Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Oct. 29. Below is a summary of his testimony, as compiled from the transcript of his deposition and his opening statement.
The testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman—who serves as the National Security Council (NSC) director for Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Caucuses and Belarus—describes a timeline from when Vindman first became aware of what he calls “false narratives” about Ukraine in March 2019 until the middle of September. The “false narratives” to which he repeatedly refers include the smear campaign against former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, the narrative regarding Ukrainian interferences in the 2016 election, and the stories surrounding Hunter Biden’s involvement in Burisma. Vindman focused crucially on two instances in which the discussion of those narratives led him to report concerns to John Eisenberg, the chief counsel for the National Security Council. The first meeting occurred on July 10; the second was the call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, to which Vindman listened from the Situation Room. Vindman noted that he has never had personal contact with President Trump.
Like many other witnesses, Vindman began by contextualizing the current situation within the broader Russia-Ukraine conflict and global Russian aggression. Throughout the testimony, he stressed that an independent Ukraine is “critical to U.S. national security interests.” He also praised Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with the West and noted that there is consensus in the U.S. national security interagency that Zelensky’s election is an overwhelmingly positive thing for western integration, Ukrainian democracy and the country’s economy.
Vindman became aware, in the spring of 2019, that “outside influencers” were promoting a “false narrative” about Ukraine that was “inconsistent with consensus views of the interagency.” Throughout the entire testimony, Vindman repeatedly stressed that his views about Ukraine were not personal but rather were reflective of the consensus view of the national security interagency and policy community. He then began the timeline of events surrounding the July 25 call with Zelensky and the hold placed on security assistance. On April 21, President Trump called Zelensky to congratulate him on his victory. Vindman characterized the call as “positive.”
During the testimony, there was a brief discussion about the May 13 meeting between Hungarian President Viktor Orban and President Trump, and whether they had discussed Ukraine. Vindman said he knew that Fiona Hill and John Bolton had been opposed to the meeting because they were concerned Orban would communicate information that was “just not accurate” to Trump. U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein, said Vindman, had pushed for the meeting. The colonel added that Hungary has repeatedly blocked Ukraine-NATO cooperation, and efforts to sour the Ukraine-U.S. relationship would be consistent with those activities.
On May 21, Bolton instructed Vindman to join a delegation traveling to Zelensky’s inauguration. The delegation was led by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and also included Kurt Volker, Gordon Sondland and the temporary charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Joseph Paddington. Vindman said Vice President Mike Pence was supposed to be in the delegation as well but withdrew. There was “some speculation” among the NSC staff whether Pence withdrew because of contemporary press reports regarding Ukraine, the 2016 election, the Bidens, Burisma and Giuliani.
Vindman then recounted the delegation’s meeting with Zelensky. Vindman warned Zelensky that he should not get involved in U.S. domestic politics, as that could undermine U.S. support for Ukraine. He also voiced this warning because he was concerned about Yuriy Lutsenko, who was still prosecutor general at the time. The delegation debriefed the president following the event, although Vindman did not participate in that meeting. He said that Hill told him not to go to the meeting because Kash Patel, another NSC official, would attend the meeting and was being represented as the NSC director for Ukraine. Vindman was not aware of many other details. He was later told, however, that the meeting did not go well, and that President Trump believed the Ukrainians were not friendly toward his administration.
On July 10, Vindman participated in a meeting in Bolton’s office in the White House that included Bolton; the Ukrainian national security adviser, Oleksandr Danylyuk; Andrey Yermak; and Oleksii Semeniy. Sondland and Volker also attended the meeting, as did Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Fiona Hill. When the Ukrainians broached the subject of a meeting between the two presidents—which had been offered by Trump in the April 21 call with Zelensky and in subsequent correspondence and which the Ukrainians saw as critically important—Sondland, according to Vindman, “started to speak about Ukraine delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the President.” Bolton, Vindman said, cut the meeting short after that.
After that meeting, the Ukrainians went with Sondland, Vindman and several others to the Ward Room in the White House. Speaking to the Ukrainians, Sondland “emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 elections, Burisma, and the Bidens.” At that point, Vindman says he noted to Sondland that he didn’t think those requests were appropriate and that the request to investigate the Bidens had “nothing to do with national security.” At some point during the conversation, Sondland, recalled Vindman, relayed that the details of the deliverable had been worked out with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Hill entered the room shortly after, says Vindman, and reiterated that Sondland’s statements were inappropriate. After that meeting, Vindman and Hill each reported the incident to Eisenberg.
