As he left the White House on Friday for an event in North Carolina, President Trump was asked if he wanted to see Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman removed from his position on the National Security Council.
That response suggests that Trump’s frustration with Vindman — which, in fact, led to his removal from the White House on Friday afternoon — stems from obvious causes. In fact, Trump hasn’t offered any concrete rationale for ousting Vindman. While this mirrors the Ukraine impeachment inquiry broadly, with our being left to impute the reason for Trump’s actions, he appeared on Friday to encourage us to do just that.
The most immediately obvious reason for targeting Vindman, of course, is that Vindman provided public testimony against Trump as part of that inquiry. Vindman was listening as Trump called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 of last year, as he had with the first call between the presidents three months earlier. Speaking to House investigators under subpoena, Vindman testified that he was alarmed by the requests Trump made of Zelensky on that call.
Those concerns were heightened by Vindman’s having been present for a meeting on July 10 in which Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland — whom Trump also fired Friday — told Ukrainian officials that a meeting between Zelensky and Trump at the White House depended on Ukraine launching the investigations Trump would later ask for.
During his celebratory post-acquittal remarks on Thursday, Trump criticized a number of individuals involved in the impeachment process. That included a cryptic mention of Vindman and his twin brother, Eugene, who also was fired from the National Security Council on Friday. But again, he didn’t really explain what prompted his frustration.
“We had transcribers — professional transcribers,” Trump said, referring to staffers tasked with documenting the July 25 call. “Then they said, 'Oh, well, maybe the transcription is not correct.' But Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and his twin brother — right? — we had some people that — really amazing."
The segue there appears to be a reference to another aspect of Vindman’s testimony. Speaking at a public hearing in November, Vindman noted that the rough transcript of the call prepared by the White House didn’t include the name of a company mentioned specifically by Trump. He sought to have it included in the rough transcript but, as he testified, did not view it as “a significant omission.”
“But we did everything,” Trump continued. “We said, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ ‘Well, they didn’t add this word or that one.’ It didn’t matter. I said, ‘Add it. They’re probably wrong, but add it.’”
This is hard to parse. There’s no indication that Trump was aware of the omission in real time and there’s no evidence that anything was added to the rough transcript once the decision was made to release it. What’s more, it seems like an odd reason to fire someone after the fact.
Last year, speaking to conservative commentator Dan Bongino, Trump again focused on this question of changing the transcript.
“He called in because he had suggestions with the call, not strong, and he wrote a letter somewhere, he had some suggestions on the call,” Trump said. “They were pretty minor as I understand it, and they were maybe accepted, you have to check that out. But you know now, he goes, like, oh, he didn’t agree with the call. But he actually wrote, I think a letter, to the White House counsel with some suggestions for the call, people should get that letter. They’re very minor.”
This was on Nov. 15, four days before Vindman’s public testimony. After that testimony, Trump retweeted a number of direct criticisms of Vindman from his political allies.
In an opening statement at that hearing, Vindman articulated why he had raised internal concerns.
“When I reported my concerns on July 10th relating to Ambassador Sondland and on July 25th relating to the president, I did so out of a sense of duty,” Vindman said. “I privately reported my concerns in official channels to the proper authority in the chain of command. My intent was to raise these concerns because they had significant national security implications for our country. I never thought that I'd be sitting here testifying in front of this committee and the American public about my actions. When I reported my concerns, my only thought was to act properly and to carry out my duty."
No one offered testimony that conflicted with the central points offered by Vindman. Other witnesses corroborated Sondland’s comments in the July 10 meeting and the inclusion of the Ukrainian company on the July 25 call, while some expressed concerns about the call that mirrored Vindman’s.
Instead, Vindman was attacked as un-American and somehow loyal to Ukraine, where he lived briefly as a small child. His supervisor, Tim Morrison, testified that he’d been told Vindman had a tendency to leak, an assertion that Vindman denied. (“I never did, never would,” he said under oath. “That is preposterous that I would do that.”)
Vindman was also accused of having provided information to the whistleblower who filed a formal complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine. During an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, Donald Trump Jr. elevated that idea. Under questioning, Vindman denied that he knew the identity of the whistleblower.
Speaking on Hannity’s radio show last November, Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett offered another criticism of Vindman.
“It really spoke volumes about what motivated Vindman, when, you know, the president had the audacity to conduct foreign policy in a way that this mid-level bureaucrat NSC staffer did not preapprove,” Jarrett said.
What Vindman had testified was that Trump's request that Zelensky announce a probe of former vice president Joe Biden would “undermine our Ukraine policy and it would undermine our national security."
“My job is to coordinate U.S. policy,” he testified at another point. “So throughout the preceding year that I had been on staff, I had undertaken an effort to make sure we had a cohesive, coherent U.S. policy.” Trump's requests, he said, were not consistent with provided talking points centered on that policy.
Asked on the day of Vindman's public testimony if he considered Vindman credible, Trump was vague in his criticism.
“I don’t know,” Trump said. He emphasized that he didn’t know Vindman personally: “I never saw the man. I understand now he wears his uniform when he goes in. No, I don’t know Vindman at all. What I do know is that even he said that the transcript was correct.”
Why remove Vindman? There was a push to cut the size of the NSC staff announced last year, after Vindman rose to public prominence. On Friday, Trump suggested that Vindman's fate wasn't up to him.
“Is he going to leave?” a reporter asked.
“They’ll make that decision,” Trump replied, though it’s not clear to whom he was referring.
Trump’s vagueness wasn’t matched by his press secretary, Stephanie Grisham. Speaking to reporters, she was pointed in declaring that those involved in the impeachment effort would face punishment.
WH Press Sec Stephanie Grisham previews the President's 12pm ET impeachment remarks:— Karen Travers (@karentravers) February 6, 2020
"I think he's also going to talk about just how horribly he was treated and, you know, that maybe people should pay for that."
That threat apparently may also include the relatives of those involved. The remarks mentioned in the tweet above were the ones in which Trump mentioned both Vindmans.