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Trump ousts Vindman and Sondland, punishing key impeachment witnesses in post-acquittal campaign of retribution

National Security Council Europe expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman leaves after appearing before the House Intelligence Committee during an impeachment hearing on Nov. 19, 2019.
National Security Council Europe expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman leaves after appearing before the House Intelligence Committee during an impeachment hearing on Nov. 19, 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

President Trump on Friday punished two witnesses who testified in the investigation that led to his impeachment, removing them from their posts in an apparent campaign to exact retribution on his perceived enemies in the wake of his acquittal in the Senate this week.

The White House ousted Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from his post on the National Security Council and recalled U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, moves that were quickly condemned as vindictive and an attempt to intimidate government officials who speak out against Trump.

Vindman, a decorated combat veteran who testified in November that he was disturbed by Trump’s call for Ukraine to investigate the president’s political rivals, was escorted out of the White House on Friday, according to his lawyer, David Pressman.

On Feb. 7, President Trump removed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland from their positions. (Video: Reuters)

“There is no question in the mind of any American why this man’s job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House,” Pressman said in a statement. “LTC Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”

Sondland, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, fell out of favor with the president after his testimony in November alleging that the president pursued an improper “quid pro quo” tying military aid for Ukraine to political investigations. Trump has long wanted to remove Sondland but was counseled against doing so during the impeachment process, according to officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.

Trump’s push to remove Sondland and Vindman — and to exact punishment on other figures involved in the nearly five-month impeachment process — underscored how his fixation with settling scores is outweighing any effort to move on to less divisive issues in the wake of his acquittal.

Vindman’s twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, was also removed from his job at the National Security Council, where he worked as a lawyer, and was escorted off the grounds Friday afternoon.

The firings of Sondland and Alexander Vindman amounted to a post-impeachment bloodletting of key figures who complied with congressional subpoenas and testified in a process that Trump sought to delegitimize as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”

“I’m not happy with him,” Trump said earlier Friday when asked about Vindman’s future. “You think I’m supposed to be happy with him? I’m not.”

There was little resistance from within the Republican Party to the idea of punishing Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient and Ukraine expert, after The Washington Post reported Thursday night that he could soon be removed from his White House job. Some GOP lawmakers egged the president on — a sign of how much Trump has asserted his influence on the party.

Many lawmakers appeared to take it as a given that a president who fired an FBI director during a federal investigation into his campaign and who attacked the religious sincerity of his perceived enemies during a prayer breakfast this week would set out for revenge in the wake of an effort to end his presidency.

“I think the president’s entitled to have whoever he wants on the NSC,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.). “It’s not like they’re being put on the street, they’ll go back to — in Vindman’s case, he goes back to the Pentagon.”

Both of the Vindmans were detailed to the NSC and will return to jobs in the Defense Department, with Alexander Vindman then planning to report to the Army War College in July.

But underscoring the sense of retribution is that Alexander Vindman recently told senior officials at the NSC and the Army that he intended to leave his White House position by the end of February, months ahead of schedule. That appears not to have been soon enough for the president.

Several other officials who testified during the House impeachment inquiry have left the government, including former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch; William B. Taylor Jr., her replacement; vice presidential aide Jennifer Williams; State Department official Michael McKinley; special envoy for Ukraine negotiations Kurt Volker; and NSC official Tim Morrison.

More firings are possible.

The president and his advisers have also discussed removing Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, though no final decision has been made, officials said. Trump has expressed frustration that Atkinson allowed a whistleblower report documenting Trump’s alleged misconduct toward Ukraine to be transmitted to Congress.

Some advisers have also counseled the president to remove Victoria Coates, the deputy national security adviser, who has told others in the White House that she fears her job is in jeopardy.

Trump has regularly asked aides to continue slashing the size of the NSC, and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien has said he plans to do so, telling NPR in an interview last month that the policy staff, which he put at about 180 people when he took over in September, was bloated.

By the end of February, O’Brien said, he hoped to have cut it by a third. A senior administration official said there will be widespread departures at the NSC in the next week.

