A new witness in the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump rocked the White House Tuesday with testimony that he personally witnessed officials pressuring Ukraine to help Trump politically.
National Security Council Ukraine expert Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman was to tell the House inquiry that he twice reported concerns about improper White House efforts to get Kiev to open investigations designed to help Trump politically.
In explosive prepared testimony, Vindman said he personally listened to Trump pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call.
His testimony, released late Monday, offers some of the strongest evidence yet for accusations that Trump abused his presidential powers and broke election laws to gain Kiev's support for his re-election effort next year.
The first White House official to appear before the inquiry, the decorated Iraq war veteran arrived on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning in full military dress uniform, as Trump blasted him on Twitter as a "Never Trumper" - his label for Republicans who fundamentally oppose the president.
"How many more Never Trumpers will be allowed to testify about a perfectly appropriate phone call," he asked.
"Supposedly, according to the Corrupt Media, the Ukraine call 'concerned' today's Never Trumper witness. Was he on the same call that I was? Can't be possible!"
Republicans mobilized to undercut Vindman's credibility, questioning his loyalty by noting he immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union at the age of three, and suggesting he is part of an effort by the US national security bureaucracy to undermine Trump.
"Donald Trump is innocent. The deep state is guilty," said Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz, one of the president's most strident defenders in Congress.
Appearing against White House orders to not comply with a congressional subpoena, Vindman is the first witness to have personally listened in on the July 25 phone call at the core of the impeachment inquiry.
Republicans have argued that nine previous witnesses only knew of the call's contents second-hand, although a heavily edited official "transcript" of the call appears to match testimony that Trump pressured Zelensky for political reasons.
Vindman says in the prepared testimony that a senior US diplomat close to Trump, ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, was the first person he witnessed pressing Ukraine for the investigations, in a July 10 meeting with Ukraine national security official Oleksandr Danylyuk.
"Following this meeting, there was a scheduled debriefing during which Ambassador Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma," he says, referring to a Ukraine energy company on whose board Biden's son Hunter sat while his father was vice president.
"I stated to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security," he says.
He says the same of the Trump-Zelensky call.
"I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a US citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the US government's support of Ukraine," he says.
"I realised that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play," he says.
Vindman reported both his concerns about the July 10 meeting and the July 25 call to the chief attorney of the NSC.
While Trump continued to insist the call was "perfect," Democrats made plans to step up the impeachment effort with a House vote formalising procedures Thursday.
"Everybody has read your words on the call," Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a tweet directed at Trump Tuesday.
"The Ukrainian President asks for military aid to fend off the Russian attack, you say 'I want you to do us a favor though,' and then you spend the rest of the call asking for bogus investigations to smear your political opponents."