WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump fired two high-profile impeachment witnesses on Friday – a national security adviser and a prominent ambassador – in what appeared to be a campaign of retribution for their damning testimony to House impeachment investigators.
Trump first ousted Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert, from the National Security Council, and just hours later, yanked Gordon Sondland, his ambassador to the European Union, from his post in Brussels.
“I was advised today that the president intends to recall me effective immediately as United States Ambassador to the European Union,” Sondland said in a statement Friday evening. “I am grateful to President Trump for having given me the opportunity to serve.”
Vindman’s lawyer, David Pressman, said his client’s removal smacked of payback.
“(Lt. Col.) Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful,” Vindman’s attorney, David Pressman, said. “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.”
White House officials declined to comment on the firings.
“We do not comment on personnel matters,” NSC spokesman John Ullyot said.
Both men provided pivotal testimony during last fall’s House impeachment hearings.
Sondland testified on Nov. 20 that he worked with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, at “the express direction of the president” to pressure Ukrainian officials to open two politically motivated investigations.
Sondland told lawmakers that Trump’s demands on Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky amounted to a “quid pro quo,” noting the White House was withholding security assistance to Ukraine and a White House meeting for Zelensky. And he said “everyone was in the loop,” implicating Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the scheme.
Sondland snagged the EU ambassador post after donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. He took on the plum job with no diplomatic experience, but Trump soon added Ukraine to Sondland’s portfolio, even though it’s not an EU country. At the president’s direction, Sondland shunted aside more seasoned Ukraine experts in the administration.
As the impeachment proceedings unfolded and Sondland revealed startling new details about Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign, the president tried to distance himself from his ambassador.
Trump also targeted Yevgeny Vindman, Alexander’s twin brother and also a national security adviser, firing him from the White House on Friday even though he did not testify in the House hearings.
“The administration’s dismissal of Lt. Col. Vindman, his brother and US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is clear political retaliation, the likes of which is seen only in authoritarian countries around the world,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“In coming forward to testify about this president’s behavior, in speaking the truth, in raising concerns about events that troubled them as guardians of our national security, they carried out an act of selfless patriotism and love of country that most in the White House are incapable of understanding,” Menendez said. “Those who suggested President Trump’s behavior would improve following his impeachment have been proven wrong.”
While the White House was mum, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted about Friday’s apparent purge.
“Allow me a moment to thank – and this may be a bit of a surprise – Adam Schiff,” Trump Jr., wrote, referring to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who led the Democrats’ impeachment probe. “Were it not for his crack investigation skills, @realDonaldTrump might have had a tougher time unearthing who all needed to be fired. Thanks Adam!”
And Trump had made it clear earlier on Friday that he wanted Vindman gone.
“I’m not happy with him,” Trump said on the South Lawn when asked about the reports that Vindman’s job could be at risk.
Taking aim at Trump, Pressman said Alexander Vindman served honorably, and for that “the most powerful man in the world – buoyed by the silent, the pliable, and the complicit – has decided to exact revenge.”
Vindman was escorted out of the White House by security, Pressman said, even though he has “spoken publicly once, and only pursuant to a subpoena from the United States Congress.”
His brother, who worked as a senior lawyer and ethics official at the National Security Council, was also escorted off of the White House grounds “suddenly and with no explanation, despite over two decades of loyal service to this country,” Pressman said. “He is deeply disappointed that he will not be able to continue his service at the White House.”
The trio of firings came two days after the Senate acquitted Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in an impeachment trial, which centered on allegations the president tried to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
During his public testimony, Vindman told House impeachment investigators that he viewed Trump’s request to Ukraine as “improper.”
“It was inappropriate,” Vindman said during that high-profile hearing. “It was improper for the president to request, to demand an investigation into a political opponent, especially a foreign power where there is at best dubious belief that this could be an impartial investigation and that this would have significant implications if it became public knowledge.”
Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Vindam’s removal “shameful” and warned that Trump would likely retaliate against other witnesses.
Vindman’s ouster is “what we should now expect from an impeached president whose party has decided he is above the law and accountable to no one,” Engel said. “Any senator who voted to keep Trump in office thinking he has learned his lesson must answer for this and for whatever parade of abuses we see in the future.”
Alexander Vindman was detailed to the White House from the Pentagon, and his appointment was scheduled to end this summer.
The Army confirmed Friday that both Vindmans have been reassigned to the Army but would not say what their duties are. Col. Kathy Turner, an Army spokeswoman, said “out of respect for their privacy, we will not be providing any further information at this time.”
During a White House event on Thursday to celebrate his acquittal, Trump lashed out at “evil” people and “scum” he blamed for his impeachment. In a rambling speech, he made a vague reference to Vindman and his twin brother Yevgeny Vindman.
“Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and his twin brother – right? – we had some people that –really amazing,” Trump said, without elaborating further.
Vindman was among several aides who listened to Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. At the time, Vindman reported concerns to superiors that Trump requested investigations of Biden and his son Hunter, who had business interests in the country; he later became a key witness in the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Vindman’s dismissal quickly prompted accusations of reprisal.
“All public servants of integrity at are risk [sic] with a vindictive president, enabling cabinet, and complicit Senate,” tweeted Barb McQuade, a former prosecutor who teaches law at the University of Michigan. “I hope they will do their duty anyway. Thanks for doing yours, Lt. Col. Vindman.”
Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents whistleblowers, said he did not know if removing Vindman constitutes “unlawful retaliation.” But escorting him off the White House grounds “was definitely tacky at a minimum,” he said in a Twitter post.
On the other hand, Zaid said Vindman “may very well be relieved to be out” at the White House. “Could you blame him!” he wrote.
In his Nov. 19 testimony, Vindman said he realized he was taking a risk in coming forward but believed he would be “fine” because the protections afforded in a democracy. He recalled his father’s decision to flee the Soviet Union in search of a better life.
“I am grateful for my father’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for mine and my family’s safety,” he told lawmakers. “Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Even before Friday’s developments, the Ukraine inquiry had caused upheaval at the National Security Council and inside the State Department, leading to the departure of a half-dozen seasoned foreign policy officials with Ukraine expertise.
Trump’s special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, resigned in September. Morrison, the president’s national security expert on Russia and Europe, left in October. Morrison had replaced Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who left the NSC in July of 2019.
Other casualties include Marie Yovanovitch, the one-time U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was the target of a smear campaign by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, and his associates. Trump ended her tenure abruptly in May 2019. Her successor, William Taylor, has also left his post in Kyiv.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook