UPDATE, 2:47 PM PT: As two new witnesses testified in the impeachment inquiry, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, claimed that the ratings for the hearings were “way down, way down.”
Nunes was at the start of his questioning of Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, a National Security Council official, when he announced that he had some “bad news.” Then he referenced the ratings.
In fact, the ratings for the first day of public testimony, last Wednesday, drew 13.8 million then dropped to 12.7 million, according to Nielsen.
That’s a fall — but maybe not a free fall. The broadcast networks said they are planning impeachment coverage this week, breaking into regular programming. But they cut away from the hearings later in the afternoon. Cable news networks continued to cover the hearing along with C SPAN.
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But it was an interesting comment for Nunes to make, just as he was about to query witnesses. President Donald Trump gives great currency to TV ratings as a measurement of success — or to use low ratings to dismiss critics. If the numbers for Tuesday hearings drop again, it isn’t too much of an assumption that Trump would point to the audience as proof of disinterest.
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Nunes has blasted the hearings, calling the process “out of control.”
“The deeper the hole you dig, the more viewers will turn off, because people are just not buying the drug deal that you guys are trying to sell,” Nunes said.
Volker and Morrison were witnesses called by Republicans. But Volker undercut one of the ongoing talking points among some Republicans and Trump himself — that Joe Biden needed to be investigated for his actions while he was vice president and his son was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. Volker said that he told Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, that the allegations against Biden were “not credible.”
“I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years. He is an honorable man and I hold him in the highest regard,” he said.
PREVIOUSLY, 10:07 AM PT: As Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was being grilled by the House Intelligence Committee during their impeachment inquiry, the White House sent out a tweet about his judgment.
“Tim Morrison, Alexander Vindman’s former boss, testified in his deposition that he had concerns about Vindman’s judgment,” the message read.
Vindman was questioned about his judgment during the hearing, but he defended his performance, citing a stellar review.
Vindman is still a member of the National Security Council. Morrison was the top presidential adviser on Russia and Europe on the NSC until his resignation in October. He is testifying on Tuesday afternoon.
On Friday, Trump tweeted out an attack on another witness, former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, as she testified. Democrats immediately seized on his tweet as an effort at witness intimidation.
The tweet about Vindman followed questions that Republicans raised about his judgment and his motives. One lawmaker noted that Vindman wore his uniform to the hearing but not to his job at the White House.
Trump told reporters on Tuesday that he doesn’t know Vindman, but “I never saw the man. I understand now he wears his uniform when he goes in. No, I don’t know Vindman at all.”
Vindman and another witness, Jennifer Williams, special adviser on Europe and Russia for Vice President Mike Pence, each testified that they heard Trump’s July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine.
Dan Scavino, assistant to the president and director of social media at the White House, also tweeted about another aspect of the hearing. That was when the Republican counsel for the intelligence committee, Stephen Castor, asked Vindman about being offered the post of Ukrainian defense minister. Democrats said that Castor was engaging in a form of innuendo to cast doubt on Vindman’s loyalty.
PREVIOUSLY, 7:38 AM PT: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified on the third day of hearings in the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry that he found it “improper” that President Donald Trump requested that the Ukrainian president investigate the Bidens in the July 25 phone call.
But one of the more compelling moments thus far of Vindman’s appearance before the House Intelligence Committee came in his opening statement, when he talked of his father’s decision to move the family from the former Soviet Union to the United States some 40 years ago.
Reading from a prepared statement, Vindman addressed his late father. “Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family.”
Then, he said, “Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Dressed in his Army uniform, Vindman, the lead expert on Ukraine on the National Security Council, was a contrast to the State Department veterans who have testified so far.
A recipient of a Purple Heart, he poses a challenge to Republicans who are trying to undermine the testimony as second or third hand. Vindman was a witness to the July 25 call, unlike the whistleblower. Also testifying on Tuesday was Jennifer Williams, special advisor for Europe and Russia for Vice President Mike Pence, who testified that she too, heard the call, and found the request for an investigation “unusual” for discussing a “domestic political matter.”
The risk for the Republicans is in attacking someone some regard as a military hero. Already, when Vindman testified behind closed doors, Trump called him a “never Trumper,” and some commentators on the right have questioned Vindman loyalty, to some backlash. In his opening statement, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) warned about attacks on Vindman’s character, and cited comments made by unnamed Fox News personalities.
Vindman didn’t address character attacks on him — but on his colleagues who also are testifying.
“I want to state that the vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible,” Vindman said.
The ranking member of the committee, Devin Nunes (R-CA), did not make reference to Vindman or Williams — but aimed his fire at the media.
“If you watched the impeachment hearings last week, you may have noticed a disconnect between what you actually saw and the mainstream media accounts describing it,” Nunes said.
Calling them the Democrats’ “puppets,” Nunes claimed that reporters were engaging in the “same preposterous reporting that the media offered for three years on the Russia hoax.” But he singled out for praise the reporting of John Solomon, who wrote about the Bidens and Burisma for The Hill, and Ken Vogel, who has written about their Ukrainian activities for The New York Times.
When Nunes questioned Vindman, he grilled him on whether he ever leaked details of the July 25 call to the media or knew someone who leaked it. Then, Schiff cut him off as Nunes began to ask Vindman about the whistleblower, to groans from other Republicans.
“These proceedings will not be used to out the whistleblower,” Schiff said.
In answering the questions, Vindman at times spoke slowly and chose his words carefully and succinctly. But he didn’t shy away from reminding Nunes of his rank, as when the congressman referred to him as “Mr. Vindman.”
“Ranking member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” he said.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) did question Vindman’s judgment, raising statements made by his boss and former boss. But Vindman quoted from a performance review — indicating that he had prepared for such questions.
While Republicans didn’t overtly attack Vindman’s loyalties, Democrats complained that they hinted at it. Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) blasted the GOP committee counsel, Stephen Castor, for asking Vindman about an offer he received to serve as Ukraine’s defense minister. Himes suggested that it was a way of triggering conspiracy theories.
“That may have come cloaked in a Brooks Brothers suit and parliamentary language, but that was designed exclusively to get the right wing media an opening to question your loyalty,” Himes told Vindman.
Even though much of what Vindman said in his closed door testimony already has been reported, he did shed some new light on Trump’s calls with the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Vindman said that he had prepared talking points for Trump for an initial call that he had with Zelensky in April. The talking points included mention of Ukrainian corruption, but Trump did not bring that up on the call, according to transcript notes the White House released last week. That’s significant because one of Trump’s defenses has been that he was concerned about Ukrainian corruption in his call for an investigation of the Bidens, yet he did not raise the issue in the call.
He and Williams did give pro-Trump Republicans some fuel as they claim that Trump was entirely justified in trying to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. They both agreed that Hunter Biden’s position on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma had the potential appearance of a conflict of interest.
Democrats, though, are likely to focus on Vindman’s overall impression of the July 25, as it goes to the heart of their claim that Trump abused the power of his office.
“It is improper for the president of the U.S. to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent,” Vindman said, adding that he reported his concerns “out of a sense of duty.” He also denied that he was a “never Trumper.”
“I’d call myself a never partisan,” he said.
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