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Key impeachment witness draws applause after telling hearing 'this is America ... here right matters'

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The White House's top Ukraine expert has told an impeachment inquiry US President Donald Trump's request to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden was "improper".

A White House official testified in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump on Tuesday that the president’s request that Ukraine investigate a domestic political rival was an improper “demand,” as he fended off Republican efforts to cast doubt on his competence and loyalty to the United States.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Mr Vindman, the White House National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert and a decorated Iraq war veteran, testified at the third public impeachment hearing before the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, wearing his blue dress military uniform and medals.

A US official said Mr Vindman had recently raised concerns over his personal security and the Army has been carrying out security assessments. The official said Mr Vindman and his family could be moved to a military base if the security threat warrants such action but that has not yet occurred.

US Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman (C), is the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council.
US Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman (C), is the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council.
AAP

Mr Vindman sent out a message to his father from the witness seat.

“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 to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth,” Mr Vindman testified.

Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York asked Mr Vindman why he had “confidence that you can do that and tell your dad not to worry.”

“Congressman, because this is America,” Mr Vindman said. “It is the country that I have served and defended and all of my brothers have served, and here, right matters.”

Both Mr Vindman and a second witness - Jennifer Williams, an aide to US Vice President Mike Pence - raised concerns about requests made by Mr Trump in a July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is at the heart of the impeachment investigation threatening Mr Trump’s presidency.

During the call, Mr Trump asked Mr Zelenskiy to carry out two investigations that would benefit him politically including one targeting Democratic political rival Joe Biden. The other involved a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Mr Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election.

“It was inappropriate, it was improper 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,” Mr Vindman told the committee.

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Trump slams impeachment hearings
Trump slams impeachment hearings

Mr Vindman and Williams both were among the US officials who listened in during the call.

“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 Ukrainian policy could play out was playing out, how this was likely to have significant implications for US national security,” Mr Vindman said.

Mr Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union four decades ago when he was 3 years old and settled in the United States, told lawmakers that “character attacks” against public servants testifying in the impeachment inquiry were “reprehensible.”

Even as he was testifying, the White House’s official Twitter account attacked his judgment - even though he is a current White House official, and the president’s son, Donald Mr Trump Jr., assailed him in a separate Twitter post as “a low-level partisan bureaucrat and nothing more.”

Mr Vindman, a US citizen born in Ukraine, was asked by a Republican lawyer at the hearing whether he would consider becoming part of the Ukrainian government - an offer that made by a Mr Zelenskiy adviser. Mr Vindman responded that he is an American and would not consider such an offer, calling it “comical.”

Republican Representative Jim Jordan told Mr Vindman that his White House bosses had questioned his judgment, but Mr Vindman read from a July employee evaluation that called him “brilliant” and said he exercises “excellent judgment.”

Mr Jordan, one of Mr Trump’s most vociferous defenders, attacked the motives of Democrats and said, “They’ve been out to get the president from the day he was elected.”

Mr Trump has attacked both Williams and Mr Vindman on Twitter as “Never Trump” witnesses, a term he uses to describe Republicans who oppose him. Some of Mr Trump’s allies in the conservative media have questioned Mr Vindman’s loyalty to the United States.

Asked by Democratic Representative Jim Himes if he would call himself a “Never Trumper,” Mr Vindman responded, “I’d call myself never partisan.” Williams said she would not consider herself a “never Trumper” and was surprised that Mr Trump blasted her on Twitter. Mr Himes said Mr Trump’s Twitter attack on Ms Williams looks like “witness intimidation and tampering.”

The investigation could lead the House to approve formal charges against Mr Trump - called articles of impeachment - that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office. Few Republican senators have broken with Mr Trump.

Ahead of the July call, Mr Trump had frozen $391 million in US security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. Mr Trump was seeking a Ukrainian investigation of Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Mr Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and Biden’s son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm called Burisma.

Mr Trump has denied wrongdoing and attacked the Democrats leading the inquiry.

'Domestic political matter'

Williams told the committee that Mr Trump’s call with Mr Zelenskiy was unusual and inappropriate 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 $391 million in security aid to Ukraine be put on hold and that she never learned why the assistance was later released in September.

Mr Vindman said he discussed Mr Trump’s July call with two people outside the White House, State Department official George Kent and a person in the intelligence community who he declined to identify. Mr Vindman said both had the proper clearances and a “need to know” because they were involved in Ukraine policy.

 

Representative Adam 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, left, talks with ranking member Devin Nunes, right.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, left, talks with ranking member Devin Nunes, right.
AAP
the committee’s Democratic chairman, noted Mr Trump’s criticism of Williams and of Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine who testified in the impeachment inquiry on Friday. Schiff also noted the “scurrilous attacks” on Mr Vindman’s character.

At one point, Mr Schiff interrupted Mr Nunes’ questioning of Mr Vindman that appeared to be aimed at revealing the identity of the intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint about Mr Trump’s July 25 call triggered the impeachment inquiry. The whistleblower’s identity has remained a secret, but Mr Trump and his allies have repeatedly attacked the individual.

“These proceedings will not be used to out the whistleblower,” Mr Schiff said.

Two other witnesses were scheduled to testify later on Tuesday: Kurt Volker, the former US special envoy to Ukraine, and former National Security Council Russia expert Tim Morrison.

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