Alexander Vindman, the White House staffer who sparked Trump's 1st impeachment, tells his story
Alexander Vindman was preparing to testify at President Donald Trump's first impeachment hearing - in an investigation sparked by Vindman's report of a troubling phone call at the White House - when the National Security Council official was viciously pushed back by a certain Trump ally became.
"Support the President!" Semyon Vindman said during a long, conflicted drive to a family wedding in Rhode Island in September 2019. "Do what the president wants!"
"It was a source of tension," the younger Vindman confirmed dryly in an interview with USA TODAY at his home in a leafy suburb of Washington. "He wanted me to make up with President Trump. He had this picture of me, you know, walking into the Oval Office, saluting sharply and saying, 'OK, President Trump, how can we fix this?'"
But while his conservative father sat next to him in the passenger seat, declaring his support for Trump and warning about the risks of a testimony, his pragmatic wife sat in the back seat. Rachel Vindman quietly used her smartphone to look for a lawyer to represent her husband in the firestorm that would turn her life - and that of the president - upside down.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the National Security Council, testifies in a public hearing on November 19, 2019 in front of the Special Standing Committee on Intelligence Services as part of the impeachment proceedings on the allegations that President Donald Trump has put Ukraine under pressure against his identify political rivals.
A month later, Alexander Vindman testified before a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee, describing an explosive consideration he offered Trump to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi. During a phone call monitored by Vindman in the Situation Room, Trump asked Kiev for "a favor" in exchange for announcing a corruption investigation into political rival Joe Biden in exchange for US military aid.
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Retired U.S. Army Colonel Alexander Vindman, a key witness in President Donald Trump's first impeachment trial, is photographed at his Woodbridge, Virginia home on July 29, 2021.
Vindman describes his side of history - and his own "American history" as a three-year-old exile from the Soviet Union who made it to an office in the White House - in a book published Tuesday by Harper Books. "Here, Right Matters" features a narcissistic, cranky president who appeared to have little interest in the substance of national security policy, surrounded by aides whose priorities were to win favor and protect his back.
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The title of the book comes from the most memorable words of Vindman's testimony before Congress, a serious figure in an army uniform. They were not part of his prepared opening speech but came during a later exchange with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y.
11/19/2019; Washington, DC, USA; Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy advisor to Vice President Mike Pence, Jan.
At the hearing, Vindman did not reveal his father's support for Trump or the first pieces of advice he heard from him. But he told the panel that he had reassured his father about what could happen if he spoke up. He thanked him for his "courageous act of hope" to emigrate from the Soviet Union 40 years earlier as a widowed father with three small children. In the United States, he assured him, "It will do me good to tell the truth."
Why was he convinced of it?
"Congressman because this is America ..." Vindman had replied. "And the right thing is important here."
More serious nerd as a political mastermind
It has been two years and a week since that call. And Sunday marks the year-long anniversary of Vindman's return to civilian life after realizing that his once bright future in the military was ruined by a setback for his decision to report the call as he believed was his duty.
At his kitchen table he seems less of a political mastermind, but more of a serious nerd - this is how he describes himself - who still seems surprised by the historical spotlight in which he finds himself. Before that, he had been so apolitical that he couldn't remember whether he voted for president in 2016, although he's certain it wasn't for Trump. ("That's not something I'm proud of now," he said, embarrassed because he was an unreliable voter. "Actually, it's like 'shame on me'").
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When the riot broke out and a friend called to say his name exploded on the cable news, the couple struggled to find out where the channels were because they had never seen them. "They said, 'Turn it on!" "She remembered with a laugh. "And I think, 'I don't even know how to turn it on!'"
Now, of course, they know how to find the cable news channels. Rachel, who moved eleven times in her first 10 years as a spouse in the military, has become a public figure herself after her husband's missions. She hosts a politically-minded podcast called "The Suburban Women Problem" and is a more disrespectful voice than her husband on social media.
Her daughter, now 10, has developed similar instincts. When Eleanor spotted a house with a Trump sign in the courtyard - not an uncommon sight in her neighborhood during the 2020 campaign - she suggested ringing the doorbell and offering to speak about it. "Maybe she's following her mother a bit," Rachel said.
