Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer at the National Security Council, kicked off the third public hearing in House Democrats' impeachment inquiry by testifying that it was his "duty" to report concerns over what he called an improper "demand" by President Donald Trump during a July phone call with Ukraine's new president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
Vindman appeared alongside Jennifer Williams, his counterpart in Vice President Mike Pence’s office. Both were among the officials who listened in to the July 25 call when Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a "favor."
In his testimony Tuesday, Vindman championed fellow civil servants now enmeshed in the inquiry and called out "vile character attacks" against them. Yet in a theme he would return to, Vindman pointedly spoke of America as a place where those who speak their mind can still live free from fear of threats to their safety, using his family story as an example.
U.S. & World
News from around the country and around the globe
"Next month will mark 40 years since my family arrived in the United States as refugees," said Vindman, an immigrant awarded a Purple Heart for combat wounds in Iraq who became the top White House expert on Ukraine. "When my father was 47 years old he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States so that his three sons could have better, safer lives."
Vindman said that his "simple act" of testifying would not be tolerated in "many places" elsewhere in the world, Russia in particular.
"In Russia, my act of expressing my concerns to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions, and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life," he said.
He ended his opening statement with a message directed to his father. Vindman said that his appearance 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," he said.
Vindman would be asked to explain those comments about his father toward the end of Tuesday's hearing -- after having weathered questions about his own judgment and loyalty.
"You realize when you came forward out of sense of duty, you knew you were putting yourself in direct opposition to the most powerful person in the world?" said Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y.
"I knew I was assuming a lot of risk," Vindman said.
Asked by Maloney why he felt comfortable coming forward, Vindman said, "Congressman, because this is America. This is the country I have served and defended. That all of my brothers have served and, here, right matters."
The moment led to applause in the hearing room -- the second time this has happened since ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified on Friday.
Here were other top moments from Tuesday's hearing.
Republican Counsel Appears to Question Vindman's Loyalty
Earlier in the hearing the Republicans' lead counsel, Steve Castor, asked Vindman about the former head of Ukraine's national security agency offering him the role of the nation's defense minister during Zelenskiy's inauguration.
Vindman said he rejected the offer from Oleksandr Danylyuk three times and "notified my chain of command and the appropriate counterintelligence folks" about it upon returning to the U.S.
Castor pressed Vindman on whether he “left the door open” to potentially accepting the offer in the future, saying, "that was a big honor, correct?"
Vindman said it would be an honor and he's aware of other former servicemembers who have left their roles to work in developing democracies.
But Vindman repeated, "I'm an American. I came here when I was a toddler and I immediately dismissed these offers."
"The whole notion was rather comical," he added when pressed again.
Afterward Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., criticized a Fox News host who suggested that because of Vindman's family background, "he tends to feel simpatico with Ukraine."
"It appears that your immigrant heritage is being used against you," Krishnamoorthi said.
Description of President Trump's July Call: 'Concerned,' 'Improper,' 'Unusual,' 'Political'
Both Vindman and Williams were among those who listened in on Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy and previously testified behind closed doors about their concerns.
On Tuesday, Vindman reiterated that "what I heard was improper" and he reported his concerns to National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg.
"It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent," Vindman said. "It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermine U.S. national security, and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region."
Williams testified that her personal view of the call was that it was "unusual," different from the about a dozen of presidential calls she had listened in on before.
The issue was that the call "involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter," she said.
Williams testified that she added an "update" to Pence's daily briefing book indicating the call between Trump and Zelinskiy and a memo of the call was also included. She said she didn't know whether Pence read the update or memo. Pence would go on to meet Zelenskiy in Warsaw on Sept. 1.
Williams said she didn't discuss the call with Pence or anyone else, in part because her supervisor Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg had also listened to the call.
Kellogg said in a statement Tuesday that, "I heard nothing wrong or improper on the call." He called attention to Williams' testimony that she didn't report any concerns.
Vindman Doesn't See Anything 'Nefarious' in Putting Trump-Zelenskiy Call Memo in Highly Classified Server, 'Burisma' Being Omitted
Vindman told the Democrats' counsel Daniel Goldman that the decision to put a memo of Trump's July call on a highly classified server was made "on the fly" by NSC lawyers and was intended to prevent leaks and limit access to a "sensitive transcript."
"I didn't take it as anything nefarious," he said.
Vindman and Williams both testified they remembered Ukraine's president specifically using the word "Burisma" during the call, though that word was left out of the call memo ultimately released to the public in which the company was simply referred to as "the company." Vindman had also noted another omission: "there are recordings.”
Vindman again downplayed that action as possibly occurring in bad faith.
"I'd say it's informed speculation that the folks that produce these transcripts do the best they can and they just didn't catch the word," Vindman said, explaining that it was his duty to put that word back into his edit for the call.
"These are administrative errors," he explained, again describing the omission as not nefarious. "These might be meaningful, but it's not that big a deal."
Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., noted that Vindman had testified in his earlier deposition that the name Burisma would suggest that Zelenskiy had been prepped for the call to expect the issue to come up.
"It seemed to me he was either tracking this issue because it was reported in the press or he was otherwise prepped," Vindman said.
"Ranking Member -- It's Lt. Col Vindman, Please"
Ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., prompted a quick retort from Vindman during a line of questioning about the whistleblower who sparked the events that have led to the inquiry when Nunes addressed the witness as "Mr. Vindman."
"Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistleblower," Nunes said.
"Ranking member, it's Lt. Col. Vindman, please," the witness shot back.
Asked later by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, why he corrected Nunes and wanted to be called “Lt. Col.,” Vindman said “the attacks that I’ve had in the press, and Twitter” had seemed to be attempting to marginalize him as a military officer. Vindman then acknowledged, as Stewart said, that Nunes meant no disrespect in that instance.
Moments before the exchange Vindman had testified that his "core function is to coordinate U.S. government policy, interagency policy" and he had spoken to government officials about Trump's July call "with appropriate need to know" that included State Department official George Kent and "an individual in the intelligence community."
"As you know the intelligence has 17 different agencies -- what agency was this individual from?" Nunes said.
Rep. Schiff interrupted, saying, "we need to protect the whistleblower."
Pressed on the issue, Vindman said he was advised by counsel not to provide specifics on who in the intelligence community he had spoken to.
"You can either answer the question or you can plead the fifth," Nunes said.
That prompted Vindman's lawyer to intervene, calling for a ruling from the chairman, and Schiff put an end to the exchange.
Vindman Confronts Criticism of His Judgment By Former Boss
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, asked Vindman to respond to comments about his judgment by his former bosses and concerns by colleagues that he had leaked information before.
During previous closed-door testimony, Vindman's then-supervisor at the NSC, Tim Morrison, had said that during predecessor Fiona Hill's transition, "Fiona and others had raised concerns about Alex's judgment."
"I had concerns that he did not exercise appropriate judgment as to whom he would say what," said Morrison, who announced his own resignation shortly before testifying.
Vindman responded by reading what he said was his own last evaluation by Hill from July.
The document called Vindman a "top 1% military officer and the best Army officer I ever worked with in my 15 years of military service. He is brilliant, unflappable and exercises excellent judgment."
Of Morrison, Vindman said they had only recently started working together and were trying to "figure out our relationship."
Vindman said he never leaked information and it was "preposterous" that he would do so.
Morrison was certain to be asked about his assessment of Vindman when he appeared in part two of the committee's public hearing on Tuesday afternoon.