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White House Ukraine expert to testify he reported concerns about Trump-Zelensky call

Posted at 9:43 PM, Oct 28, 2019

Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council's top Ukraine expert, plans to tell House impeachment investigators on Tuesday that he was so troubled by President Donald Trump's July phone call with Ukraine's President that he reported his concerns to a superior, according to a copy of his opening statement obtained by CNN.

"I was concerned by the call. I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government's support of Ukraine. I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained," Vindman's opening statement says.

"This would all undermine U.S. national security. Following the call, I again reported my concerns to NSC's lead counsel."

The New York Times was the first to report on Vindman's planned remarks.

That phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is at the heart of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry, following a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump had solicited foreign interference to dig up information on a political rival and the White House tried to cover it up.

US officials have previously told CNN that standard operating procedure suggests Vindman also would have been listening in on the July 25 conversation and likely played a role in the handling of the call's transcript.

In addition to questions about the content of that conversation, Vindman is likely to be pressed on how the transcript of the call was handled by White House officials who moved to contain the fallout in its aftermath.

CNN previously reported that the scramble that occurred in the hours and days after the call, described by six people familiar with it, parallels and expands upon details described in the whistleblower complaint.

The anxiety and internal concern reflect a phone conversation that deeply troubled national security professionals, even as Trump now insists there was nothing wrong with how he conducted himself. And it shows an ultimately unsuccessful effort to contain the tumult by the administration's lawyers.

Vindman was also one of five Trump administration officials chosen for a US delegation, led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to attend Zelensky's inauguration ceremony in May alongside Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt Volker, who was then Trump's special envoy to Ukraine.

The whistleblower complaint alleges that the President downgraded the delegation, ordering "Vice President Pence to cancel his planned travel" because he wanted to see "how Zelenskyy 'chose to act' in office."

Both Sondland and Volker have testified before House committees in the impeachment probe. Perry, described by some as being a key component of the US' relationship with Ukraine, has pledged to work with lawmakers looking into the whistleblower's allegations.

A source who accompanied Perry on that trip told CNN they never heard Biden come up in discussions, or as part of the mission for the trip. The source said Perry regularly travels at the behest of the White House.

Volker resigned from his post after fallout from the whistleblower's allegations. Perry plans to leave his job in the administration by December.

Questions about Trump-Zelensky call transcript

House Democrats are likely interested to hear what Vindman knows about how the Trump-Zelensky call transcript was stored in the immediate aftermath of the conversation, specifically allegations by the whistleblower that it was inappropriately stored in a higher-security system rather than the typical system for presidential calls.

CNN has previously reported that almost as soon as Trump had hung up, word of what he had said on the call began to circulate among National Security Council staffers -- in particular, his request that Zelensky investigate Biden. The entreaty caused concern among some of his national security officials, who discussed among themselves whether Trump had crossed a line.

Initially, the process of transcribing and archiving the call followed the standard procedure for dozens of previous presidential calls with foreign leaders: The raw transcript was circulated to a small group of officials, including the national security adviser, deputy national security adviser, members of the National Security Council's executive secretariat and council lawyers.

From there, the National Security Council director responsible for Ukraine -- Vindman -- reviewed the document for accuracy before it made its way to then-national security adviser John Bolton and his deputy Charles Kupperman. At that point, the document would ordinarily have been marked "limited access" and shared on a need-to-know basis.

But within a few days, a National Security Council lawyer -- acting on orders from John Eisenberg, his boss -- directed council officials to move the transcript to the code-word-classified system, a former White House official said, even though there was no code-word-classified material discussed during the call.

One person familiar with the matter said it was possible Eisenberg ordered the call transcript placed into the codeword system after his initial call with the CIA's top lawyer to "preserve" the record since he realized it could become a matter of a legal issue. But others familiar with the matter said the move came after officials became aware of the internal concerns and wanted to prevent additional people from reading the document.