Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
Foreign service officer and aide to the vice president Jennifer Williams testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Nov. 7. Below is a summary of her testimony, as compiled from the transcript of her deposition.
The deposition transcript of Jennifer Williams, a State Department detailee to the Office of the Vice President (OVP), offers a look at Vice President Mike Pence’s interactions with Ukrainian officials. Williams serves in the Vice President’s National Security Affairs Office, where she works as Pence’s special adviser for Europe and Russia. Her testimony sheds new light on a series of meetings between Pence and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as a briefing provided to Pence about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky. Williams also confirmed details relevant to a series of summer interagency meetings about the security assistance to Ukraine.
Williams testified that the vice president first interacted with Zelensky on a congratulatory call to the newly elected Ukrainian president on April 23. Pence’s call came two days after Trump had called Zelensky to congratulate him on his electoral success. After Trump’s call, Williams learned that the president wanted Pence to attend Zelensky’s inauguration. In deciding to call Zelensky on his own, Pence was motivated by what Williams describes as a desire “to establish a good relationship” with the new president. Pence offered congratulatory remarks, and Zelensky invited Trump and Pence to attend his inauguration ceremony in Ukraine. Pence “accepted the invitation from President Zelensky, and looked forward to being able to attend ... if the dates worked out.” In the following weeks, Williams worked with State Department officials to begin organizing the logistics of a vice presidential visit, though at that point no one knew the precise date of Zelensky’s inauguration.
Williams told the committee that Ukraine came up during a May 13 call between Trump, Pence and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Williams was not on the call but received a readout indicating that Orban “had expressed some concerns about Ukraine.” She implied that Orban’s concerns centered around the language rights of a Hungarian minority population in Ukraine.
That same day, Williams received a call from Pence’s chief of staff’s office that informed her that Pence would not be attending Zelensky’s inauguration (Williams does not recall whether this came before or after the Orban call). Williams recalled that her “understanding from [her] colleague” with whom she spoke on the phone “was that the President had asked the Vice President not to attend” the inauguration. She never learned the reason for Trump’s decision. Williams added that when she received notice of the president’s change of position on Pence’s visit, the exact date remained uncertain. For this reason, she implied, it was unlikely that Trump’s decision to cancel Pence’s visit to Ukraine was motivated by scheduling concerns.
Williams noted that she tried to keep Pence abreast of Rudy Giuliani’s activity in Ukraine during the spring of 2019, including “press reporting” on Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s “situation” in Pence’s “regular nightly update.” She also recalled once adding details about Giuliani’s May 28 interview with Ukrainian press to that daily briefing document. Williams also “flagged the press coverage of Mr. Giuliani’s statements about what he wanted to see the Ukrainians do in the context of Ambassador Yovanoitch’s removal” for her superior, Pence’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg.
Also in “late May,” Williams reported getting a readout of a call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin “in which Ukraine had come up.” Williams did not recall the specifics of the readout but remembered that Ukraine “came up in the context of wanting to see a resolution to [Russia’s] ongoing conflict with Ukraine.”
Pence’s staff contemplated having the vice president join Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker on a trip to Toronto from July 2 through 3, in order to meet with Zelensky. Williams testified that Pence’s staff “thought it might [have been] a good opportunity for the Vice President to meet President Zelensky in person since he hadn’t had a chance to at that time or at that point.” Ultimately, scheduling conflicts prevented Pence from making the trip, though Kent and Volker did meet with Zelensky.
On July 3, Williams first learned of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) hold on security assistance aid to Ukraine. She testified that she “saw a written update, electronically, that was drafted by [National Security Council staffer Lt. Col.] Alex Vindman … internally reporting that the State Department had notified him that OMB was not clearing the latest round of congressional notification documents to move the next tranche of security assistance for Ukraine.” Vindman’s message was part of preparation for a nightly update to National Security Adviser John Bolton. Vindman did not include any specific reason offered by OMB for the hold, but Williams recalled that his message indicated the State Department had conveyed a message to the National Security Council (NSC) from OMB that the “review” was to “make sure that the assistance was in line with administration priorities.” Asked whether the notice of the hold “kind of came out of the blue,” Williams replied, “It did.” She did not inform Kellogg or Pence about the hold.