On July 21, Zelensky’s party overwhelmingly won parliamentary elections, and the NSC proposed a congratulatory call between the two presidents.
That call took place on July 25, and Vindman was one of a handful of staffers listening in from the White House Situation Room. Vindman was immediately concerned about the contents of the call, because of a number of issues he would reiterate throughout his testimony:
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 to 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. This would all undermine U.S. national security.
He also told the committee that part of his concern about pushing for investigations was that countries will do what they perceive to be in their national security interests. If the Ukrainians, he reasoned, perceived an investigation into the Bidens as vital to their national security, they might “tip the scales” of the investigation in order to protect their own interests. He stressed that U.S. military aid accounts for about 10 percent of their military budget, and that the Ukrainians spend 5 to 6 percent of their GDP on the military because of the ongoing conflict with Russia. “I understand the Ukrainians [and] their national security needs,” said Vindman toward the end of his testimony; they would have seen the aid as “another point of pressure.”
Following the call, he reported his concerns to the NSC’s legal counsel.
Adding detail to his account of the emergence of “false narratives” that he described in his opening statement, Vindman said he first became aware of the narratives in March 2019 following a couple of articles in The Hill. He specified that, at first, he thought many of these narratives were coming from the then-prosecutor general of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko, “for the purpose of self-preservation” for himself and his boss, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was locked in an election battle with Zelensky. At that time, he thought the influencers were just looking to undermine Yovanovitch, who was critical of recent reports of the Poroshenko administration’s corruption. But Vindman also became aware during this time that President Trump and members of his family were seeing the negative press and reacting to it.
Around April, however, he began to understand Giuliani’s involvement, as well as the theory about Ukrainian government support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma. Vindman stated he was unaware of the factual basis for accusations against Yovanovitch (or her removal from Kyiv) and of no “authoritative basis”—meaning facts and assessments gleaned through the U.S. national security interagency—for the accusations regarding the 2016 election. It was also in April, said Vindman, that the Ukrainian embassy in Washington first reached out to him with questions about how to deal with the narratives and Giuliani. Vindman said he instructed the embassy repeatedly to stay out of American partisan affairs to avoid undermining bilateral relations, a refrain he continued in his meetings with Ukraine’s embassy even after the July 25 call.
Vindman also provided some details about a letter sent by President Trump to President Zelensky on May 29—which Vindman drafted—congratulating him on his inauguration. An invitation for a White House meeting was included in the letter, which he later said was added by Sondland and Mulvaney. The colonel said Ukrainian officials brought up this invitation during “every meeting” between their receipt of the letter and the July 10 meeting.
In that meeting, Sondland’s mentioning of the three investigations as the “deliverable required” for Zelensky to obtain the summit with Trump was the first time Vindman had heard a U.S. government official discussing the “outside influencer” narratives in a formal context.
Shortly after that meeting, Vindman went to report his concerns to Eisenberg and told him that the narrative Giuliani had been pushing was being “pulled into a ... national security dialogue.” Eisenberg said something to the effect of he would “look into it” and encouraged Vindman to come to him with any further concerns of this nature. Between the July 10 meeting and Trump’s call with Zelensky, Vindman said he likely spoke to several people about the meeting in his role as NSC director for Ukraine, and specifically mentioned Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent; Ambassador William Taylor; and Vindman’s brother, Yevgeny, who is the chief ethics counsel for the NSC. Vindman also noted that he spoke to Volker “a couple of times” about his concerns regarding Giuliani.
In discussing the July 25 call, Vindman explained that, per normal process, he drafted the talking points for Trump prior to the congratulatory call, and those talking points went through a staffing process before getting sent by Bolton to the president. Vindman did not include the 2016 election, the Bidens or Burisma in his talking points.
Adding color to his account of the call and events immediately following, Vindman said he listened to the call in the White House Situation Room with other senior staffers including the deputy national security adviser; Tim Morrison, Fiona Hill’s replacement; Keith Kellogg, Vice President Pence’s national security adviser; Jennifer Williams, also a member of Pence’s staff; and an NSC press staffer. Others were likely listening to the call from the Situation Room staff space.
