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30 October, 2019

Vindman’s Ukraine testimony is a disaster for Trump

A decorated Army officer says the U.S. president acted improperly in demanding politically motivated investigations

For Republicans and Democrats alike, the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman on Tuesday represented a turning point in Washington’s impeachment saga that brought a firsthand witness to U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine—and a man with an impeccable resume—to center stage.

It’s not just that Vindman, an Iraq War veteran and expert on Eastern Europe who is currently the director of European affairs at the National Security Council, was the first serving member of the U.S. military to provide his account of Trump’s actions toward Ukraine and was also the first current White House official to testify before congressional investigators. Nor is it just that he is the first official to have listened in on Trump’s July call with his Ukrainian counterpart to provide an account.

It’s that Vindman, more than any previous witness, corroborated in detail the account of the original whistleblower. In six pages of testimony, he described in specific, direct terms the campaign launched by Trump and his allies to turn Ukraine into a domestic political weapon and how this undermined Washington’s goal of guiding Ukraine into the West’s embrace and building it up as a bulwark against Russia.

And while Vindman immediately became a target of Trump and his minions—the president dismissed him as one of many “Never Trumpers” who have gone before congressional investigators to complain “about a perfectly appropriate phone call”—he may well be more immune to the sort of discrediting perfected by the Trump team.

For weeks, a stream of witnesses have appeared before congressional investigators to confirm the central allegations of a whistleblower complaint that catapulted Trump’s machinations toward Ukraine into the public consciousness. These witnesses have included some of the U.S. government’s most seasoned civil servants—the Vietnam veteran, career diplomat, and acting envoy to Ukraine Bill Taylor; the longtime foreign service officer Marie Yovanovitch; Fiona Hill, a scholar of Eastern Europe who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations; and Kurt Volker, a protege of and foreign-policy aide to the late Sen. John McCain.

Trump has dismissed each of these witnesses as part of a plot against him emanating from within the deepest reaches of the U.S. government. But Vindman’s testimony provides a rebuke to Trump’s actions in office from a member of one of the institutions still revered in American life.

“The one criticism the Republicans have continued to levy is, look, this is all secondhand knowledge,” Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Foreign Policy. “Well here you have a witness that currently works in the White House, who is able to provide firsthand knowledge.” Bera did not comment on the specific details of Vindman’s closed-door testimony but said what he heard “starts to pull a lot of things together” on how Trump sought to pressure Ukraine.

Upon hearing Trump demand in a July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he open an investigation into the business activities of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Vindman immediately grew alarmed. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine,” he said.

Trump and some of his Republican allies have seized upon Biden’s son Hunter’s work on behalf of the Ukrainian gas firm Burisma as a political weapon ahead of the 2020 presidential election, in which Biden is an aspiring challenger, and Vindman concluded that effort could be fatal for Washington’s policy toward Kyiv. “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained,” Vindman said, according to a copy of his opening statement.

That testimony resulted in immediate attacks on Vindman, but his background makes him a difficult target for Trump and his allies to denigrate. Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, Vindman’s family left Soviet Ukraine when he and his twin brother, who also works at the National Security Council, were 3 years old. In his opening testimony, he describes how his family worked to “build its own American dream,” as his father worked multiple jobs in New York City and studied English in the evenings. Their mother died shortly before they left Ukraine.

Vindman joined the U.S. military, completing his basic training in 1999 and subsequently serving tours overseas, including in South Korea and Germany. He deployed to Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion and was awarded a purple heart after being injured in an explosion. He went on to get a master’s degree in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies at Harvard University, and in 2008 he became a foreign area officer specializing in Eurasia.

Vindman’s record is a hard one for the president’s allies to pick apart, but some have still tried. On Monday evening, the Fox News personality Laura Ingraham deployed an anti-Semitic trope to attack Vindman, suggesting that he may have dual loyalties because of his Ukrainian background and that he may be working against the president’s interests.

That is already causing divisions within the Republican caucus. Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives and the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, described attacks on Vindman’s patriotism as a step too far in the Republican Party’s effort to protect Trump from impeachment.

“We need to show that we are better than that as a nation,” Cheney told reporters, citing Vindman’s military service. “We’re talking about decorated veterans who have served this nation, who put their lives on the line, and it is shameful to question their patriotism.”

Other top Republicans also stepped in to defend Vindman. “That guy’s a Purple Heart. I think it would be a mistake to attack his credibility,” Republican Sen. John Thune, the second-highest-ranking Republican senator, told Politico. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell added that he was not going “going to question the patriotism of any of the people who come forward.”

The defense of Vindman offered up by some of the Republican Party’s seniormost figures illustrates how difficult a target he will be for Trump’s allies to undermine. But what is less clear is whether his testimony will mark a political turning point in the broader congressional debate over impeaching Trump.

Public and congressional support for the inquiry could turn in part on whether Democrats succeed in bringing key witnesses to testify before the inquiry. Democrats are trying to compel a former deputy national security advisor, Charles Kupperman, to testify, but rather than comply with a subpoena to do so, Kupperman has asked a federal court whether he needs to comply with the demand from Capitol Hill or a White House order demanding he do so.

Kupperman represents a key witness who remains to be heard from, and whether he does testify could have major implications for another important witness who has not gone before Congress. Kupperman was a close aide to National Security Advisor John Bolton, who the witnesses say was furious about the attempt to use military aid to pressure Kyiv, and whether his former deputy provides his testimony may influence Bolton’s decision to follow suit.

Like Vindman, Kupperman listened in on the July 25 call, and his testimony may shed additional light on the campaign to pressure Kyiv to investigate the younger Biden.

On the heels of Vindman’s explosive testimony and amid the dispute over whether additional White House officials will testify, the impeachment inquiry will face a critical test later this week when House lawmakers will take a formal vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry. That vote, scheduled for Thursday, will force Republican lawmakers to take an on-the-record stand on whether the voluminous, direct, and corroborated evidence of Trump’s attempt to strongarm Kyiv rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Republican lawmakers are privately complaining about the difficulty of defending Trump’s actions—spelled out in a transcript of his July 25 phone call for all to read—but that is far different from casting a vote to remove from office the leader of their own party.

But the words of an Army lieutenant colonel testifying in uniform about the corrupt acts of the president might be enough to at least start pushing them down that road.

Foreign Policy

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