A key witness in the impeachment hearing against US President Donald Trump said on Friday that he had been offered the post of Ukrainian Defence Minister.
National Security Council official Lt Col Alexander Vindman said while being questioned during his testimony that Oleksandr Danyliuk, an influential Ukrainian politician, had made the offer.
At that time Danyliuk was close to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but subsequently had a falling out and was ousted as Finance Minister.
Vindman was born in Ukraine and his family fled to the US when he was a child.
He and another official, who had officially listened on the contentious call between Trump and Zelensky, testified that they were concerned about the request he made to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son with regard to their involvement in a Ukrainian business.
Vindman said that Trump’s request was “improper” and could affect bipartisan support for that country leading to undermining “national security, and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region.”
“It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a US citizen and political opponent,” he said.
He also said that when he met Zelensky, he advised him to stay out of US domestic politics.
Vice President Mike Pence’s foreign policy staffer Jennifer Williams said that she found the request to Zelensky for the investigations as political.
A dramatic moment came when House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff was preparing to question Williams about a call between Trump and Zelensky on September 18. A lawyer said Pence had declared it classified which could not be discussed in a public hearing.
The impeachment case centres around Biden’s son Hunter becoming a director of the Ukraine gas company Burisma and receiving $83,000 a month from it, and the Vice President’s successful effort to have a prosecutor looking into the company removed.
Hunter, who was allegedly removed from the Navy for drug use, had no expertise in energy or Ukraine when he was appointed.
The Republicans want Hunter Biden to testify at the impeachment hearing, but the Democrats, who control the House, have blocked it.
The Republican leader on the Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, tried to put the focus on Hunter Biden by asking several leading questions to the two officials about his activities and Burisma’s corruption.
They asserted that they had no direct knowledge of the matters involving the Bidens, but the issue got a public hearing on national television and got on the record.
Another matter that Trump wanted to be investigated was if Ukraine was involved in leaking embarrassing Democratic Party emails during the 2016 elections, rather than Russia.
Schiff in his questioning of the witnesses emphasised that the US Intelligence Committee’s conclusion was that it was only Russia, and that Moscow was trying to shift the responsibility to Kyiv.
Vindman agreed that it was Russia and not Ukraine that was involved in the leaks.
Schiff also brought up the withholding of $1 billion in aid to Ukraine — which was subsequently released.
He said that releasing the aid was made conditional on Ukraine launching the probe — a point Democrats had made linking it to accusations of bribery against Trump.
The witnesses were non-committal on this aspect.
In his opening statement, Schiff said, “To press a foreign leader to announce an investigation into his political rival, President Trump put his own personal and political interests above those of the nation. He undermined our military and diplomatic support for a key ally, and undercut US anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine.”
Nunes began with a scorching criticism of the mainstream media accusing it of being “puppets” of the Democratic Party.
After highlighting accusations since discredited about Trump’s campaign involvement with Russia during the 2016 elections as “hoax”, he said the mainstream media outlets are now playing up the impeachment hearings and the Ukraine factor.
Schiff has blocked the Republican request to call the anonymous whistleblower, who had set off the impeachment probe by complaining that from what he had heard about the July 25 call that an improper request had been made .
Nunes asked a series of questions about Vindman’s contacts with a member of the intelligence community regarding the call.
Vindman refused to answer it, and the refusal was upheld by Schiff.
Earlier in a tweet, Trump had hinted that Williams was a “Never Trumper,” one of those vehemently opposed to this his election.
His tweet said, “Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls, & see the just released statement from Ukraine. Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!”
Last month, Trump had also called Vindman a “Never Trumper”. He had tweeted, “Was he on the same call that I was? Can’t be possible! Please ask him to read the Transcript of the call. Witch Hunt!”
Schiff reiterated at the start of the hearing that the committee would protect witnesses against reprisals and cautioned against threatening them.