President Donald Trump has moved against two of the most prominent witnesses at his impeachment hearings in the House with the removal of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine policy officer on the National Security Counsel. There is no question that the President has a right to remove them and Vindman is not being “fired” but rather being transferred to a Defense Department post. Both ignored instructions from the White House not to appear in Congress. Yet, the timing smacks of retaliation against witnesses and the White House has not offered a full explanation of the action. Previously, a Pentagon official pledged that no retaliation against Vindman would be tolerated, but that might not include a transfer. What is particularly concerning is the removal of the twin brother of Vindman who did not testify and merely went with his brother as emotional support at the hearing.
A president is entitled to a staff that he trusts, but the timing was clearly meant to send a message. It was a message that most senators did not want to hear. Senators like Susan Collins could well lose her seat over her vote and this move will only further enrage many in Maine. Most of us expected that these witnesses would be gradually moved to new posts or they would (like a number of other witnesses) voluntarily retire or leave government work. Vindman was expected to leave this post soon, as is common for such positions. It would have been easy to allow such transitions to occur gradually but Trump clearly wanted to counterpunch. It is a tendency that many of us have criticized in the past. Indeed, he effectively counterpunched his way into this impeachment.
Yet, again, I am most disturbed by the removal of Vindman’s twin brother Yevgeny, who serves as a senior lawyer on the NSC. Why? It smacks of familial retribution or Roman-style decimation. Some senators have suggested that they want to look more closely at Vindman’s conduct but there have been no allegations raised about the conduct of Yevgeny Vindman.
I have long criticized President Trump’s tendency to counterpunch when a more restrained approach would better advance his agenda and support his allies. This is one such example. At a minimum, the President should explain the action. It is possible that staff raised objections to the continuation of Vindman in light of the disobeying of the direction of the President on his testimony after the White House raised constitutional objections. However, the removal of his twin brother undermines such a rationale.
Update: President Trump has defended his action on Vindman with a tweet:
“Actually, I don’t know him, never spoke to him, or met him (I don’t believe!) but, he was very insubordinate, reported contents of my ‘perfect’ calls incorrectly, & was given a horrendous report by his superior, the man he reported to, who publicly stated that Vindman had problems with judgement, adhering to the chain of command and leaking information. In other words, ‘OUT’.”