Report

‘Campaign of Bullying’ Prompts Key Trump Impeachment Witness to Quit Army

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified on Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine, faced a White House block to further promotion.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, former National Security Council official, arrives to testify at the impeachment investigation on President Trump.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a former National Security Council official, arrives to testify at the impeachment investigation on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 19, 2019. Win McNamee/Getty Images

A key witness in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump has retired after more than two decades of service in the U.S. military, reflecting the political fallout from Trump’s impeachment and undercutting claims from top administration officials that whistleblowers won’t be punished for coming forward with evidence of wrongdoing in government.

“Today I officially requested retirement from the US Army, an organization I love. My family and I look forward to the next chapter of our lives,” Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a career Army officer and former National Security Council (NSC) aide, said in a statement on Twitter on Wednesday. His lawyer, David Pressman, said Vindman was retiring after facing a “campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation,” in a statement to Foreign Policy.

Pressman indicated that Vindman’s career was stunted after being subpoenaed to testify in the politically fraught trial that at its height posed the biggest threat to Trump’s political career. “After more than 21 years of military service, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman is retiring today after it has been made clear that his future within the institution he has dutifully served will forever be limited,” he wrote.

“LTC Vindman did what the law compelled him to do; and for that he was bullied by the president and his proxies. And yet, LTC Vindman would not be intimidated and will not be corrupted. He did what he has always done: put the interests of his country ahead of his own,” Pressman added.

Following his acquittal after impeachment in February, Trump fired Vindman from the NSC and suggested the military should take disciplinary action against him. Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, who served as a lawyer on the NSC, was sacked and escorted out of the White House despite not being involved in the impeachment hearings.

Despite Trump’s suggestions, top Defense Department officials had insisted that they would defend Vindman from potential retaliation and that it wouldn’t hamper his career. “He shouldn’t have any fear of retaliation—that’s DoD’s position,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters before Vindman’s testimony in October last year.

Those assurances did little to mollify Congress and whistleblower rights advocates, who said not enough had been done to protect Vindman. Last week, Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, herself a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and Iraq War veteran, placed a blanket hold on more than 1,000 U.S. military promotions until Esper confirmed to the Senate in writing that the Pentagon would not enable or facilitate retaliation on behalf of Trump against Vindman, who was due to take up a new assignment at a military service college. Senior military officials made clear to Vindman that he would never get his promotion and was reportedly threatened with a “rehabilitative assignment,” such as manning a radar station in Alaska, according to CNN, which first reported Vindman’s retirement.

But officials said the Pentagon had been working on Vindman’s promotion up until the moment they learned of his retirement. A senior defense official told Foreign Policy that the Army had sent up a list of officers to be promoted with Vindman’s name a couple of weeks ago and the last part of his promotion package had gotten to Esper’s office on Thursday. On Monday, the Pentagon’s office of personnel and readiness sent forward a finalized list of officers to be promoted from lieutenant colonel to colonel to Esper, with an attached action memo advising him to sign it. Esper formally signed on Monday, and the Pentagon was preparing the list to send to the White House as the news broke Wednesday.

It’s not clear whether Vindman has formally filed his retirement paperwork with the Army. The official said the Office of the Secretary of Defense had not been aware of Vindman’s plans to retire or any efforts to reprimand Vindman by sending him to a rehabilitation post, as his attorney’s statement indicated. An Army spokesperson, asked for comment, said the service doesn’t comment on personnel matters. Esper will travel to Capitol Hill for a hearing with the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, where he is likely to face questions about Vindman’s retirement.

For advocates of military whistleblowers, the Vindman case shows a high burden of proof for behind-the-scenes officials like the former NSC policy expert, who face challenges pinning down the services on specific retaliation claims, making it difficult for them to prove they are being retaliated against. “The burden on military whistleblowers is higher than even intelligence community whistleblowers,” said Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst for the Government Accountability Project. “It’s like rolling a rock up a hill.”

Vindman’s departure comes after Esper received widespread criticism for not shielding the Pentagon from being used as a political prop during the recent nationwide protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing. Esper’s handling of the situation prompted outcry from former top civilian and military officials, including his predecessor James Mattis, who implicitly denounced the Pentagon chief referring to U.S. streets as a “battlespace” in a call with governors during the unrest.

Vindman is the latest official to either quit or be forced out of government after being swept up in the impeachment investigation centered on the president’s directives to withhold military aid to Ukraine until it agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his 2020 presidential rival.

Since Trump was acquitted of all charges on a mostly partisan vote in the Senate in February, his administration has sacked or forced out other government officials drawn into the impeachment firestorm.

In early April, Trump sacked the U.S. intelligence community’s inspector general, who drew the president’s ire after receiving a whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment investigation. He fired the Pentagon inspector general days later, and the White House rescinded the nomination of Elaine McCusker to serve as the agency’s full-time comptroller after she raised questions about the nature of the Ukraine aid freeze. The Pentagon’s policy chief, John Rood, was also forced out by Trump after he questioned the hold.

Update, July 8, 2020: This article was updated with new comments from a senior defense official.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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