On July 9, Williams, Kellogg and Vindman met with Oleksandr Danylyuk, Zelensky’s national security adviser. Williams characterized the discussion as “very positive” and “focused on the situation with the conflict with Russia[,] … what steps the Zelensky administration was considering in terms of making progress in those negotiations, and, generally speaking, about the US-Ukraine relationship.” Later in her testimony, Williams added that Danylyuk “conveyed quite seriously and emphatically the importance of U.S. security aid to Ukraine, in terms of, again, not just the physical support provided, but the symbolic value of that support.” She noted that Zelensky spoke in similar terms when he met with Pence in late August.
Williams outlined the same sequence of NSC meetings about the aid hold—which Defense Department official Laura Cooper described in significant detail in her testimony. Williams got a readout of a July 18 sub-Policy Coordinating Committee meeting during which “State and [the Defense Department] and other agencies expressed support for lifting that hold as soon as possible.” The readout also indicated that “the reason behind the hold was because OMB was conducting a further review.” Williams explained that during a July 23 Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC) meeting “all the agencies ... [were] expressing their support for lifting the hold.” At the PCC meeting, “the OMB representative conveyed that they had been directed by ... the White House Chief of Staff, to continue holding it until further notice.” Williams acknowledged that officials in the administration understood Trump to be broadly skeptical of foreign aid. She testified that the Department of Defense representatives at the meeting, perhaps seeking to address Trump’s general concerns with foreign aid and return on investment, “made the point that this assistance primarily goes to U.S. defense contracting companies to implement.”
Williams was present for the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky, which she described as “unusual.” According to Williams, Kellogg, Vindman, Tim Morrison and others from the NSC were also present for the call. While she thought that Charles Kupperman, the former deputy national security adviser, was also present, she confessed she was not certain. She reported that the now-public transcript of the call “generally matched [her] recollection from the call” except that her “notes did reflect that the word Burisma had come up in the call, that the President had mentioned Burisma.” During her testimony, Williams explained that, in her notes of the call, she “had written that President Trump had raised Burisma.” But in a letter appended to the end of the deposition, William’s counsel recants this assertion, noting that “Ms. Williams reviewed her notes again and discovered that her recollection had been incorrect. Her notes reflect that President Zelensky mentioned Burisma during the July 25 call. They do not indicate that President Trump did so.”
Williams testified that she found certain aspects of the call to be strangely focused on Trump’s political interests. She felt “specific references” made during the call were “more specific to the President in nature, to his personal political agenda ... as opposed to a broader foreign policy objective of the United States.” Williams found “mention of those specific investigations” to be “unusual as compared to other discussions with foreign leaders,” as she had not hear Trump raise personal political issues on any other call with a foreign head of state. She indicated that Trump’s concern about investigations “is not something the Vice President has ever raised with the Ukrainians.”
After the call, Williams did not communicate her concerns about the “unusual nature of the call” to other administration officials, but she did include a transcript of the call in Pence’s July 25 briefing book along with a “broad overview of the call.” When pressed by counsel, Williams admitted that she was unsure whether Pence actually reviewed the transcript. “I’d like to think that he reads the [briefing] book,” Williams commented, but she didn’t “know if he reads [the briefings] every day.” She added that Pence seems “generally” familiar with the material included in his briefings.
The day after the call, the NSC held a Deputies Committee meeting during which the deputies discussed the aid hold. Williams reported that during the meeting there was a “discussion with all agencies, deputy secretaries expressing support” for the release of the security assistance. According to Williams, OMB indicated “that the hold would continue until further notice.” Williams testified that she briefed Kellogg before the meeting and “[h]e seemed to agree that ... [the] OVP should take the position to also support lifting the freeze.”
Five days later, the Ukraine PCC held another meeting about U.S. policy. During the meeting, “the security assistance freeze was the elephant in the room that we just skipped over” because the issue had yet to be taken up by the NSC principals. Williams reported that representatives from the Department of Defense raised questions about what the “legal recourse” would be to “request a recission of [Ukraine] funds” or to otherwise address the hold “before the end of the fiscal year.” The principals meeting about Ukraine security assistance never occurred, Williams said.
