National Security Council official Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, at an impeachment hearing on Nov. 19, repeatedly refused to name the person in the intelligence community to whom he had relayed the details of a call between President Donald Trump and the leader of Ukraine.
Vindman and his attorney invoked a rule meant to shield the identity of the intelligence community whistleblower whose anonymous complaint triggered the impeachment inquiry. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) implemented the rule and has previously interjected to muzzle lawmakers who ask specific questions about people in the intelligence community.
Vindman, director for European affairs for the National Security Council, told lawmakers that he relayed the details of the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to a total of two people whom he described as “cleared U.S. government individuals with the appropriate need to know.”
Vindman named one of the people as George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eastern Europe at the State Department. He then described the second person as an “individual from the Office of—an individual in the intelligence community.” The vague answer triggered a tense exchange.
“As you know, the intelligence community has 17 different agencies,” Nunes said. “What agency was this individual from?”
“If I could interject here—” Schiff said.
“It’s our time, Chair,” Nunes noted.
“I know, but we need to protect the whistleblower,” Schiff continued. “I want to make sure that there is no effort to out the whistleblower through the use of these proceedings. If the witness has a good faith belief that this may reveal the identity of the whistleblower, that is not the purpose that we are here for, and I want to advise the witness accordingly.”
“Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistleblower,” Nunes said.
“Ranking member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” Vindman said.
“Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, you testified in the deposition that you did not know who the whistleblower is,” Nunes said.
“I do not know who the whistleblower is. That is correct,” Vindman responded.
“Then how is it possible for you to name these people and then out the whistleblower?” Nunes pressed.
“Per the advice of my counsel, I’ve been advised not to answer specific questions about members of the intelligence community,” Vindman responded.
“Are you aware that this is the Intelligence Committee that’s conducting this impeachment hearing?” Nunes asked.
“Of course I am,” Vindman responded.
“Wouldn’t the appropriate place for you to come to testify would be the intelligence committee about someone within the intelligence community?” Nunes asked.
Vindman again noted that he has been advised not to answer and added, “What I can offer is that this was a properly cleared individual with a need to know.”
“You could plead the Fifth, but you’re here to answer questions and you’re here under subpoena, so you can either answer the question or you can plead the Fifth,” Nunes pressed, referring to the Fifth Amendment right not to provide self-incriminating testimony.
Vindman’s lawyer, Michael Volkov, then interjected to assert that his client was following the rule of the committee and the rule of the chair.
“Counsel is correct,” Schiff said. “The whistleblower has the statutory right to anonymity.”
“And I’ve advised my client accordingly and he’s going to follow the ruling of the chair. If there is an alternative or if you want to work something out with the chair, it’s up to you, Mr. Nunes,” Volkov said.
“Well, we’ve attempted to subpoena the whistleblower to sit for a deposition. The chair has tabled that motion and is unwilling to recognize those motions over the last few days of this impeachment inquisition process,” Nunes concluded.
The identity of the whistleblower became a hot topic for Republicans after Schiff was forced to admit, after claiming otherwise, that staff on his committee communicated with the whistleblower before the anonymous official filed his or her complaint on Aug. 12 with the Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG).
The ICIG noted that the whistleblower had indications of possible political bias. As additional allegations surfaced about the whistleblower’s work with former Vice President Joe Biden, Schiff reversed his plans to have the whistleblower testify before the committee. Republicans have alleged Schiff changed his mind to avoid problematic questions about the person’s bias and interactions with Democrats prior to filing the complaint. Schiff argues that the whistleblower’s testimony is no longer necessary since witnesses have already confirmed most of the claims in the anonymous complaint.
The July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky is at the center of the events being explored as part of the impeachment inquiry. During the call, Trump asked Zelensky to look into the firing of Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin in relation to the business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden. Shokin was fired in March 2016 under pressure from Joe Biden. The month prior to his firing, Shokin’s office seized the assets of Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas giant that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board of directors.
Democrats allege that Trump made the request in order to boost his reelection chances in 2020 since Biden was the Democratic presidential primary frontrunner at the time of the call. The Democrats also allege that Trump leveraged a hold on foreign aid to Ukraine to force Zelensky to comply with his request. The anonymous whistleblower alleged that Trump’s request may have amounted to a violation of campaign finance laws. The Justice Department examined the allegation and determined that no further action is necessary.
None of the witnesses who have testified in the impeachment inquiry identified any alleged criminal acts in Trump’s call with Zelensky, a transcript (pdf) of which was released by the White House on Sept. 25.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Nov. 14 alleged that Trump may have committed “bribery” by withholding aid from Ukraine. The Ukrainian president and prime minister have both said they didn’t perceive a link between the hold on aid and Trump’s request for investigations. The White House lifted the hold on Sept. 11.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) noted that none of the witnesses who have testified in the impeachment inquiry to date have used the word “bribery” to describe the president’s conduct.
“The problem is, in an impeachment inquiry that the Speaker of the House says is all about bribery, where bribery is the impeachable offense, no witness has used the word bribery to describe the president Trump’s conduct, none of them,” Ratcliffe said.
Vindman was one of the four witnesses who testified in the impeachment hearings on Nov. 19. Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, testified side-by-side with Vindman during the morning session. At an afternoon session, lawmakers questioned Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and senior National Security Council official Tim Morrison.