Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and his team were exploring New York in the early 1980s, working on a feature about the Statue of Liberty as part of Burns’s “America” series. Sitting on a bench near Brighton Beach, they found an elderly woman sitting on a bench with twin boys, then about 10 years old.
They'd come from Russia, from Kyiv, the twins told the camera, their explanations overlapping. “Our mother died, so we went to Italy,” one added, “and then we came here."
In the final version of the film, titled, “Statue of Liberty,” the twins begin a section of interviews with other immigrants to the United States: a woman from Austria, a couple from Italy, a man from Cuba who worked at Yankee Stadium. The through-line is obvious, even without historian David McCullough’s introduction to the segment.
“To me, the Statue of Liberty is like the light that’s left on back home,” he said. Being at the statue, he said, made “you feel something I think much more than just being an American. You feel the importance of being human. And you feel a kind of fraternal [bond] with everybody who has come here."
That’s when the film transitions to the twins, identified as having come from the Soviet Union — at that point, the fiercest international rival to the United States.
Above that identifier is the twins’ family name: the Vindmans.
The twins, Alexander and Yevgeny Vindman, both ended up working for the White House under President Trump. Both Vindmans served in the U.S. Army, and both rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Each now works for the National Security Council.
Theirs is, in the abstract, the quintessential American story. Migrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union at age 3 who’ve since dedicated their lives to serving their new country. The Vindmans’ experience is a manifestation of the poem at the base of the statue: They are part of the impoverished, huddled masses seeking the chance to breathe free. They did so, deeply.
In the estimation of the Trump administration, though, that famous poem has often been waved away — sometimes literally. In August, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, was presented with the poem as an example of how the United States has long approached immigration.
“Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, give me your poor,’ are also a part of the American ethos?” Rachel Martin of NPR asked Cuccinelli.
“They certainly are,” he replied: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Trump’s skepticism of immigrants — or, importantly, some immigrants — hardly bears reiterating. But that, too, serves as a through-line, in this case from his campaign announcement in 2015 through the campaign and into his presidency.
As with so many other parts of Trump’s politics, that skepticism about some immigrants has permeated his cadre of public defenders and much of his base. And suddenly, Alexander Vindman has become the target of that skepticism.
Vindman will testify Tuesday about having heard Trump cajole Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a possible 2020 opponent of Trump’s. After hearing Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, link a meeting between Trump and Zelensky with those investigations in early July, Vindman raised concerns about the connection to the top lawyer for the National Security Council.
When news of Vindman's expected testimony broke on Monday night, the reaction from Trump's normal defenders was remarkably uniform: Vindman was suspect because he came from what is now Ukraine.
Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham picked out Vindman’s background and interactions with the Ukrainian government during her show.
“Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interests, and usually they spoke in English,” she said. “Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle on the story?"
“I find that astounding,” said John Yoo, who worked in the George W. Bush administration. “And some people might call that espionage."
Yoo, who wrote post-9/11 legal opinions for Bush that were used to justify torturing terrorism suspects, is an immigrant from South Korea.
Trump tuned in to Ingraham’s program and offered some thoughts — including a claim that he’d “never even heard of” Vindman, a member of his White House team.
On Tuesday morning, the rhetoric from Trump's defenders was more explicit.
“If you look at this lieutenant colonel’s background, he’s got a Purple Heart, he got hit by an IED in Iraq,” Brian Kilmeade said on “Fox & Friends.” “We also know he was born in the Soviet Union, immigrated with his family, young. He tends to feel simpatico with the Ukraine."
On CNN, former congressman Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.) suggested that Vindman’s birthplace was important.
“It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense,” Duffy said. “I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy, but his main mission was to make sure that Ukraine got those weapons.”
(Of course, Ukraine’s defense is still U.S. policy.)
“I understand that. We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from,” Duffy continued. “Like me, I'm sure that Vindman has the same affinity. … He's entitled to his opinion. He has an affinity, I think, for the Ukraine. He speaks Ukrainian. He came from the country and he wants to make sure they're safe and free."
Asked whether Vindman was looking out for America first, Duffy demurred.
This idea of dual loyalty is something that Trump himself has raised. During his attacks on a group of Democratic lawmakers this summer for purportedly being anti-Semitic, Trump suggested that American Jews who support Democrats are being disloyal to Israel. He’d made similar comments in the past.
The reaction to Vindman, though, reveals a fundamental hypocrisy in the Trumpian approach to immigrants. What Trump prioritizes in migrants who come to the United States is self-sufficiency and assimilation. He prefers migrants from Europe over Africa or the Middle East. What he wants is Alexander Vindmans — until Alexander Vindman points out where the loyalties of Trump himself might be questionable.
“My family fled the Soviet Union when I was three and a half years old,” Vindman’s opening remarks read. “Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night. He stressed to us the importance of fully integrating into our adopted country. For many years, life was quite difficult. In spite of our challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American Dream."
The statement continues: “I have a deep appreciation for American values and ideals and the power of freedom. I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics."
A phrase that would have been very much at home in that Ken Burns documentary about the Statue of Liberty.