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For Alexander Vindman, the path to this new phase of life has not always been smooth. As it turned out, his father's warnings of possible consequences - reprisals, character assassination, retirement - were not entirely unfounded. They finally cost Trump this special supporter too; Vindman says his disaffected father voted for Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.
Two days after Trump was acquitted in that first Senate impeachment, Vindman was fired from his job at the NSC as director of European affairs. His identical twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, then the NSC's chief ethics officer, was also fired.
Eugene and Alexander Vindman during Alexander's promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in the Joint Staff Flag Room of the Pentagon in November 2015.
Alex remembers the words of the NSC officer who arrived at his office unannounced that day, accompanied by a security guard who escorted him off the premises. "Please get away from your computer," she told him. "The leadership has determined that your services are no longer needed."
That didn't surprise anyone. In fact, Vindman had already packed his personal belongings and carried them home. More surprising and appalling to him was the obvious conclusion of the Pentagon chiefs that he had become too politically toxic - that he had "flown too close to the sun" - to resume the full promise of his military career. After 21 years of service, including a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in Iraq, he reluctantly retired.
"I loved my military service," he said. But when he was attacked and his family's safety was threatened, he thought Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley had been “weak” in their response, perhaps because they felt they were under fire from Trump himself. "I finally came to the conclusion that there was no point in staying here."
At the age of 46 he landed on his feet, albeit in a completely different landscape than before. He writes for the Lawfare blog, is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House, has signed a consultancy agreement with a multinational, and gives principled decision-making speeches. He is working on his PhD at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
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He has also gained some authority when it comes to the impeachment of the president. "The next time an impeachment comes," he said, half-jokingly, "I'll be back up there like John Dean," the White House attorney who was a key witness to President Nixon's impeachment and is a regular commentator occurred during the impeachment of Trump.
Vindman is a hero to those who credit him with saving democracy and a villain to those who accuse him of undermining a president they adore.
Vindman now has more than half a million followers on Twitter, the platform Trump used before he was banned. His avatar is a tiny cartoon version of himself wearing a military uniform and an oversized hat. His ramrod stance, he looks straight ahead with a determined expression on his face.
Weighing the "what if"
As soon as the phone call between Trump and Zelenskyi was over, Vindman knew he had to report it down the chain of command, whatever the consequences. He walked from the situation room to his brother's office at the NSC and closed the door.
"If what I've just heard goes public," he told him, "the President will be charged."
Even after the impeachment and the official reports that followed, the public record of the call is incomplete, he says. In Vindman's contemporaneous notes, Zelensky specifically mentioned Burisma Holdings, the energy committee on which Biden's son Hunter had served. And Trump stated in an unsupported statement that "Biden bragged about having stopped prosecuting this company."
Whatever the reason, his efforts to correct this record did not make it into the final version of the call. "It's possible someone sorted out my edits because they mattered, but I don't know for sure," he said. The omissions could also be due to "bureaucratic incompetence," he said.
Let's think about the "what if" I asked Vindman. What would have happened to himself if he hadn't reported this call?
"I would be a colonel," he said. He was recommended for a promotion to colonel and for an elite program at the U.S. College had been chosen. With that he might be able to become an army attaché in Moscow or Kiev. At some point he would have had a realistic chance of being promoted to general.
For the country, what if he hadn't reported that call?
In the "rosiest scenario," he said, House committees that began investigating why the Trump administration withheld Congress-approved military aid to Ukraine may have exposed the president's views on Zelenskyi.
"But that is the rosiest result," he continued. "I think the more likely outcome would be that none of this might have unfolded."
Vindman then asked another “what-if” question: what if Trump had been sentenced and removed from office in his first impeachment trial by the Senate?
"The president was not held accountable for his actions," which reinforced his belief that he was basically above the law, Vindman said. This conclusion runs through what followed of Trump's presidency last year.
"There's a straightforward kind of narrative that feeds on being encouraged and going with impunity in the early days of COVID ... the summer riots that the president started, the riot," Vindman said. "I think there is a consistent line because the Senate and political actors decided not to obey their rules" when they called for accountability at the time.
"At the same time, the American public weighed it all up," he added, "and voted him out."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: "The Right Thing Matters": Alexander Vindman and Trump's First Impeachment
In this article:
American military officer, diplomat, and national security officer
45th President of the United States
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