WASHINGTON — There was a moment of confusion just after the two-hour mark in Tuesday’s public impeachment hearing, featuring witnesses Jennifer Williams, an aide to the vice president, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient who is the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, asked Williams and Vindman if they had spoken to anyone outside the White House about President Trump’s July 25th call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was on that call that Trump requested a “favor” from Zelensky — namely, that the Ukrainian government open investigations into the Bidens and into a bogus conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.
Williams said she hadn’t spoken to anyone outside the White House about the Trump-Zelensky call, but Vindman said he had. Specifically, two people: George Kent, a top State Department official who oversees eastern European policy, and an individual in the intelligence community. Vindman said both people were “cleared U.S. government officials with appropriate need to know.”
Nunes zeroed in on the second person. He asked Vindman at which intelligence agency the second individual worked. The subtext of Nunes’ questioning was clear: He appeared to be pushing Vindman toward providing information that could be used to identify the anonymous intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint about the Trump administration’s pressure campaign on Ukraine helped trigger the impeachment inquiry.
At that point, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the Intelligence committee chair, interjected. “I want to make sure there’s no effort to out the whistleblower through the use of these proceedings,” Schiff said over the groans of the committee’s Republican members.
Nunes resumed his questioning. “Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistleblower?”
“Ranking member,” Vindman cut in, “it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please.” Vindman said he did not know who the whistleblower was, but he also declined to identify anything more about the second person with whom he discussed the president’s July 25th call. “Per the advice of my counsel,” he went on, “I’ve been advised not to answer specific questions about members of the intelligence community.” Nunes pressed Vindman on why he wouldn’t say more about the person he told in the intelligence community, but Vindman reiterated he refusal to do anything to identify that person, even if he didn’t know whether that person was the anonymous whistleblower or not.
Nunes pressed further. He suggested that if Vindman wouldn’t give more information, maybe he should invoke his right under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. Vindman, however, didn’t take the bait. He reiterated he was following the advice of his lawyer and Chairman Schiff by not giving any information that could potentially be used to reveal the whistleblower’s identity. Vindman’s lawyer also said Vindman wasn’t pleading the fifth but merely following the rules set out by the committee and Schiff. “We’re following the ruling of the chair,” Vindman’s lawyer, Michael Volkov, said.
Based on the impeachment hearings held so far, Nunes and most of the other Republicans on the Intel committee seem far more interested in attacking the messenger — whether by outing the whistleblower or blasting the media and the witnesses who’ve come before them — than they do about vetting the allegations of Trump’s effort, with the help of Rudy Giuliani and others, to pressure a foreign head of state into interfering in U.S. politics. Nunes’ exchange with Vindman was yet another example of that. It won’t be the last.
Here’s the video of the exchange: