Now that the trial is over, Trump is getting vindictive with Vindman and a fellow impeachment witness.
Vindman was escorted from the White House on Friday after being removed from his post on the National Security Council, along with his brother, Eugene. Trump then fired European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who also provided key testimony in the impeachment inquiry. And as The Washington Post reported earlier, the White House is also looking to punish others who provided testimony that was unhelpful to him during the House’s impeachment inquiry.
What’s remarkable about the Vindman retribution, though, is how unnecessary and symbolic it is. Vindman has already said he would leave his current post very soon; Trump apparently wanted to expedite that just to make an example of him -- and then he threw on top of it the removal of Vindman’s twin brother, Eugene, who was not an impeachment witness.
As The Post reported before his dismissal:
Vindman had already informed senior officials at the NSC that he intended to take an early exit from his assignment and leave his post by the end of the month, according to people familiar with his decision, but Trump is eager to make a symbol of the Army officer soon after the Senate acquitted him of the impeachment charges approved by House Democrats.
The Post’s team — Josh Dawsey, Robert Costa and Greg Miller — also reported that White House aides are also “discussing whether to remove or reassign several administration officials who testified during the impeachment inquiry." It remains to be seen what will happen with the others. At the very least, the White House seems to be sending a message that heads are about to roll. Now that Trump is clear of impeachment, it seems they feel free to send it.
That message has permeated Trump’s presidency: If you do something Trump doesn’t like, he will make you pay for it. He will not only exact potential professional revenge and/or criticize you, but he will turn half the country — and the conservative media apparatus Trump has in his back pocket — against you. He will make it immensely painful for anyone who dares to say a negative word about him.
He’s done it most notably with John McCain, repeatedly deriding him even in death for his decisive vote against the GOP health-care bill. That serves notice that not only will Trump criticize you harshly, but he’s willing to shred societal mores like not speaking ill of the dead to forever damage your legacy.
He did it with Robert S. Mueller III, turning him from a reputable former war hero (like McCain) who was appointed by Trump’s own Justice Department into the face of evil in the Russia investigation.
He did it with former GOP senators “Little Bob Corker” for criticizing the White House and Jeff Flake for writing a book and asking questions about Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. They are now pariahs in their own party. So if you’re retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and you’re casting a key vote in Trump’s impeachment trial, you know exactly what awaits you if you dare to run afoul of Trump. Alexander may not have had to worry about reelection, but he did have to live his life, which Trump can make hellish with a few tweets.
But at least these are people who chose to be public figures in the political arena. With the impeachment witnesses, he’s taking people who never chose the spotlight but did make the difficult decision to testify even as the Trump administration told them not to. Whatever you think about their testimony, they put themselves on the line.
Even as they were testifying, you saw the impact of Trump’s demonstrated vindictiveness. Some witnesses appeared to be trying quite hard to spin things in the most pro-Trump direction possible, apparently for fear of the kind of treatment Vindman has received. To wit:
- Sondland and former Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker claimed they didn’t realize Trump’s interest in investigating Burisma involved the Bidens, even though Rudolph W. Giuliani had said so clearly in a May New York Times story and that Hunter Biden’s employment there was public knowledge since 2014.
- Volker strained to argue that he didn’t see a quid pro quo, even though his own text messages showed him and a top aide to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly tying a White House meeting to Zelensky announcing Trump’s investigations.
- Former White House aide Tim Morrison, meanwhile, admitted that he reported concerns about Trump’s call with Zelensky to a National Security Council lawyer, but he claimed that it wasn’t because he saw anything potentially illegal with it — just that he worried it might be a political problem.
Perhaps the most remarkable effort to chill impeachment witnesses’ speech, though, has been with the person who started it all: the whistleblower. Even as the allegations in the anonymous whistleblower’s initial report have been overwhelmingly and repeatedly confirmed by witnesses who went on the record, Republicans including Trump have continued to focus on who this person is and questioning their motivations. They threatened to call them as a witness. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in the closing days of the impeachment trial, launched a thinly veiled effort to out the person that some conservative media had identified as the whistleblower.
Who the whistleblower was and what they claimed, of course, was largely immaterial by that point. And there are reasons we have protections for whistleblowers’s anonymity: so that they feel comfortable coming forward and flagging potential wrongdoing. If they fear retribution or becoming a political punching bag, they’re less likely to come forward.
And so too, at this point, may be people like Vindman. In his public testimony, he closed with a note to his dad, whom he said was concerned about his son putting himself out there like that. “Do not worry,” Vindman told his dad. “I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Since then, he’s had his loyalty to the United States questioned, senators like Blackburn have circulated ugly rumors about him, and he’s now had an example made of him by Trump.
It’s tempting to view all of this as Trump just being vindictive, but it’s also him being strategic about showing the price one pays for betraying him. And to the extent Trump’s supporters don’t judge him harshly for going too far, it pays off for him — in spades.