Trump impeachment: Republicans didn't like the message – so they turned their fire on the messenger

Alexander Vindman's impressive record of service is not enough to prevent him being bombarded with insinuations about his loyalty

Andrew Feinberg
Capitol, Washington DC
Wednesday 20 November 2019 02:22
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By the time Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman left the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room on Tuesday, it was clear that Republicans were not pleased with what the 44-year-old combat veteran had to say when he testified during the first of two sessions on Tuesday, the third day of impeachment hearings before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

They didn't like that Lt Col Vindman, a Ukraine expert detailed to the National Security Council, had worn his Army dress uniform when he raised his right hand to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and they certainly weren't pleased with how he then proceeded to speak calmly and authoritatively about the concerns he had with what President Donald Trump said during his so-called "perfect" phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine.

"I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate, and I reported my concerns to [National Security Council legal advisor John] Eisenberg. It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government to investigate a US citizen and a political opponent," Lt Col Vindman told committee members in a prepared statement.

They didn't like how Vindman, who emigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union as a child, pointed out that what he came to Capitol Hill to do -- speak out about how it was "improper for the president... to demand an investigation into a political opponent, especially a foreign power where there is, at best, dubious belief that this would be a completely impartial investigation" -- was something that "would not be tolerated in many places around the world."

"In Russia, my act of expressing concern to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal, professional repercussions and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life," Lt Col Vindman said.

Republicans didn't like the message, so they focused their efforts on shooting the messenger.

Over the course of the four-and-a-half hour hearing, Republicans questioned Lt Col Vindman's competence, his obedience to his chain of command, his commitment to serving his country in a non-partisan manner, and even his loyalty to the country he'd called home since age 3 -- the country for which he'd shed blood in 2003, when he received a Purple Heart after being wounded by an terrorist improvised explosive device in Iraq.

But in his first -- and what he said was "hopefully [his] last" appearance before a congressional committee, Lt Col Vindman gave no quarter to his Republican inquisitors.

When Republican counsel Steve Castor pressed him on an offer he'd received from a Ukrainian official who'd raised the idea of Vindman, who was born in what is now Ukraine, becoming that country's defence minister, Vindman said he ""chain of command and the appropriate counterintelligence folks."

"I'm an American," Vindman said. "I came here when I was a toddler and I immediately dismissed these offers. Did not entertain them."

But Castor wouldn't drop the matter. He continued asking Vindman about the offer he'd rejected, even asking if the offer had come in Ukrainian or English, and if he'd left the door open to accepting the job.

"Was there a reason that he had to come back and ask a second and third time or was he just trying to convince you" Castor asked.

Vindman's reply came immediately: "Counsel, it's -- you know what? The whole notion is rather comical that I was being asked to consider whether I would want to be the minister of defense."

Later on, Representative Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who'd been moved onto the committee to bolster members' defense of the president, clashed with Vindman over whether his former boss, Dr Fiona Hill, had questioned his judgement or express concerns with his job performance.

But Vindman came prepared. In response, he read a copy of Dr Hill's comments to his last performance review: "Alex is top 1 per cent military officer and the best Army officer I have worked with in my 15 years of government service. He is brilliant, unflappable, and exercises excellent judgement' -- I'm sorry -- 'Was exemplary during numerous visits,' so forth and so on. I think you get the idea."

Jordan dropped that line of questioning, but later turned to pressing Vindman on why he took his concerns about Mr Trump's July 25 call to a National Security Council lawyer, rather than go to a supervisor.

"You not only didn't go to your boss... you went straight to your lawyer," Jordan said.

"I did my core function, which is coordination," Vindman replied. "I spoke to the appropriate people within the inner-agency and then circling back around, [my attorney] told me not to talk to anybody."

Jordan, unsatisfied with the lieutenant colonel's explanation, fired back.

"You talked to someone and you won't tell us who it is," Mr Jordan said, a subtle implication that Vindman was one of the National Security Council staffers who spoke to the Intelligence Community whistleblower who Republicans have been trying to unmask.

"You talked to the one guy who Adam Schiff won't tell us who it is," he continued, almost shouting when Vindman interjected:

"Representative Jordan, I did my job," he said.

As the White House's official Twitter account pushed out attacks on Vindman -- who still serves on the National Security Council and works in the White House itself -- other Republicans continued the attack.

During a break in the hearing, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, criticized Vindman's decision to wear his Army dress uniform when offering testimony that was unflattering to Mr Trump, even though it is required wear for any military officer testifying before Congress.

"I think that there's been decisions made here [by Vindman to wear the uniform] and they may or may not have been appropriate. You have to be sensitive to the fact that when you testify, your testimony is a reflection of the United States military whether you intend it to be or not," Perry said.

"When you're serving in uniform, there's one commander-in-chief, and while you might question personally that commander-in-chief, your job is to take the order and move out, period," he continued.

When it was pointed out to Perry that Vindman is the White House's Ukraine expert, he attacked the decorated Army veteran further.

"He's an expert but he didn't know a whole lot of the answers to the questions about Ukraine, and yet he's the expert," he said.

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North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, an Oversight Committee member who attended the morning session, wouldn't say whether Vindman was a credible witness.

"That's a decision for the American people to make," he said.

When asked why Vindman's rejection of an offer to be Ukraine's defence minister wasn't evidence of the esteem in which he was held by the government of a close American ally, Meadows laughed and compared the offer to Vindman to the Russian government offering him a job.

"That's a ridiculous question," he said.

But current and former colleagues of Meadows and Jordan decried the attacks on Vindman's character and loyalty.

One member of the intelligence committee, Representative Joaquin Castro, called Republicans' tactics "unfortunate, to say the least."

"[The Republicans' case] is very weak, so they're going after the character of witnesses," he said.

One of Castro's former colleagues Illinois Republican Joe Walsh, called the GOP smears "shameful."

"Republicans today attacked a soldier for doing his job. They attacked a soldier for doing his duty," said Mr Walsh, who is currently challenging Mr Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020. "This is what you do when you sell your soul," he said.

Minnesota Democrat Dean Phillips told The Independent that he found Vindman's testimony and record of service to the United States to be "compelling."

"I think he's a very credible witness...and I'm disappointed by those who are trying to demean his character and service -- that saddens me more than anything," said Mr Phillips.

"Certain members of Congress are using language that would indicate concern about his loyalty to our country, and this is a man who has served in our armed services for years, was wounded in war, is here in uniform today and was selected by the White House to be their Ukraine expert," he continued.

"To indicate that his loyalties might be to Ukraine over the United States is really shameful."

General Wesley Clark, who served as NAtO's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe from 1997 to 2000, predicted that Republicans' attacks on his fellow Army veteran would backfire in the same way Democrats' attacks on another decorated officer once did.

Trump impeachment: President mocks witnesses for wearing military uniform and bow tie

"Remember how angry Republicans were that Democrats questioned Petraeus? [They] made him a hero," Gen Clark recalled.

"I believe Alexander Vindman will be elevated by the partisan attacks on his character," he predicted.

"He is just an Army officer, trying to do his duty. And it has taken a lot of courage for him to come forward and speak out."

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