Pence met with Zelensky on Sept. 1 in Warsaw, on the sidelines of a gathering commemorating efforts in World War II. The president had planned to attend the trip instead of Pence, but canceled his trip after Hurricane Dorian made his domestic presence a higher priority. Before the meeting, Williams noted, Pence asked Kellogg to ask the administration about “the status of the security assistance that was at the time still on hold.”
Also around this time, on Aug. 30, two days before Pence’s meeting with Zelensky in Warsaw, Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told Williiams that “there had been a small group discussion, not a formal meeting, I believe involving Dr. Kupperman and Marc Short [and others] … related to the status of Ukraine security assistance.”
Williams explained that there were two main prebriefing meetings in advance of Pence and Zelensky’s sit-down. On the day of the meeting, there was a morning briefing that Williams noted “was more of a general briefing.” Williams testified that she “believe[s]” that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was not originally listed as an attendee but “requested to be added” to the list of participants and ultimately did attend the meeting.
Williams, Bolton, Kellogg, Short and others from the OVP briefed Pence during an additional briefing immediately before Pence’s rendezvous with Zelensky. Bolton highlighted the positive impression he got of Zelensky during meetings with the Ukrainian president, Williams said: “[I]n terms of security assistance … Ambassador Bolton kind of outlined that … what that security assistance was for and … [the meeting participants] agreed on the need to get a final decision on that security assistance as soon as possible so that it could be implemented before the end of the fiscal year.” Williams testified that security assistance was an item of particular concern because of a “Politico story” about the hold that had been published “2 days prior.” Counsel asked Williams if, “[a]t that time, was the general mood that ... the security assistance would be delivered?” Williams replied affirmatively: “Yes.”
During his meeting with Pence, Zelensky expressed concern about the security assistance aid. The meeting included around two dozen people with each side bringing about 12 participants. The U.S. was represented by Pence, Williams, Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Special Assistant to the President Wells Griffith, John Bolton (who left halfway through the meeting to catch a flight home) and other administration officials. After an initial on-camera ceremonial exchange, the conversation turned more serious. “Once the cameras left the room,” Williams reported, “the very first question that President Zelensky had was about the status of security assistance.”
Pence answered by “really expressing our ongoing support for Ukraine” but also expressed that he “want[ed] to hear from President Zelensky ... what the status of his reform efforts were that he could then convey back to the President, and also want[ed] to hear if there was more that European countries could do to support Ukraine.” Williams recalled that Zelensky “agreed” with Pence’s latter concern “in the sense that [she] think[s Zelensky] certainly would welcome more support from all allies and partners.” Zelensky stressed that “any hold or appearance of reconsideration of such assistance might embolden Russia to think that the United States was no longer committed to Ukraine.”
Pence tried to assuage Zelensky’s fears by “assur[ing] President Zelensky that there was no change in U.S. policy in terms of our ... full-throated support for Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Pence also “assured” Zelensky that “he would convey back to President Trump” by “the end of the day” the information “he had heard from Zelensky in terms of Zelensky’s good progress on reforms.” Chairman Adam Schiff asked Williams: Zelensky’s “number one priority was getting the military assistance and … what it would say to the Russians about the U.S. having Ukraine’s back militarily?” Williams replied, “That’s right.” Williams testified that she did not remember whether Zelensky raised his interest in a presidential meeting with Trump during the discussion with Pence.
More than two weeks later, on Sept. 18, Pence had a phone conversation with Zelensky to follow up on their Sept. 1 meeting. Williams explained that “[t]he purpose” of the call “was to follow up on his successful meeting with President Zelensky on Sept. 1, and to reiterate the news that the security assistance hold had been lifted, and that the security assistance would be provided.” The pair also discussed Zelensky’s meeting with Trump at the U.N. General Assembly scheduled for the week following the call. Pence “convey[ed] that ... President Trump was looking forward to meeting President Zelensky in New York the following week.” Pence also told Zelensky that “President Trump would be eager to hear about President Zelensky’s progress in his reform agenda[,] ... [b]roadly, on anticorruption reforms, on reforming the judiciary, and the legislative action that his administration was undertaking.” Williams stressed that during the Sept. 18 call, “there was no discussion of any specific investigations.”