Testimony: Nunes acolyte misrepresented himself to Trump as Ukraine expert
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman also testified on Tuesday that the National Security Council staffer, Kash Patel, fed the president disinformation about Ukraine.
The decorated Army officer who testified to House investigators on Tuesday told lawmakers that a close associate of Republican Rep. Devin Nunes “misrepresented” himself to President Donald Trump in an effort to involve himself further in Ukraine policy, according to two people familiar with his closed-door deposition.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, told lawmakers that after attending Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration in May as part of a delegation led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Vindman had been looking forward to debriefing Trump and giving a positive account of Zelensky’s vision for Ukraine’s future.
“The U.S. government policy community’s view is that the election of Zelenskyy and the promise of reforms to eliminate corruption will lock in Ukraine’s Western-leaning trajectory, and allow Ukraine to realize its dream of a vibrant democracy and economic prosperity,” Vindman said in his opening statement.
But he was instructed “at the last second” not to attend the debriefing, Vindman told lawmakers, because Trump’s advisers worried it might confuse the president: Trump believed at the time that Kashyap Patel, a longtime Nunes staffer who joined the White House in February and had no discernible Ukraine experience or expertise, was actually the NSC’s top Ukraine expert instead of Vindman.
Vindman testified that he was told this directly by his boss at the time, NSC senior director for European and Russian affairs Fiona Hill.
Hill told Vindman that she and national security adviser John Bolton thought it best to exclude Vindman from the debriefing to avoid “an uncomfortable situation,” he said.
POLITICO previously reported that Hill testified that Trump thought Patel was in charge of Ukraine policy for the NSC, but Vindman’s exclusion from a key Ukraine meeting because of concerns over a potential conflict with Trump has not been disclosed before.
It helps explain why the president tweeted on Tuesday that he’d never met Vindman despite his clear interest in Ukraine — senior officials have said that Trump directed them to consult with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on matters of Ukraine policy.
And Vindman’s exclusion sheds even more light on the unusual steps top NSC officials were taking as early as May to avoid angering or annoying Trump on Ukraine issues — and the unusual level of access Patel had to the president.
“It’s crazy,” said one person familiar with Vindman’s testimony. “Vindman should have been in that meeting.”
Vindman also testified that he was told Patel had been circumventing normal NSC process to get negative material about Ukraine in front of the president, feeding Trump’s belief that Ukraine was brimming with corruption and had interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats.
That upset Vindman, along with Hill and Bolton, he testified, because they were constantly having to counter that narrative with the president.
It’s still not clear what materials Patel was giving Trump, or where he was getting them. But he was not interacting with Ukraine experts at the State Department and Pentagon on the issue, and never had a conversation with Vindman, the NSC’s director for Ukraine, about Ukraine — or about anything for that matter, Vindman testified.
Patel joined the National Security Council’s International Organizations and Alliances directorate in February and was promoted to a senior counterterrorism role around the same time as Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, in which he urged the newly elected leader to investigate Biden and “get to the bottom of” Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Patel had previously served as Nunes’ top staffer on the House Intelligence Committee and worked to discredit the FBI and DOJ officials investigating Russia’s election interference.
For that reason, Vindman was careful to not overtly criticize Patel so as not to anger Nunes — the ranking member of the intelligence panel — who floated in and out of the 10-hour deposition, according to a person familiar with his testimony.
Vindman, a combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient who has served in the Army for more than two decades, joined the White House in July 2018 as a detailee from the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He testified on Tuesday wearing his uniform, in keeping with past practice for active members of the military.
His opening statement — in which he testified that he raised alarms internally about efforts to pressure Ukraine into launching political investigations in exchange for military assistance aid — made him an immediate target of Trump’s allies, who began floating a conspiracy theory late Monday night that Vindman was working as a double agent for both the Ukrainians and the United States.
Citing Vindman’s birthplace — the Soviet Union — and a New York Times report that said Vindman met with the Ukrainians periodically to discuss how they should deal with Giuliani, Republicans began publicly questioning where Vindman’s loyalties lie.
"It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense,” former GOP congressman Sean Duffy said on CNN on Tuesday morning. “I don't know that he's concerned about American policy.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham posited that Vindman was “advising Ukraine while working inside the White House apparently against the president’s interest,” leading former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo to respond, “some people might call that espionage.”
The talking point has been condemned by members of both parties as a smear of a decorated war hero. House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming called it “shameful” on Tuesday. Vindman’s wife called her later that day to express her appreciation, and Cheney again denounced the smear, according to two people with knowledge of the call.
Despite the bipartisan outcry, the insinuation made its way to the deposition room. At one point, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) began asking questions implying that Vindman had been working both sides, expressing alarm that Vindman “gave the Ukrainians guidance” and asking how many times he spoke with Ukrainian officials, one of the people in the room at the time said.
“That’s literally part of Vindman’s job as the NSC’s Ukraine director,” this person said. “Zeldin was pretty quickly rebuked over that line of questioning by the Democrats.”
A spokesperson for Zeldin’s office denied that he had implied Vindman had dual loyalties. "This is just another reason why these transcripts should be immediately released," the spokesperson said. "You’d see just how badly your sources are misleading you about what’s actually happening behind closed doors."
Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe also challenged Vindman — who wrote in his opening statement that he was concerned by Trump’s July 25 call because he “did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen” — to show the investigators where the word “demand” appeared in the call record.
Vindman explained that he considered the request to implicitly be a demand, because it was the president of the most powerful country in the world asking for “a favor” from a much lesser world power, according to the people familiar with his testimony. He compared it to how he would take it, as an Army officer, if a general asked him to do something.
Melanie Zanona contributed.