WASHINGTON — A lawyer for an army officer who gave damning evidence against US President Donald Trump during the impeachment probe accused the American leader Saturday of making “false statements” about his client and of engaging in a “campaign of intimidation.”
Trump on Saturday defended his decision to fire Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who was escorted Friday out of the White House, where he worked on the National Security Council as an expert on Ukraine. His lawyer called the move an act of revenge by the president, two days after he was acquitted by the Senate.
“Fake News @CNN & MSDNC keep talking about ‘Lt. Col.’ Vindman as though I should think only how wonderful he was,” Trump tweeted, apparently referring to news outlet MSNBC.
“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.”
“In other words, ‘OUT.'”
Vindman was present during a now famous July 25 phone call during which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden.
House Democrats who impeached Trump on allegations of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress argued that the call was part of a concerted effort to coerce a weak foreign ally at war with Russia into helping him cheat in November’s presidential election.
Subpoenaed by Congress to testify at the House impeachment hearings, the Ukrainian-born Vindman, who received a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Iraq, said Trump’s actions were “improper.”
That testimony helped build the case leading to Trump becoming only the third president ever impeached by Congress.
The Army said in a statement that Vindman and his twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, who also was asked to leave his job as a White House lawyer on Friday, had been reassigned to the Army.
Vindman’s lawyer David Pressman on Saturday called Trump’s tweet “a series of obviously false statements concerning Lieutenant Colonel Vindman.”
“They conflict with the clear personnel record and the entirety of the impeachment record of which the President is well aware,” he said in a statement to US media.
“While the most powerful man in the world continues his campaign of intimidation, while too many entrusted with political office continue to remain silent, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman continues his service to our country as a decorated, active duty member of our military.”
On Friday, Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union and who also testified against Trump, said he was being recalled immediately.
Sondland was a crucial witness in the House impeachment inquiry, telling investigators that “Everyone was in the loop” on Trump’s desire to press Ukraine for politically charged investigations. He told lawmakers how he came to understand that there was a “quid pro quo” connecting a desired White House visit for Ukraine’s leader and an announcement that the country would conduct the investigations the president wanted.
Democratic Senator Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, on Saturday slammed Trump’s “personal insecurities and vindictiveness.”
“By firing Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and Ambassador Sondland like this, the Trump Administration signaled it won’t tolerate people who tell the truth,” he said in a statement.
“This is a dangerous moment for our democracy and the non-partisan institutions charged with defending it and upholding the law.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement called Vindman’s firing “a sad and shameless loss.”
“The shameful firing of Colonel Vindman was a clear and brazen act of retaliation that showcases the President’s fear of the truth,” Pelosi said.
“Lieutenant Colonel Vindman has proven to be an American patriot: on the battlefield when he earned a Purple Heart, and in the House trial when he spoke truth to power. His brave testimony showed America that right still matters,” she said.
Vindman’s status had been uncertain since he testified that he didn’t think it was “proper” for Trump to “demand that a foreign government investigate” former Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s dealings with the energy company Burisma in Ukraine. Vindman’s ouster, however, seemed imminent after Trump mocked him Thursday during his post-acquittal celebration with Republican supporters in the East Room and said Friday that he was not happy with him.
“You think I’m supposed to be happy with him?” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. “I’m not… They are going to be making that decision.”
Vindman, a 20-year Army veteran, wore his uniform full of medals, including a purple heart, when he appeared late last year for what turned out to be a testy televised impeachment hearing. Trump supporters raised questions about the Jewish Soviet immigrant’s allegiance to the United States and noted that he had received offers to work for the government of Ukraine, offers Vindman said he swiftly dismissed.
“I am an American,” he stated emphatically.
Trump backers cheered Vindman’s removal, while Democrats were aghast.
“The White House is running a two for one special today on deep state leakers,” Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, wrote on Twitter.
A Twitter account used by the president’s reelection campaign, @TrumpWarRoom, claimed Vindman leaked information to the whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s call ignited the investigation, and “colluded with Democrats to start the partisan impeachment coup.”
Former Trump NSC official Tim Morrison testified that others had brought concerns that Vindman may have leaked something. Vindman, in his own congressional testimony, denied leaking any information.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the firing was another example of how the “White House runs away from the truth.”
“Lt. Col. Vindman lived up to his oath to protect and defend our Constitution,” Schumer said in a statement. “This action is not a sign of strength. It only shows President Trump’s weakness.”
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, recalled how Vindman in testimony before the House impeachment panel said that he reassured his worried father that he would be “fine for telling the truth.”
“It’s appalling that this administration may prove him wrong,” Clinton said in a tweet.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked what the Pentagon would do to ensure that Vindman faces no retribution. “We protect all of our service members from retribution or anything like that,” Esper said. “We’ve already addressed that in policy and other means.”
Alexander Vindman is scheduled to enter a military college in Washington, DC, this summer, and his brother is to be assigned to the Army General Counsel’s Office, according to two officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pressman said Vindman was among a handful of men and women who courageously “put their faith in country ahead of fear” but have “paid a price.”
“There is no question in the mind of any American why this man’s job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House,” Pressman said. “Lt. Col. Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”