A decorated US military officer, his chest shining with medals, has testified that Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with the leader of Ukraine was both inappropriate and improper, and that he reported his concerns immediately.
Lt Col Alexander Vindman, 44, whose family moved to the US from the Soviet Union four decades ago, emotionally told an impeachment hearing that he felt empowered to speak out, and to even challenge the most powerful man in the world, because of the soil on which he was standing.
“This is America,” said the Iraq War veteran, in one of the most striking moments of the hearings yet. At one part, addressing his father, who had brought his family from behind the Iron Curtain, he said: “Dad, that I am sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
The army officer, who had been listening in to Mr Trump’s 25 July phone call to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, said he had been left in little doubt on what to do after hearing the conversation.
“It was inappropriate for the president to request – to demand – an investigation into a political opponent, especially [from] a foreign power where there is at best dubious belief that this would be a completely impartial investigation and that this would have significant implications if it became public knowledge,” he said.
He added: “Without hesitation, I knew that I had to report this to the White House counsel.”
Mr Vindman, director for European affairs at the national security council, was one of three people who were on the July call to testify on Tuesday, the latest in a succession of witnesses to be subpoenaed by Democrats.
One of them, Jennifer Williams, a special adviser on Europe and Russia to vice president Mike Pence, said she found the call “unusual” because it related to domestic politics, but she did not report it to anyone.
Ms Williams, who has served in Jamaica, Lebanon and the United Kingdom, said Mr Trump’s call with Zelensky was unusual because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter”.
She said the White House budget office had said Mr Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, had directed that $391m in security aid to Ukraine be put on hold and that she never learned why the assistance was later released in September.
A third witness who heard Mr Trump’s conversation with Mr Zelensky, Tim Morrison, said he was not concerned anything illegal was discussed.
“As I stated during my deposition, I feared at the time of the call on July 25th how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate," he said. “My fears have been realised.”
The witnesses were the latest to give evidence to members of the House Intelligence Committee, after Democrats formally launched an impeachment inquiry.
They did so after a whistleblower, believed to be a member of the US intelligence community, alleged that in his call to Mr Zelensky, Mr Trump had requested he launch an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, in exchange for the release of military aid and a visit to the White House.
Mr Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing, has described the investigation as a “witch hunt”. On Tuesday, he said he did not know the officer but mocked his decision to wear his military uniform.
“I don’t know him. I don’t know, as he says, the ‘lieutenant colonel’. I understand that somebody had the misfortune of calling him ‘Mr’ and he corrected them,” said Mr Trump, in his first public appearance since an unscheduled hospital visit over managed to spark wild headlines over the weekend.
“I never saw the man. I understand now he wears his uniform when he goes in. No, I don’t know Vind-e-man at all.”
A fourth witness, Kurt Volker, said allegations of corruption in Ukraine levelled at Joe Biden were “not credible”.
In comments that appeared to debunk one of the conspiracy theories Republicans have often cited to try and undermine the former vice president, Mr Volker told member of Congress he did not believe them.
“As I said, I don’t find it plausible or credible that vice president Biden would have been influenced in his duties,” said Mr Volker told the committee.
The comments from Mr Volker, a former US special envoy to Ukraine and a one-time ambassador to Nato, were all the more striking because he was among those witnesses called by Republican members of the committee.
Mr Vindman, who said he notified his concerns to White House lawyer John Eisenberg, also condemned Mr Trump’s Twitter attack on a previous witness.
He said: “I want to state that the vile character attacks on these distinguished and honourable public servants is reprehensible. It is natural to disagree and engage in spirited debate, this has been our custom since the time of our Founding Fathers, but we are better than callow and cowardly attacks.”
He spoke after Mr Trump last week used social media to attack Marie Yovanovitch, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, who testified last week.
The hearings against Mr Trump are set to continue this week.
Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, who has emerged as the inquiry’s most troubling witness for Republicans because his testimony appears to have shifted, will give evidence on Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday, Republicans claimed there was no evidence Mr Trump had acted wrongly.
Congressman Andy Biggs, a Republican from Arizona, said: “I’m yawning, I’m bored. It’s not been very lively.”
Another Republican, Mark Meadows, said at lunchtime: “I find it fascinating that we had three-and-a-half hours of testimony and only three mentions of the word “aid”. Where’s the quid or the quo in the quid pro quo?”