Republicans target military witness in Trump impeachment probe

Washington (AFP) –


A US Army officer and key impeachment witness saw his loyalty called into question by Republicans on Tuesday, as he maintained it was his "duty" to flag an "inappropriate" telephone call by President Donald Trump.

Alexander Vindman, a lieutenant colonel and National Security Council member, was listening in -- as the White House's top Ukraine expert -- to Trump's July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky that is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry threatening the US leader.

Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee as it kicked off a second week of televised hearings, Vindman said he was so alarmed by Trump's request for the Ukrainian leader to probe his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden that he reported it to an NSC lawyer "out of a sense of duty."

Democrats are seeking to establish whether Trump abused the power of his office by leveraging military aid and a White House meeting to extract a commitment from Zelensky to probe former vice president Biden and his son.

Their July phone call is the crux of the investigation, and Americans were finally able to hear live testimony from officials who listened in firsthand -- Vindman and Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy advisor to Vice President Mike Pence.

"It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a US citizen and a political opponent," Vindman told the hearing.

"This would have significant implications if it became public knowledge and it would be perceived as a partisan play."

The second of four witness appearing on Tuesday, Williams likewise said Trump's reference to Biden was "unusual" in that it delved into domestic US politics.

During Tuesday's hearing a pugnacious Trump branded the impeachment inquiry a "kangaroo court" and said he has had no face-to-face contact with Vindman.

"I never saw the man."

As Vindman was testifying, the official White House Twitter feed attacked the officer -- who still works in the White House -- by quoting another witness who had "concerns" about his judgment.

And the Republican counsel appeared to question the loyalty of the Ukrainian-born Vindman by repeatedly asking how he was invited three times to became Ukraine's minister of defense -- offers Vindman said he "immediately dismissed."

"Do you have any reason why he asked you to do that?" counsel Stephen Castor persisted, asking whether it was a high honor to have been asked, and whether Vindman kept the "door open" to the offer.

That exchange was also retweeted by the White House.

- 'Defending the indefensible' -

Democrats expressed outrage at the line of questioning, saying it marked a smear of Vindman's immigrant heritage.

"It's the kind of thing you say when you're defending the indefensible," House Democrat Jim Himes told the hearing.

Republicans have sought to discredit witnesses who defy White House orders not to speak with investigators, and Trump himself launched an extraordinary Twitter attack on the former ambassador to Ukraine while she testified last week. He has criticized Williams too.

Vindman, dressed in military uniform decorated with his Purple Heart and other commendations, called the attacks on fellow public servants "reprehensible."

Vindman moved to America as a child, and he movingly addressed his father during his testimony, saying he "made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union" and seek a better life for his family in the United States.

"Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth," he said.

Neither Vindman nor Williams said they saw any US national security rationale for Trump to seek an investigation of Biden, their lengthy testimony amplifying depositions given during the closed-door portion of the inquiry.

But under questioning from Republicans, they acknowledged the younger Biden's position on a Ukrainian energy company's board while his father was vice president could be seen as a conflict of interest.

"Certainly the potential, yes," Vindman said.

- Rough week -

Faced with the prospect of becoming only the third president in US history to be impeached, Trump faces a week of possibly damning testimony.

In a surprise move, Trump said Monday he might himself testify in the probe -- although a live appearance is unlikely, given the high legal risks.

Nine officials in total are set to appear in the House of Representatives this week.

They include Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union who allegedly transmitted to the Ukraine government Trump's demands for help in finding dirt on his Democratic rival.

The House investigation could conceivably wrap up this week, with evidence then sent to the House Judiciary Committee to draw up articles of impeachment.

Trump's impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House, which appears increasingly likely, would place Trump on trial in the Senate, where a Republican majority could protect him from removal.