowledged speaking to two officials outside the White House about the presidential phone call at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
Vindman, the top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, said one of the officials was George Kent, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He said the other was “an individual in the intelligence community.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the inquiry, pressed Vindman to say which of the 17 intelligence agencies the official served in.
However, as Vindman was leaning into the microphone to respond, Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee’s Democratic chairman, cut in.
“If I could interject here, we don’t want to use these proceedings —,” started Schiff, earning groans from Republican lawmakers seated in the public viewing gallery.
“It’s our time, Mr. chair,” Nunes objected to his fellow Californian.
Schiff proceeded to advise Vindman not to answer the question if doing so might reveal the identity of the CIA officer whose August intelligence community whistleblower complaint prompted House Democrats to launch impeachment proceedings in September.
“I know but we need to protect the whistleblower,” Schiff said. “I want to make sure that there’s no effort to out the whistleblower through the use of these proceedings. If the witness has a good faith belief that this may reveal the identity of the whistleblower, that is not what we are here for, and I want to advise the witness accordingly.”
The anonymous officer, who worked in the White House, reported that during a July 25 phone call Donald Trump improperly pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate allegations of corruption against former Vice President Joe Biden, now the president’s Democratic rival in the 2020 election.
Unlike the whistleblower, Vindman listened-in on the call. He told Congress in closed-door testimony last month that he expressed his own concerns about the conversation to the NSC’s top lawyer.
Based on that performance, Democrats called Vindman back for this week’s public hearing alongside Jennifer Williams, a national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence who also heard the call. Williams testified that she found the call “unusual” because it included discussion of a “domestic political matter.”
For his part, Nunes sought to shift the hearing’s focus to allegations that as vice president, Biden intervened in Ukraine’s domestic affairs to benefit his son, Hunter Biden. He also questioned the witnesses about how information about the July 25 phone call had leaked from the White House.
“I do not know who the whistleblower is”
After Schiff’s interruption, Nunes noted: “Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistleblower.”
“Ranking member, it’s lieutenant colonel,” said Vindman, an Iraq war veteran who showed up to the hearing in his Army uniform and medals.
“Lt. Col. Vindman, you testified in the deposition that you did not know who the whistleblower was or is,” Nunes repeated.
“I do not know who the whistleblower is, that is correct,” Vindman said.
In that case, Nunes wondered, on what basis was Vindman worried that naming the intelligence official he spoke to would “out the whistleblower.”
Vindman refused to answer the question, citing Schiff’s instructions.
“Per the advice of my counsel and the instructions from the chairman, I’ve been advised not to provide any specifics on who I have spoken to inside the intelligence committee,” he said. “What I can offer is that these were properly cleared individuals, or was a properly cleared individual, with a need to know.”
Nunes suggested that the Intelligence Committee is the proper place for someone to testify about the intelligence community, drawing laughs from the congressional assembly room. He told Vindman that he could either “plead the Fifth,” invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination, or answer the question.
As Vindman moved to respond, his attorney, Michael Volkov spoke up in a quavering voice.
“Excuse me,” he said. “On behalf of my client, we are following the rule of the committee, the rule of the chair, with regard to this issue, and this does not call for an answer that is invoking the Fifth or any theoretical issue like that.”
“Counselor, what ruling is that?” Nunes asked.
Schiff then came to the defense of Vindman and his attorney, saying: “If I could interject, counsel is correct. Whistleblower has the right, statutory right to anonymity. These proceedings will not be used to out the whistleblower.”
“And I have advised by client accordingly, and he’s going to follow the ruling of the chair,” Volkov said, seemingly emboldened. “If there’s an alternative or you want to work something out with the chair, that’s up to you, Mr. Nunes.”
“Well, we’ve attempted to subpoena the whistleblower to sit for a deposition,” Nunes said. “The chair has tabled that motion and then has been unwilling to recognize those motions over the last few days of this impeachment inquisition process.”
“With that I’ll go to Mr. Castor,” he concluded, ceding the remainder of his time to his lawyer for the hearing, Steve Castor.
Adam Schiff, Alexander Vindman and the whistleblower
Trump and his allies have repeatedly criticized Schiff for allegedly stage-managing the impeachment process. During last Wednesday’s impeachment inquiry hearing, Republicans called out Schiff for coaching witness Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, in real time, and for blocking their repeated requests to question the whistleblower.
In a fiery November press conference, Republican Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio said that Schiff had shut down a Republican line of questioning during a closed-door hearing with Vindman.
On the same day, Nunes appeared on Fox News’ “Hannity” and accused Schiff of “coaching” Vindman. He called the impeachment process under Schiff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California “unprecedented.”
Also, in October, Schiff was forced to admit that his staff gave the whistleblower advice on filing the complaint that kick-started the impeachment process. Having previously denied communicating with the whistleblower, Schiff later acknowledged he should “have been much more clear.”
In the Aug. 12 intelligence community complaint, the whistleblower flagged a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He worried that by pressing Zelensky to investigate his domestic political rivals, Trump had compromised U.S. national security.
Hours after the White House released a rough transcript of the call on Sept. 25, Pelosi announced the House was launching the impeachment inquiry. Democrats went on to hold weeks of closed-door hearings, following which testimony was selectively leaked. Last Tuesday, they announced they would start public hearings this week.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and slammed Democrats for trying to oust him from office. He has joined Republican lawmakers in demanding that the identity of the whistleblower be revealed. The president has also accused Schiff of “helping to write” the whistleblower’s complaint.
For his part, Schiff has continued to deny collaborating with the whistleblower or any of the witnesses. During Wednesday’s hearing, he repeated his claim not to even know who the whistleblower is.