Trump takes revenge in post-acquittal purge of witnesses
Two days after he was acquitted by the Senate for abuse of power and obstruction, President Trump exacted vengeance Friday against two administration officials who gave damaging testimony during the House impeachment inquiry, firing his ambassador to the European Union and ousting the top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council.
The reprisals transformed the president’s rage over his impeachment into bitter personal payback, bringing the massive firepower of his office against a well-heeled political appointee and a highly decorated Army officer who had complied with congressional subpoenas and had given sworn testimony.
Democrats swiftly criticized Trump for what they called his latest effort to intimidate critics, whistleblowers and witnesses. Although some Trump allies cheered, the targeted retribution may rattle Republicans who hoped the president would turn the page on the divisive impeachment battle, not raise tensions further.
The first to go was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, who was escorted out of the White House on Friday in what his lawyer called an act of presidential revenge.
Vindman was among the White House aides who listened to Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president, and he later testified that he was so alarmed that Trump had asked the foreign leader to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, that he reported it to his superiors.
Vindman was punished for “telling the truth,” his attorney David Pressman said in a statement. It cost him “his job, his career, and his privacy.”
“He did what any member of our military is charged with doing every day: he followed orders, he obeyed his oath, and he served his country, even when doing so was fraught with danger and personal peril,” Pressman said. “And for that, the most powerful man in the world — buoyed by the silent, the pliable, and the complicit — has decided to exact revenge.”
Trump had made clear his displeasure with Vindman earlier Friday after news reports indicated that his departure was imminent.
“You think I’m supposed to be happy with him? I’m not,” Trump said.
Trump’s anger extended to Vindman’s twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, a senior lawyer and ethics official at the National Security Council, who also was escorted off the White House grounds on Friday. Pressman said he was ordered out “suddenly and with no explanation.”
The purge continued Friday evening when Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said he was being ordered home.
“I was advised today that the president intends to recall me effective immediately,” Sondland said in a statement. He thanked Trump “for having given me the opportunity to serve.”
A longtime Republican donor, the Oregon hotelier was appointed ambassador after he donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee. Although Ukraine is not part of the European Union, Sondland ended up playing a key role in handling diplomatic relations with the struggling young democracy as it fought a Russian-backed insurgency.
Sondland testified that “everyone was in the loop” on Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to open investigations that would help his reelection bid. Sondland also said he believed that Trump had frozen $391 million in weapons and other U.S. security aid for Ukraine’s conflict with Russia as leverage to get an anti-Biden inquiry going.
“Was there a quid pro quo?” he testified. “The answer is yes.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denounced Trump’s purge as “clear political retaliation, the likes of which is seen only in authoritarian countries around the world.”
“Those who suggested President Trump’s behavior would improve following his impeachment have been proven wrong,” he said. “I sincerely hope that all members of Congress condemn this latest reprehensible, yet sadly predictable conduct by President Trump.”
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Vindman’s ouster “shameful,” saying Trump “believes the only loyalty that matters is loyalty to him personally.”
Although Trump directed members of his administration not to testify during the impeachment proceedings, several current and former officials stepped forward and provided evidence.
Jennifer Williams, who was an advisor on European issues in Vice President Mike Pence’s office, reportedly left two months early. She’s expected to take a new position at U.S. Central Command in Florida.
Veteran diplomat William B. Taylor, who had served temporarily as the U.S. charge d’affaires to Ukraine, stepped down from his position in January.
His predecessor as the top envoy in Kyiv, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, recently retired from the State Department. A career diplomat, she was forced from her post on April 25, 2019, after she was targeted in a smear campaign led by Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
“She’s going to go through some things,” Trump said in his July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president.
Alexander Vindman was one of the more memorable witnesses in the impeachment drama. Born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, his parents brought him to America as a 3-year-old and he wound up making his career in the U.S. Army.
He served more than 20 years, earning a Ranger tab and a chest full of other medals and honors. He was awarded the Purple Heart after he was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004. He served on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff for three years before he joined Trump’s White House in July 2018 for what was supposed to be a two-year assignment.
Vindman’s public testimony on Nov. 19 triggered an onslaught of vitriolic attacks from Trump and his Republican allies. Vindman and his family received so many threats he asked the Army to provide security.
Trump’s defenders argued that the president was right to get him out of the White House.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said the removal is “not about retaliation. It’s because he cannot be trusted, he disagrees with the president’s policies, and his term there is coming to an end regardless.”
During the Senate trial, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) tweeted that Vindman “leaked the contents of the President’s July 25th phone call to his pal, the ‘whistleblower.’”
During his testimony, Vindman denied leaking and knowing the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s behavior sparked the impeachment proceedings.
Since the Vindman brothers are both active-duty Army officers, they will return to jobs at the Pentagon. An Army spokeswoman confirmed the reassignments. A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment on their departure.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday they would not face retaliation from the Pentagon for the impeachment testimony.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Peter B. Zwack, a former Defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow who was once Vindman’s boss, praised him Friday on Twitter. “To me, Alex, your principled stand was not partisanship but rather about right and wrong. Stand tall, stand proud!”
Times staff writer David S. Cloud contributed to this report.
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