Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman also testified on Tuesday that the National Security Council staffer, Kash Patel, fed the president disinformation about Ukraine.
The decorated Army officer who testified to House investigators on Tuesday told lawmakers that a close associate of Republican Rep. Devin Nunes “misrepresented” himself to President Donald Trump in an effort to involve himself further in Ukraine policy, according to two people familiar with his closed-door deposition.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, told lawmakers that after attending Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration in May as part of a delegation led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Vindman had been looking forward to debriefing Trump and giving a positive account of Zelensky’s vision for Ukraine’s future.
“The U.S. government policy community’s view is that the election of Zelenskyy and the promise of reforms to eliminate corruption will lock in Ukraine’s Western-leaning trajectory, and allow Ukraine to realize its dream of a vibrant democracy and economic prosperity,” Vindman said in his opening statement.
But he was instructed “at the last second” not to attend the debriefing, Vindman told lawmakers, because Trump’s advisers worried it might confuse the president: Trump believed at the time that Kashyap Patel, a longtime Nunes staffer who joined the White House in February and had no discernible Ukraine experience or expertise, was actually the NSC’s top Ukraine expert instead of Vindman.
Vindman testified that he was told this directly by his boss at the time, NSC senior director for European and Russian affairs Fiona Hill.
Hill told Vindman that she and national security adviser John Bolton thought it best to exclude Vindman from the debriefing to avoid “an uncomfortable situation,” he said.
POLITICO previously reported that Hill testified that Trump thought Patel was in charge of Ukraine policy for the NSC, but Vindman’s exclusion from a key Ukraine meeting because of concerns over a potential conflict with Trump has not been disclosed before.
It helps explain why the president tweeted on Tuesday that he’d never met Vindman despite his clear interest in Ukraine — senior officials have said that Trump directed them to consult with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on matters of Ukraine policy.
And Vindman’s exclusion sheds even more light on the unusual steps top NSC officials were taking as early as May to avoid angering or annoying Trump on Ukraine issues — and the unusual level of access Patel had to the president.
Vindman also testified that he was told Patel had been circumventing normal NSC process to get negative material about Ukraine in front of the president, feeding Trump’s belief that Ukraine was brimming with corruption and had interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats.
That upset Vindman, along with Hill and Bolton, he testified, because they were constantly having to counter that narrative with the president.
It’s still not clear what materials Patel was giving Trump, or where he was getting them. But he was not interacting with Ukraine experts at the State Department and Pentagon on the issue, and never had a conversation with Vindman, the NSC’s director for Ukraine, about Ukraine — or about anything for that matter, Vindman testified.
Patel joined the National Security Council’s International Organizations and Alliances directorate in February and was promoted to a senior counterterrorism role around the same time as Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, in which he urged the newly elected leader to investigate Biden and “get to the bottom of” Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Patel had previously served as Nunes’ top staffer on the House Intelligence Committee and worked to discredit the FBI and DOJ officials investigating Russia’s election interference.
For that reason, Vindman was careful to not overtly criticize Patel so as not to anger Nunes — the ranking member of the intelligence panel — who floated in and out of the 10-hour deposition, according to a person familiar with his testimony.
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