But with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman showing up Tuesday, the strategy clearly shifted in a more Trumpian direction.
Through not-subtle lines of questioning, Republicans suggested Vindman, a decorated combat veteran who immigrated from the Soviet Union as a child, might be conflicted — or arguably even have a dual loyalty — because of his ties to Ukraine. They also suggested he was a grandstander and was perhaps exploiting his status as an Army lieutenant colonel. It was never stated so directly, but the combined thrust of the questioning was virtually unmistakable.
It began early in the hearing when Stephen Castor, counsel for ranking Republican Devin Nunes (Calif.), began asking Vindman about a top Ukrainian official offering him the job of Ukrainian defense minister. Vindman confirmed that the official, Oleksandr Danylyuk, mentioned it but that Vindman wasn’t sure it was serious because he isn’t a high-ranking U.S. military official.
Castor, notably, asked Vindman what language Danylyuk conveyed the offer in — Vindman said it was in English — and asked about whether it might have been a conflict of interest.
“Did you ever think possibly if this information got out, it might create at least the perception of a conflict — that they thought so high of you to offer you the defense ministry post on the one hand, but on the other, you’re responsible for Ukrainian policy?” Castor asked.
Vindman said he reported the offer, and his superiors never said it was a conflict. And at another point in the questioning, he emphasized that he is “an American.”
“I’m aware of service members who have left service to help nurture the developing democracies in that part of the world,” he said. “But I am an American. I came here when I was a toddler. I immediately dismissed these offers. I did not entertain them.”
Vindman makes a valid point that this kind of arrangement isn’t unheard-of — including in Ukraine, which made an American citizen, Natalie Jaresko, its finance minister between 2014 and 2016. But Danylyuk told The Washington Post, “Clearly this was just a joke." He added: “We had much more serious issues to discuss with different people.”
Soon after Castor’s questioning finished, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) objected to it, calling it clearly aimed at stoking conservative media stories about Vindman having a dual loyalty. Such stories circulated soon after Vindman delivered a damaging deposition to Trump’s Ukraine defense. Among those suggesting as much were CNN commentator and former congressman Sean P. Duffy and Fox News host Brian Kilmeade. (Duffy, like Castor, pointed to the fact that Vindman speaks Ukrainian.)
Republicans didn’t back off the personal suggestions about Vindman there, though. Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) suggested Vindman in his opening statement had inflated his role in the U.S. policy toward Ukraine, noting he didn’t directly brief Trump, and he hadn’t spoken with Trump. Vindman said he amended the way he described his role in his opening statement, even though advising Trump was on his personal evaluation.
Maybe the diciest and most innuendo-laden line of questioning, though, came from Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah). He began his five minutes by picking up on something conservative media have attacked Vindman for — wearing his uniform to these hearings. Stewart praised him for wearing the uniform, but he just so happened to slip in another detail of those attacks: that Vindman usually wears a suit to his job.
(Trump on Tuesday also alluded to this, saying, “I understand now he wears his uniform when goes in.”)
And in case there was any doubt that Stewart’s questioning wasn’t really intended to be friendly, he added, “Do you always insist on civilians calling you by your rank?” (This referred back to Vindman objecting to Nunes calling him “Mr. Vindman” and saying, “It’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman.”)
Any one of these things in isolation may not have been so ugly. But the combined thrust made clear that Republicans wanted to paint Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient, as someone with an outsize sense of his own importance and who is too in-your-face about his military service. It seems likely they will feed well-trafficked rumors about his American-ness.
Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) summarized it toward the end of the hearing.
“There has been a lot of complaints and insinuations and suggestions that maybe your service is somehow not to be trusted,” Maloney said adding: “I guess Mr. Castor is maybe suggesting you’ve got a dual loyalty, and they’re trying to demean you as if you’re overstating the importance of your job."
Maloney added that all of it had “no basis in proof, but they want to get them out there” — “like strands of spaghetti that are going to stick to the wall if they keep throwing them."
Whatever the intentions, that will be the impact — just as it was before. Republicans had to know going down this road was fraught, and they made it a centerpiece of their strategy.
Paul Sonne contributed to this report.