US officials express their concern as Donald Trump exacts retribution against former and current American personnel who dared to testify in his impeachment hearings.
On Friday, Trump ordered security guards to evict the National Security Council’s Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Iraq War veteran from his office and escort him out of the White House. US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a former Trump ally involved in the Trump pressure campaign against Ukraine, was recalled.
Fernando Cutz, a senior aide to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster before both were pushed out in 2018, summarized:
Every career official will tell you it’s not just chilling but frightening.
You’re seeing things happen in an unprecedented way that even [Richard] Nixon didn’t do….The broader message to career officials is that you can’t speak up. Even if you see something illegal, something unethical, you can’t speak up. That’s the message the president wants to send.
Vindman, the NSC’s specialist on Ukraine, and Sondland were among 17 current and former US officials who refused to accept Trump’s order to defy Congressional subpoenas. Both spoke before the House Intelligence Committee in the autumn about the 10-month campaign by Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani for Ukraine’s investigations to tarnish Presidential candidate Joe Biden and cover up Russia’s involvement in the 2016 US election.
Vindman spoke of the threat to US national security, having listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy which sought the investigations. Sondland, who gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration campaign and was then named envoy to the EU, spoke of the extent of a campaign directed by Trump: “We followed the President’s orders.”
Trump supporters responded by questioning the loyalty of Vindman, who was born in Kyiv, to the US and by dismissing Sondland as unimportant.
In the weeks before Friday’s firings, Alexander Vindman had been sidelined in NSC discussions, Katz said. White House officials instructed NSC staff to bypass Yevgeny Vindman on ethics matters.
Trump spent Friday in a Twitter assault against Vindman, retweeting a series of messages insulting the veteran and repeating the charge of disloyalty.
Yesterday, angered at TV coverage, Trump blatantly lied about Vindman in a tweet: “He was very insubordinate, reported contents of my “perfect” calls incorrectly, & was given a horrendous report by his superior, the man he reported to, who publicly stated that Vindman had problems with judgement, adhering to the chain of command and leaking information.”
Trump also ordered the dismissal of Vindman’s twin brother Yevgeny, an ethics lawyer at the NSC.
Alexander Vindman’s lawyer David Pressman noted on Friday that his client was punished for refusing the White House order not to comply with the House subpoena — an order that eventually led to the impeachment charge of obstruction of Congress.
And for that, the most powerful man in the world — buoyed by the silent, the pliable and the complicit — has decided to exact revenge.
A lawyer for another witness in the hearings said, “You look around and you see the adverse actions taken against people who testified under subpoena and it creates a real air of uncertainty.”
Pushing Back v. Trump?
But in a sign of a pushback against Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said both Vindmans will be welcomed back into military service: “We protect all of our persons, service members, from retribution or anything like that.”
Alexander Vindman’s lawyer Michael Volkov noted that the colonel wil be in “a good spot” at the Pentagon before moving to the Army War College on Julky 1.
“Clearly the Army is not participating in the president’s desire to retaliate,” he said.
However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has refused to publicly back officials who have been attacked by Trump. Questioned last month about US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch — the target of a Trump-Giuliani disinformation campaign and removed from her post in late April — Pompeo cursed National Public Radio’s Mary Louise Kelly, tried to humiliate her, and later lied about their encounter in an official statement.
Trump Overruled GOP Senators on Sondland
Several GOP senators, having protected Trump in his impeachment trial, tried to stop the firing of Sondland; however, their appeal was rejected.
“People briefed on the discussions” said the senators believed it would look bad if Trump carried out the revenge. They said the step was unnecessary, as the hotelier was already planning to leave his post.
Among the Senators was Susan Collins, who said it was not necessary to convict Trump because he would “learn a lesson” from impeachment. Sens. Thom Tillis, Martha McSally, and Ron Johnson also pled for Sondland, a donor to Tillis and other GOP senators.
Collins back-pedaled on Saturday after being rebuffed by Trump:
The lesson that I hoped the president had learned was that he should not enlist the help of a foreign government in investigating a political rival.
It had absolutely nothing to do with whether or not he should fire people who testified in a way that he perceived as harmful to him.
The senators did not defend Col. Vindman.
Others who testified in the hearings have been able to depart the Administration or move quietly within it before incurring Trump’s retribution.
Yovanovitch has left the Foreign Service. Ambassador William Taylor, who succeeded her in Ukraine, has returned ot the US. Jennifer Williams, a career official working for Vice President Mike Pence, asked to return early to the Defense Department.