The Memo: GOP plays risky game with attacks on Vindman

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE and his allies sought to cast doubt on the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanImpeachment sets up Ukrainian Americans for 2020 political role Director of National Intelligence Maguire should stand for the whistleblower Adam Schiff's star rises with impeachment hearings MORE on Tuesday, but it was a high-risk strategy that seemed to backfire.

Trump himself downplayed Vindman’s importance, despite the fact that he serves as the director for European Affairs on the National Security Council (NSC).

“I don’t know him,” Trump told reporters at a White House Cabinet meeting. “I never saw the man.”

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Vindman was on the president’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however. So too was Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Pence who testified alongside Vindman.

Trump emphasized that Vindman was wearing his uniform to the hearing, echoing an attack from the right that suggested the NSC official was doing so to bolster his credibility.

“I understand now he wears his uniform when [he] goes in,” Trump said.

In fact, it is standard practice for members of the military to wear their uniform when appearing on Capitol Hill.

In the hearing room itself, some Republicans suggested that Vindman may have been distrusted by his bosses or that the army officer, born in what was then the Soviet Union, could have divided loyalties.

But those attacks were turned back, either by Vindman himself or by Democrats.

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When Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTrump, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ohio) asserted that Vindman’s former boss, Fiona Hill, had “concerns about your judgment,” the army officer responded by reading a work evaluation from Hill, in which she described him as “brilliant” and “unflappable.” 

She also called him “the best Army officer I have worked with in my 15 years of government service.”

GOP counsel Stephen Castor spent some time quizzing Vindman about a bizarre offer he had received during a meeting in Ukraine to become that nation’s minister of defense.

Vindman responded that the suggestion was “rather comical,” that he did not entertain it and that he had reported it to superiors.

Later, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) came to Vindman’s defense on this point, complaining about “a lot of insinuations … that your service is somehow not to be trusted.”

Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesPelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers This week: Impeachment inquiry moves to Judiciary Committee Juan Williams: Trump has nothing left but smears MORE (D-Conn.) lashed out at the insinuation of dual loyalty by complaining that it was “the kind of thing you say when you are defending the indefensible.”

Overall, Vindman and Williams turned up the heat on Trump a notch or two as the impeachment inquiry intensifies.

Vindman noted that he immediately believed the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky to have been “improper” — so much so that he immediately reported it to counsel.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he said at one point.

Williams said the call was “unusual” because of Trump’s raising of a “domestic political matter” — a reference to Trump’s requests for Ukrainian investigations of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: Buttigieg 'doesn't have significant black support even in his own city' Biden: 'I'd add' Warren to my list of potential VP picks How can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? MORE and his son Hunter Biden, as well as a conspiracy theory pertaining to the unfounded allegation that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

Vindman also asserted that no one within the national security apparatus believed that congressionally mandated aid to Ukraine should be delayed — a claim that fuels suspicions that the hold-up stemmed from a political motive on Trump’s part.

Vindman and Williams’s appearances came on the first of three days of testimony scheduled for this week, as Democrats ramp up their efforts to impeach the president. On Wednesday, Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandSchiff: Impeachment testimony shows Trump 'doesn't give a shit' about what's good for the country The Memo: Will impeachment hurt Democrats or Trump? Trump vs. 130 years of civil service MORE, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union — and a central figure in the Ukraine-related efforts — will testify.

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Several recent polls have shown support for the impeachment inquiry itself, while the public is more evenly divided on the question of whether Trump should be removed from office.

A Monmouth University poll at the beginning of this month indicated that 51 percent of respondents considered the inquiry to be a good idea, while 44 percent considered it a bad idea.

Those figures were exactly reversed on the question of Trump’s potential removal from office, which was opposed by 51 percent and favored by 44 percent.

It was not clear that anything said on Tuesday was sufficiently dramatic to shift those numbers one way or another.

But Vindman’s sober-minded testimony was a net benefit to Democrats.

So, too, were the emotional high points of his testimony.

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In his opening statement, he addressed his father, saying “Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”

Soon afterward, Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesNunes: 'Sickening' that Schiff obtained his phone records Trump's exceptionalism: No president has so disrespected our exceptional institutions Schiff: Blowback to obtaining phone records 'has only come from the far right' MORE (R-Calif.) an ardent Trump defender, referred to the witness as “Mr. Vindman.”

“Ranking member, it’s Lt. Col. Vindman, please,” Vindman replied.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.