The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alexander Vindman on Trump’s Ukraine call — and the unexpected consequences

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman appears before the House Intelligence Committee during the Trump impeachment inquiry on Nov. 19, 2019. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

On June 25, 1973, former White House counsel John Dean shocked the nation at the Senate Watergate Committee hearings when he revealed the wrongdoing in President Richard Nixon’s White House, ranging from money laundering to coverups. “I began by telling the president,” Dean recounted, “that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.” His testimony accelerated the search for corruption, culminating in Nixon’s resignation.

Would a John Dean even matter in 2021?

This thought ran through my head as I read Alexander Vindman’s “Here, Right Matters: An American Story.” Vindman, a decorated war veteran who served in South Korea, Germany and Iraq (receiving a Purple Heart after being injured by a roadside bomb there), and worked as a foreign area officer specializing in Eurasia and as a specialist for the Joint Chiefs of Staff before joining the National Security Council in 2018, was one of the most compelling figures in the first impeachment of President Donald Trump in 2019 and 2020. In congressional hearings, Vindman testified about a phone call he observed between Trump and the recently elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, that took place on July 25, 2019. Vindman, who prepared the talking points for the president, thought the conversation would reset relations with Ukraine by smoothing over the fact that $400 million in U.S. aid, vital in its war against Russia, had been mysteriously delayed for weeks.

Once the call started, though, Vindman sat in disbelief. The president departed from the script. Just a few days after Joe Biden announced that he was running for president, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate several allegations, including a discredited story about Hunter Biden and his role in the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma. If Ukraine wanted improved relations, Trump made clear, Zelensky had to search for dirt. Trump “demanding an investigation on a call with a foreign head of state,” Vindman writes, “was crossing the brightest of bright lines.”

In this memoir, Vindman comes across as a patriot. He is a son of a Jewish widower named Semyon from Ukraine who left a good job to emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1979. Vindman grew up in Brooklyn along with his twin and older brothers. He graduated from SUNY-Binghamton and worked his way up through the military. Vindman gained a strong appreciation for robust democratic institutions through his father, who had left Eastern Europe “to escape an arbitrary, tyrannical government with a pervasive culture of corruption, reprisal, and falsehood.”

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin started a war to gain control of Ukraine in 2014, Vindman understood the dangers this incursion posed to NATO. Despite the stories in the press, however, he wasn’t worried that Trump would fundamentally disrupt relations between the United States and Ukraine. Indeed, he recalls being pleased about joining the National Security Council under Trump, not expressing the kinds of reservations some veteran officials felt about working for this unconventional president. Notably, Vindman’s father was and remained a devout Trump supporter.

But as soon as Vindman listened to the July 25 phone call, he instantly perceived the impeachable nature of the president’s actions. As he immediately told his twin, Eugene, who was the top ethics official for the National Security Council, “If what I just heard becomes public, the president will be impeached.”

His fears about the possible repercussions for his family didn’t stop him from doing something. Vindman believed that it was his duty to report on the call. He also remained confident that higher-ups would respond appropriately once they learned what Trump had done. Certainly, others would be outraged. Vindman was wrong.

“Here, Right Matters” is not an especially riveting narrative. Vindman moves too quickly through some of the most intriguing parts of his biography and the ways in which service shaped his character. The early chapters focus too much on traditional military stories along with italicized axioms, often drained of the personal elements that made him so compelling when he appeared on the public stage.

There are, however, notable contributions to understanding the scandal. More than most other works, Vindman’s book explains with clarity how far the president departed from U.S. policies toward Russia, including his own administration’s. Vindman’s regional knowledge allows him to unpack the reasons that so many Democrats thought Trump’s phone conversation should be the basis of the nation’s third presidential impeachment. In meticulous fashion, he details the stunning number of high-ranking officials — such as Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union — who were in on the game. As Vindman navigated the world of Trump, he found himself guided by a saying he had learned in combat: “Be alert to both the absence of the normal and the presence of the abnormal.” Contrary to Vindman’s expectations, his internal warnings were greeted by aggressive efforts to marginalize him.

“Here, Right Matters” contains nuggets about the impeachment process that weren’t apparent at the time. We learn why Vindman decided to speak before Congress about his father’s opposition to his testifying. He recounts his efforts to work around attempts by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), the future director of national intelligence, to maneuver him into admitting that he was running a rogue policy operation. Lest anyone underestimate how fierce the Trump administration could be toward internal critics, readers learn how figures in the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the military did nothing as Vindman came under attack as a traitor. “The army’s staying silent in my case,” Vindman laments, “was only a prelude to its being used as a prop during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in D.C.” His unyielding confidence that most legislators would want to know the facts crashed on the shores of a Republican Party that would do anything to protect the president. “Truth was their enemy, so my conveying the truth made me their enemy, too,” he recalls.

In the end, Trump survived; Vindman’s career was destroyed. Most of the public moved on to other issues, only to see Trump engage in the same excesses of presidential power even during the coronavirus pandemic, and still finish his term with strong Republican support.

While Vindman reminds us of what genuine patriotism can look like, his fate doesn’t inspire much confidence in the state of our democracy. Perhaps the lesson is that John Dean didn’t become the template for investigations of presidential wrongdoing. Rather, the most pertinent model is Oliver North, a staffer on President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council. When he appeared before a select congressional committee investigating the Reagan administration’s secret assistance to the Nicaraguan contras, despite a legislative ban on such aid, North offered a bold defense of what the president’s team — with him in the center of the operation — had done. Instead of expressing contrition, denial or accountability, North defiantly rallied the political base and turned attention toward what he said was an incompetent Congress rather than a corrupt president. North’s testimony helped bolster support for Reagan.

If the “here” in Vindman’s title is the author, then the memoir shows that “right” still exists. If the “here” is Washington, then his story suggests that there isn’t much “right” to be found anymore. And that is a big problem for all of us. The nation can’t afford for Vindman’s “here” to be such a lonely place.

Here, Right Matters

An American Story

By Alexander Vindman

Harper. 245 pp. $26.99