Multiple government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address personnel matters, have voiced concern, however, that the White House could strike Vindman’s name once it is conveyed, effectively sanctioning him for testimony he gave under subpoena to House lawmakers.
A senior official said the White House has not received or approved a list of those who are up for promotions. A second official said that Trump dislikes Vindman more than any other witness in the impeachment proceeding and noted that he was the first one fired from the White House when it ended.
“The president said it was a ‘total disgrace’ what he did,” the official said.
The second official said they didn’t know what Trump would do but couldn’t imagine that he would support Vindman’s promotion.
The uncertainty surrounding Vindman’s promotion comes at a sensitive moment for Pentagon leaders as they seek to move past a major crisis in civil-military relations caused by the participation of armed forces in the response to recent civil unrest and the perception that top Defense Department officials were inappropriately involved in one of the most politically and racially charged episodes in recent U.S. history.
While the fate of an officer at Vindman’s grade wouldn’t usually draw the scrutiny of senior White House officials, decisions about his military career path have taken on political overtones since he emerged as a key figure in the impeachment drama.
In his role as the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, Vindman listened to a phone call in July between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the call, Trump asked the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. Vindman told House investigators that he was alarmed by the call and that Trump appeared to condition military aid to Ukraine on the investigation.
Vindman’s testimony, which was corroborated by other officials as well as a partial transcript of the call released by the White House, became crucial firsthand evidence in Trump’s trial in the Senate, where he was acquitted.
In February, Trump removed Vindman from his post at the NSC, in what many officials saw as retribution for his testimony. Vindman, a decorated combat veteran, was escorted out of the White House. At the same time, Trump ordered the ousting of Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, a chief ethics lawyer at the NSC who did not testify in the impeachment probe.
The president has also attacked Vindman personally and questioned his credibility.
Vindman “was very insubordinate, reported contents of my ‘perfect’ calls incorrectly, & was given a horrendous report by his superior,” Trump tweeted after the officer’s removal. “In other words, ‘OUT.’ ”
One U.S. official said that finalization of the Army promotion roster had been held up longer than originally anticipated by a number of factors including the coronavirus crisis and concerns that the White House might remove Vindman’s name from the list.
And several officers up for promotion have said that they anticipated that the final list would have been approved by now and that it was being held up over Vindman and the potential reaction from the president that Vindman’s ascension might trigger.
But a senior defense official said there had been “zero delay” and said speculation about “the causes of a nonexistent delay are fabricated and incorrect.”
Separately, Pentagon spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence said in a statement that the department follows “applicable laws and regulations with regard to developing and reviewing officer promotion lists and submitting them to the White House and the Senate. This list and any names on it have been and will be treated as is customary.”
She declined to comment on Vindman specifically.
Vindman’s attorney, David Pressman, said if the list was delayed it would have professional consequences for other lieutenant colonels who the Army has approved for a step up in rank.
“For his lifetime of service and his commitment to the rule of law, Lt. Col. Vindman has been targeted by the President and his proxies in an effort to humiliate and intimidate,” Pressman, a partner at Jenner & Block, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
“Unsatisfied by the results of their campaign of intimidation, the White House has also sought to retaliate. This campaign of intimidation and retaliation has led a decorated soldier to be marched out of the White House, his family threatened, and now a coordinated effort to forever limit his ability to continue to serve our country,” he said.
After his abrupt dismissal from his White House position in February, Vindman was assigned to Fort Belvoir outside Washington, where he is working on defense policy.
If Vindman’s promotion were blocked over his involvement in the impeachment, many in the military would be likely to see it as another troubling sign at a moment of soul-searching for officers across the services after the events of recent weeks.
Trump’s desire to use active-duty military forces against protesters decrying the death in police custody of George Floyd late last month prompted clashes with Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who later spoke out publicly against that move.
But both Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, received a torrent of criticism from retired senior military officials over their role in those events and for appearing alongside Trump as he toured an area near the White House from which protesters had minutes before been forcibly cleared by security forces.
Milley later apologized for appearing with the president in Lafayette Square.
Those events compounded the strains caused by Trump’s repeated flouting of norms that have traditionally guided presidential interactions with the military, including his interventions in military justice cases and his use of the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, during his first days in office, to sign a divisive ban on U.S. entry by citizens of several majority-Muslim nations.
While proposed promotions can be stalled even at their final stages for a number of reasons, including investigations or disciplinary actions, it would be unusual for an officer’s promotion to be derailed for this kind of reason.
Esper and other senior Pentagon officials have stated repeatedly that there would be no retribution against Vindman or any other service member. The officer’s situation has drawn attention on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y). have sought assurances that he will suffer no retaliation.
Several days before the ousting of Vindman from the White House and the recalling of diplomat Gordon Sondland from his position as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, both seen as acts of retribution, the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Trump of impeachment charges.
Trump suggested that the Army might investigate Vindman, but Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy later said Vindman would not face a probe or disciplinary action. Vindman has been expected to spend the coming year at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.