Asked when he first experienced concern during the July 25 call, Vindman responded that it was pretty early on but that he immediately noticed a shift in tone between the congratulatory first call and Trump’s darker, “dour” tone during this call. Using the call memo as a guide, Vindman recalled that once Trump said that the U.S. has done a lot for Ukraine—“which is accurate,” Vindman added—and the Europeans need to do more, Vindman realized there might be a problem. By the time the president said, “I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good, but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine” (on the second page of the call memo), Vindman realized the call was “straying into the territory” of the “unproductive narrative.” In response to a question about whether anyone else in the room expressed concern, Vindman said that he exchanged concerned glances with Morrison.
Vindman went to Eisenberg’s office fairly soon after the call to express concerns that it was inappropriate for a government official to call on a foreign government to begin an investigation into a U.S. citizen. This time, Yevgeny Vindman also participated, as did Michael Ellis, Eisenberg’s deputy. Vindman said he went through his call notes with the three officials to recount his concerns and said he was particularly troubled by the president’s references to “having Zelensky speak to Mr. Giuliani and the Attorney General” about conducting “an investigation that didn’t exist.” Regarding Eisenberg’s decision to place the call transcript memo on a secure server, Vindman noted that the system was used to store sensitive information and that he’d categorize the transcript as “sensitive” because it might undermine the U.S.-Ukraine relationship by implicating Ukraine in a “partisan play.” He also said that moving presidential communications to the secure system did not happen regularly but was “not entirely unusual.”
According to Vindman, a “very accurate” (but not verbatim) transcript memo, called a TELCON, was produced according to normal process, which Vindman described as follows: The TELCON is produced by the Situation Room and then distributed by the NSC to those who were on the call for edits. It then goes through a legal review and then to leadership for a final review. He also mentioned that the transcript was moved to the more secure computer system after he spoke with Eisenberg about his concerns shortly after the call.
Vindman discussed two substantive edits he suggested during this process that were not ultimately adopted. In both cases, ellipses were used instead. The first was as follows with Vindman’s proposed edits to Trump’s comments in brackets: “Whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. [There are recordings.] It sounds horrible to me.”
He indicated that he believed “recordings” referred to a speech Biden had given about his anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine.
The next proposed edit was to Zelensky’s response to Trump’s above statement. Zelensky said he was going to appoint a new prosecutor general and, again with Vindman’s proposed edit in brackets, “He or she will look into the situation, specifically to [Burisma] that you mentioned.” In the final TELCOM, instead of “Burisma” it reads “the company.” Vindman later added that this was particularly significant because, in a general discussion about corruption, Zelensky would “not necessarily know anything” about Burisma. So the fact that he mentioned Burisma suggested that Zelensky had been “prepped” to speak about it during the call.
Vindman later said that he didn’t think neglecting his edits was an intentional or “malicious” choice. He also said he provided Kent a readout of the call.
On the issue of the hold on nearly $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine, Vindman emphasized that there was interagency consensus that the aid was important to the interests of the United States. He was not aware why the hold was placed and was eventually told it was “to ensure that the assistance aligned with administrative priorities.” Vindman said that he believes the Ukrainians became aware of the hold sometime in the beginning or middle of August—well before the Aug. 29 story in Politico. He began receiving soft inquiries from the Ukrainian embassy, asking him whether he had heard about any developments with the assistance or whether there were any issues with the appropriated funding. He did not recall how he responded to these inquiries but likely said that the review was ongoing. Vindman noted that he was not actually aware of any substantive reviews of the assistance.
In mid-August, Vindman drafted and Bolton approved a presidential decision memo for Trump recommending that he release the aid. The president did not act on this recommendation.
After Vindman came back from vacation sometime in August, he noticed that he was less involved with Ukraine issues. While he did not want to speculate as to why, he did not participate in Bolton’s late-August trip to Ukraine, or in trips to Moldova and Belarus, even though those countries were all in his portfolio and “it would be typical for a director” to travel in such cases. He was told that there would not be space on the plane and Morrison, who had been on the job less than two months, would fill the role. Additionally, in August and September, he was unable to get readouts of the trips in question through Morrison, despite requesting them. He had to receive the readouts “to do [his] job effectively” from interagency colleagues.