As the House of Representatives’s impeachment inquiry enters its second week of public hearings, a recurring theme has emerged: Veteran government officials, conditioned by years of training to believe that America’s leaders act solely in the best interests of the nation, come to understand only reluctantly what now seems beyond question — that President Trump and his henchmen spent months carrying out a secretive nearly $400 million extortion plot against the new Ukraine government to help him win re-election in 2020.
On Tuesday the part was played by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the White House’s top Ukraine expert, and Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Mike Pence. Colonel Vindman and Ms. Williams represent an increasingly endangered species in Mr. Trump’s Washington, a world populated by grifters, self-dealers, liars and cheats who look at political power and see personal gain.
In contrast, dedicated public servants like Colonel Vindman and Ms. Williams speak in sincere and personal terms of their allegiance to the country and the Constitution they had sworn to defend. Both listened in on the July 25 call between President Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president. Both were alarmed by what Mr. Trump said.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Colonel Vindman said of his reaction to hearing Mr. Trump tell Mr. Zelensky “to do us a favor, though,” by investigating Joe Biden and his son Hunter for alleged corruption.
“Without hesitation, I knew that I had to report this to the White House counsel,” the colonel said. “It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent.”
Ms. Williams, who said she had listened to about a dozen calls between presidents and other world leaders, called the conversation “unusual,” explaining, “I thought that the references to specific individuals and investigations, such as former Vice President Biden and his son, struck me as political in nature, given that the former vice president is a political opponent of the president.”
Republicans tried to dismiss Mr. Trump’s call for investigations of the Bidens as a harmless request. Colonel Vindman shot that down quickly. “The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it’s polite and pleasant, it’s not to be taken as a request, it’s to be taken as an order.”
Especially given the power disparity between the United States and Ukraine, Colonel Vindman said, it was clear that Mr. Zelensky wasn’t being given a choice. Slowly it dawned on the colonel that Mr. Trump’s true interest was not defending Ukraine against Russian aggression or helping it shake off its long history of official corruption — both longstanding and bipartisan American foreign policy goals.
“It was probably an element of shock that maybe in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security,” he said.
It didn’t help Mr. Trump’s case that Kurt Volker, the former top envoy to Ukraine and one of the Republicans’ own witnesses, on Tuesday afternoon dismissed the claims of corruption by the Bidens as conspiracy theories.
Without any substantive defense of the president’s behavior, Republicans did all they could to deflect. They called the hearings a circus. They demanded to know the identity of the whistle-blower — even though they previously complained that he had not listened to the July 25 call, and two people who had heard the call were sitting right in front of them. They criticized the media.
They continued to push the idea that Trump is genuinely interested in rooting out corruption. That was never plausible to begin with. But it became even harder to sustain in light of the fact that anti-corruption measures were on a list of talking points prepared for Mr. Trump both times he spoke with Mr. Zelensky, and both times he failed to raise the issue at all. (And as Representative Eric Swalwell noted, the Pentagon had certified that Ukraine had met its anti-corruption requirements for receiving the military aid before Mr. Trump withheld it.)
And Stephen Castor, the staff lawyer for the Republicans, darkly insinuated that Colonel Vindman harbored dual loyalties to the United States and Ukraine, because a Ukrainian official had repeatedly offered him the job of secretary of defense. Colonel Vindman acknowledged the offers and laughed them off; the Ukrainian official later said he had been joking.
It was a particularly repulsive line of attack in light of Colonel Vindman’s opening remarks, in which he addressed his father, who escaped the Soviet Union with his family when the colonel was a young child, in the hope of a better and safer life in America. “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth,” Colonel Vindman reassured his father. When Representative Sean Patrick Maloney later asked him why he had said that, he replied: “This is America. This is the country I’ve served and defended. That all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.”
The gallery burst into applause while Republicans sat and stewed. Perhaps they were reflecting on another part of Colonel Vindman’s opening statement, in which he said that the testimony he was about to give “would not be tolerated in many places around the world,” specifically Russia. If the exasperated Republicans had their way, it wouldn’t be tolerated here, either.