3 More Witnesses To Appear Before House Impeachment Panel

Nov 20, 2019
Originally published on November 20, 2019 10:55 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Yesterday, four witnesses testified in the House impeachment inquiry. It was hours of testimony. And today, Congress will hear from three more, including one of the central figures in this investigation, Gordon Sondland. He's President Trump's ambassador to the European Union. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here with the latest. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So everybody's eyes today are on Gordon Sondland. What makes his testimony so critical?

DAVIS: Sondland is, as one Republican lawmaker explained him to me, a wild card in that neither Democrats or Republicans are entirely certain of what he's going to testify today because he is the first and only witness so far in this investigation to change his original testimony. Sondland originally told Congress behind closed doors that there was, quote, "never conditions placed on that military aid." About a month later, other public testimony had jogged his memory, and in an official writing to Congress he said he did now recall a September 1 sidebar meeting with a top aide to Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, in which he did inform him that getting that aid was likely conditional on announcing investigations sought by President Trump.

KING: OK. So lots of questions for him today. We're also going to hear from two people, Laura Cooper and David Hale - not exactly household names. Who are they and where do they fit in here?

DAVIS: These are sort of secondary witnesses to the investigation. Laura Cooper's a Pentagon official. She was the top official in charge of Ukrainian military assistance. She testified already behind closed doors that - about the confusion that was at the Pentagon related to the aid and why it was held up. She did not - she was not able to offer any testimony as to why that decision was made. David Hale is the third ranking official at the State Department. He's the highest-ranking official Congress will probably hear from in this investigation. He's as close as they'll probably get to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and sort of his role potentially in this process. And specifically, he spoke a lot in his closed-door testimony about the circumstances and motivations surrounding the firing of former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

KING: OK. Let me bring you back to yesterday's hearings, which were notable because there were three people testifying who directly heard that July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's president. I want to play some tape of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman describing how he felt after the call.

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ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Frankly, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. 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.

KING: He was considered a strong witness in many ways. What else did Lieutenant Colonel Vindman tell the committee?

DAVIS: Vindman essentially told the Congress that he believed that the president's ask was, in his words, improper, inappropriate. And the second he heard that phone call, he knew he had to report it. He was a compelling figure. Democrats sort of portrayed him as this hero. He was in full military dress. They noted he was a Purple Heart veteran, that he was a patriot. Republicans took a very different tack. They sort of questioned his motives in this. They suggested he might have been politically motivated because he didn't like the policies of President Trump and sort of questioned his loyalty to the country and whether he might have had some interest in Ukraine because he comes from that descent. He speaks Ukrainian. So very, very much a different sort of character assessment of Vindman in the hearing yesterday.

KING: There were also two witnesses, Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, who were requested - whose presence was requested by Republicans. Let's hear what Volker said in his opening statement.

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KURT VOLKER: Since I gave my testimony on October 3, a great deal of additional information and perspectives have come to light. I've learned many things that I did not know at the time of the events in question.

KING: OK. So he says he's learned many things. What did lawmakers hear from Volker, and what did they learn from him, if we can ask that?

DAVIS: Volker sort of portrayed himself as this guy out of the loop - that he was just trying to do the right thing. He was aware of the president's concerns about Ukraine, but he saw himself as just a conduit and an advocate to try to get that White House meeting because he thought if Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Zelenskiy sat down together, all these other concerns would be washed away. In terms of sort of the nitty gritty of whether - what the White House decision-making was, he just kind of said, I didn't know. I just wasn't the guy in the room.

KING: And just quickly, a little bit of analysis - did these two witnesses - the last two - help the Republican case?

DAVIS: They certainly gave Republicans their best talking points in the investigation so far. They did not really give them anything that goes to the heart of the question of impeachment - that the president was acting of his own personal gain. Tim Morrison, the NSC official, testified he was also on the call. And he said when he heard it, it did not raise any red flags for him, which is obviously a very different take on the call than people like Vindman.

KING: NPR's Susan Davis. Thanks so much, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.