On Tuesday morning, the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry took on the most critical piece of evidence against President Donald Trump—the July 25 phone call in which he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do him a “favor” and investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. After weeks of complaints from the president and his defenders that critics were depending on secondhand information, the public heard for the first time from two White House officials who had listened in on the phone call: National Security Council official Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence.
Rather than trying to defend the substance of the call itself in the presence of two people who’d heard the conversation and found it inappropriate, the president’s allies took a different approach: attempting to attack the people who exposed the plot—including the Purple Heart–decorated Vindman and the still-anonymous whistleblower who brought the call to light—as the true lawbreakers.
So far, the series of depositions and live witnesses—and the writeup of the call released by Trump himself—has steadily confirmed the claims in the whistleblower’s original complaint. But Trump’s defenders have chosen to attack the whistleblower’s motives regardless, and this time used the hearing as a forum to try to identify the person.
Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes suggested in his opening statement that the whistleblower and his sources may have even broken the law. (There’s no evidence to suggest this is the case.)
“What are the sources of whistleblower’s information?” Nunes asked. “Who else did he talk to, and was the whistleblower prohibited by law from receiving or conveying any of that information?”
Near the start of his questioning, Nunes asked Vindman directly who he had spoken with about the July 25 call. Through the advice of counsel, Vindman stated that he had spoken with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent—who testified last week—and one other person, a member of the intelligence community, whom he declined to name. Vindman testified that “this was a properly cleared individual with a need to know.”
Nunes sought to depict this answer as a possible confession of a crime, telling Vindman, “You can either answer the question, or you can plead the Fifth.”
“These proceedings will not be used to out the whistleblower,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff interrupted, informing Vindman that he didn’t have to reveal the name. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan later pointed out that Vindman had previously testified that he didn’t know who the whistleblower was—so how, Jordan asked, could he out the whistleblower by answering the question?
This is where the president’s defenders pounced. Earlier in the day, the Federalist ran an article titled “Vindman Just Admitted To Leaking To The Anti-Trump Whistleblower.” The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted the article out with the comment “sounds like perjury to me.”
The logic behind the accusation didn’t really work: Even if the whistleblower did draw on Vindman’s comments, directly or indirectly through another source, to write the complaint, that doesn’t mean Vindman would have known they did it. But the president’s defenders used this as evidence that Vindman was lying, leaking, and covering something up.
During a pause in the proceedings, Rep. Andy Biggs used Trump Jr.’s language that Vindman was a “leaker.”
“Is Mr. Schiff preventing [Nunes] from asking that question because he thinks that [Vindman] talked to the whistleblower?” Biggs said. “If so, then he’s the guy who leaked to the whistleblower.”
Again, there’s no evidence that Vindman did anything inappropriate or unlawful, but Republicans leaned hard into the question.
“He claimed it was need-to-know, but how would we know that?” Biggs said. “Did he follow all of the procedures? Was it in a SCIF? How did it take place? How did this communication take place?” (These are the same Republicans who appear unconcerned that Trump allegedly announced his demand for investigations over a cellphone to a public café in Kyiv.)
And when I noted to Biggs that Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire repeatedly testified before the same committee that he believed the whistleblower had acted “in good faith” and in accordance with the law, he shrugged the question off.
“If you don’t know who the whistleblower is and you can’t talk to the whistleblower and you can’t find out the real chain of information that goes through, then it’s all exactly what we’ve seen here today: Hearsay,” he said.
By now, the Republicans’ circle of belief had shrunk to the point where Biggs could claim with a straight face that the president’s chosen head of the intelligence community was not credible. Anything outside the circle, however it was drawn, was worthless, secondhand information.
Another reporter pointed out that one direct witness—Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff and Office of Budget and Management director—had stated publicly that the aid had been dependent on sought-after investigations. “Mulvaney is also hearsay,” Biggs said, of the person who runs the agency that withheld $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine, and who confessed said aid had been tied to investigations.
And where doubt wasn’t enough to do the job, it was time to turn to suspicion. Republican committee members accused Vindman of impropriety because he reported his concerns about the July 25 call to a National Security Council lawyer rather than to Timothy Morrison, his direct superior at the time. (Democrats pointed out that Morrison—who testified later in the day—also reported the phone call to the lawyer rather than to his direct report, then–national security adviser John Bolton.)
The White House also sent out a tweeted quote from Morrison attacking the lieutenant colonel’s judgment, even though Fiona Hill, Vindman’s previous boss with whom he worked for a much longer time, issued a glowing performance review and even thought Vindman still worked in the White House.
Committee Republicans later questioned Vindman—who was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States as a toddler—about offers he’d received from the Ukrainians to become their defense minister, hinting at a dual loyalty argument that received major play from conservatives the first time Vindman was deposed. Vindman described the offers as “comical.”
“I’m an American,” he said. “I immediately dismissed these offers.”
Trump, for his part, chose to go after Vindman’s wardrobe selection because he’d worn his Army dress uniform to the hearing. “I never saw the man,” Trump said of Vindman during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. “I understand now he wears his uniform when goes in.” This notion that the Purple Heart recipient was somehow stealing valor by appearing in uniform was echoed by multiple Republicans in the hearing room, in what may have been the first case in living memory of Republicans objecting to military pomp encroaching on civilian government.
Rep. Scott Perry, an Iraq War veteran and retired Army National Guard officer, suggested to reporters that it may have been inappropriate for Vindman to wear the uniform. “When you’re wearing the uniform and serving the uniform, there’s one commander in chief,” Perry said. “While you might question personally, the commander in chief, or your command at all, your job is to take the mission and the duty and to move out—period.”*
Vindman, for his part, cited a higher “duty” to his Constitution and his country. “I did my job,” Vindman testified of why he came forward. “This is America. This is the country I’ve served and defended. That all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.” At that, the hearing room burst into applause for the second time since these public hearings got underway last week.
Correction, Nov. 20, 2019: This piece originally misquoted Perry as saying, “Your job to take your job and the duty and to move out—period.“