The crux of the impeachment case against Trump was the allegation that he withheld military aid and a White House meeting to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden — who served on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma while the elder Biden was vice president — as well as a widely discredited theory that Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Sondland had been an ally of the president before his explosive testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. He told lawmakers that he had come to believe that the Trump administration was tying almost $400 million of security assistance for Ukraine to Trump’s push to have the country investigate his political rivals.

“Everyone was in the loop,” he said of Trump’s administration.

Trump denied the damning allegations, but he could not easily dismiss his top donor and appointee as a “deep state” bureaucrat or “Never Trump” operative.

Trump regularly mocked Vindman for his uniform and how he spoke during his testimony, according to people who heard his comments and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss them. Of all the witnesses, Trump had the most visceral disdain for Vindman, White House officials said.

Trump has told White House officials that he believes Vindman was responsible for providing information about Trump’s conduct to the whistleblower. That allegation, while unsubstantiated, formed the root of Trump’s anger with Vindman, two White House officials said.

Democrats called Vindman’s removal vindictive.

“As usual, the White House runs away from the truth,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “Lt. Col. Vindman lived up to his oath to protect and defend our Constitution. This action is not a sign of strength. It only shows President Trump’s weakness.”

It was not clear what other forms of retribution the White House might pursue in the wake of Trump’s acquittal. A White House statement released after the Senate trial concluded Wednesday ominously posed a rhetorical question: “Will there be no retribution?”

Asked about Friday’s moves, the National Security Council said, “We do not comment on personnel matters.”

The Vindman brothers were among several people Trump mocked and attacked during a 63-minute event Thursday at the White House that was billed as his official public response to his acquittal.

In his testimony before House investigators, Vindman said he did not think it was “proper” for Trump to “demand that a foreign government investigate” the Bidens.

Vindman, who has 20 years’ service and testified in his uniform, also described his family’s journey from the Soviet Union to the United States, casting his upbringing and military service as a storied version of the American Dream.

His remarks about how “here, right matters” were repeated by House impeachment managers as they sought to make a case in the Senate that convicting Trump was a matter of simple right and wrong.

In his rebuttal Thursday, Trump declared himself completely innocent and zeroed in on his perceived enemies.

“We went through hell, unfairly,” he said in the East Room. “Did nothing wrong. Did nothing wrong.”

Speaking Thursday on Fox News, the White House press secretary described the president’s mind-set in stark terms, saying that Trump had been treated unfairly by the impeachment process and that “maybe people should pay for that.”

The vengeance effort being pushed by White House officials, Republican lawmakers, Trump family members and other allies has broadened and intensified this week as Trump made clear he was not interested in moving on.

During his speech Thursday, Trump publicly singled out several of his perceived enemies, describing them as “vicious,” “horrible,” “bad,” “dirty” and “corrupt.”

The pugilistic response to impeachment has been endorsed by some of Trump’s closest allies, indicating that vengeance will likely be a key theme of the president’s reelection effort. While Trump was impeached on allegations he abused his power to pressure a foreign government to attack his political rivals, his latest efforts indicate that he plans to continue his no-holds-barred brand of politics.

The White House has been disseminating talking points attacking Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the lone Republican to vote to convict Trump of abuse of power. Trump has privately discussed with Republican lawmakers ways to exact revenge on House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) for his leading role in the president’s impeachment, according to people familiar with the conversations. Trump has tried to block the release of a tell-all book by former national security adviser John Bolton, and some Republicans are calling for Bolton’s security clearance to be stripped.

GOP Senate committee chairmen are ramping up their investigation into Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine.

Trump’s allies have framed the impeachment as part of a broader effort by Democrats to delegitimize his presidency, making the case that retribution is warranted.

“I really hope that Republicans learn to fight like the Democrats,” Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. said Thursday on Fox News. “My father does the things that he does because he realizes, unlike so many in our party, that there is no acceptance of an apology. . . . They will cancel you. They will do whatever it takes to ruin you.”

Mike DeBonis and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.