President Donald Trump's early dismissal of U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council staff on Friday was half-expected based on the reporting from the night prior, but it still came as a shock to former senior officials and those who served with the soldier.
Vindman testified nearly three months ago to the House Intelligence Committee that Trump's “inappropriate” phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July had concerned him, prompting him to raise objections within his chain of command out of a “sense of duty.”
The lieutenant colonel's account of the conversation between the two heads of state made him a target of political attacks from President Trump and his surrogates. As conservative commentators took to the airwaves to impugn his service and wartime record — even criticizing his decision to wear the Army dress uniform during his testimony — Trump cast aspersions in the weeks that followed.
“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,” Trump tweeted Saturday, a day after the White House dismissed Vindman.
But one of Vindman's former commanders countered Trump's characterization. Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, who commanded then-Maj. Vindman from 2012 to 2014, said he wanted to “correct the record” about Vindman.
“He's obviously very bright, self-made,” Zwack told Business Insider in an interview.
Zwack first met Vindman in Washington D.C., as they prepared for a government trip to Moscow, Russia. Zwack would continue serving in the region after Vindman completed his tour, and assisted with the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shoot down.
“We worked in a pressure-cooker environment in Moscow where you have to trust everybody,” Zwack said. “You just have to trust each other, there's no in-between.”
“I would trust Alex with my life,” Zwack added, referring to Vindman by his first name. “It was literally important — we were in a difficult operational environment as attachés representing the United States to the Russians. We really had to be reliable, we had to be accurate, we had to be diplomats and Alex was good at all of it.”
Zwack, now a global fellow for the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Kennan Institute, pointed to Vindman's fluency in Russian as an asset during their missions there. Vindman immigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union when he was three, and joined the Army after college as an infantry officer; he later transferred to become a foreign area officer whose expertise is Russia and eastern Europe.
“I've traveled with him deep into Russia on various occasions,” Zwack said, adding that Vindman was “always smart, interesting, and had good judgement … I trusted him completely.”
The timing and the circumstance of Vindman's dismissal fueled speculation that the move was retaliation by the White House. Vindman was reportedly escorted out of White House grounds just a few months shy of his completion of a two-year tour.
President Donald Trump holds up a newspaper with the headline that reads “ACQUITTED” during the 68th annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Associated Press/Evan Vucci)
The White House claimed Vindman was one casualty from a wider effort to downsize the NSC, an initiative that has been in the works for over a year, according to The Washington Post. But Vindman's twin brother Yevgeny, also a US Army lieutenant colonel, was dismissed from his post as an ethics attorney on the NSC, despite not testifying in the House's impeachment investigation.
Retired Marine Corps Col. David Lapan, a former Pentagon spokesman and the vice president of communications at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he “absolutely” believed the ouster of Vindman and his brother Yevgeny was a retaliation from the White House.
“It was Lt. Col. Alex Vindman who actually testified under oath in front of Congress,” Lapan told Business Insider. “His brother didn't. Yet somehow his brother was also dismissed from his position in the National Security Council.”
“They all serve at the pleasure of the president and he should have people he trusts,” Lapan added. “But if the president didn't trust him, then why did this happen today? He testified back in mid-November. So if the president had concerns with his ability to trust Lt. Col. Vindman, why did he wait until after he was acquitted by the Senate to take this action? The argument about trust completely falls apart.”
Zwack said he believed ouster was “designed to send a message,” adding that Vindman's tenure at the NSC may have been a “toxic environment for him” due to the politicization of his testimony.
Both of the Vindmans are expected to be transferred to prestigious follow-on assignments within the Army — Alex eventually to the Army War College in Pennsylvania, an institution designed to prepare officers for leadership roles; and Yevgeny to the Army's general counsel, according to The New York Times.
But the chance for further reprisals, from the Defense Department or its commander-in-chief, still looms. Lapan said military reprisals “can take many forms,” such as “the type of assignments he gets from now on and it can be future promotions.”
If Vindman becomes a “full-bird” colonel and chooses to stay in the Army, he will require a nomination from the president and the Republican-controlled Senate's approval to become a general officer.
“I would recommend the Pentagon that given all the circumstances … to state very clearly that Vindman will be allowed to come back to the Army, that he will get his follow on assignments and there won't be any retaliation against him,” Lapan said. “I think that is needed right now to send a strong message to the force that we're not going to allow retaliation for somebody who was subpoenaed.”
“In this environment, with the president impugning his character, questioning his integrity, it's incumbent on the military to make clear to everybody in the force that that's not going to be tolerated,” Lapan added. “You first have to set the standard very clearly, and then you have to enforce it.”
Zwack said there could be “concern and trepidation” for a career military officer to serve with the NSC in the Trump administration, but added “it's what we do.”
“The greater service is to our Republic and to the Constitution,” Zwack said. “But I think certainly that anybody going up there would be very careful and tread carefully.”
To his former soldier, Zwack offered a message of encouragement: “Stand tall, stand proud, continue to press forward. Continue to do the right thing.”
Read more from Business Insider:
- Alexander Vindman's lawyer has hit back at Trump, accusing him of waging a 'campaign of intimidation' against impeachment witnesses
- People are comparing Trump's purge of 2 top officials who testified against him to an episode straight out of the Watergate scandal
- 'He's trying to muzzle everyone': National security veterans were shaken by Trump's decision to 'purge' witnesses who testified against him