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Alexander Vindman, the White House staffer who sparked Trump's 1st impeachment, tells his story

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Alexander Vindman was preparing to testify at President Donald Trump's first impeachment hearing – in an inquiry sparked by Vindman's report of a troubling White House phone conversation – when the National Security Council staffer faced heated pushback from a certain Trump ally.

His father.

"Support the president!" Semyon Vindman demanded during a long drive, fraught with conflict, to a family wedding in Rhode Island in September 2019. "Do whatever the president wants!"

"It was a source of tension," the younger Vindman acknowledged dryly in an interview with USA TODAY at his home in a leafy Washington suburb. "He wanted me to kind of reconcile with President Trump. He had this image of me, you know, marching into the Oval Office, saluting sharply and saying, 'OK, President Trump, how do we fix this?'"

But while his conservative father sat next to him in the front seat, declaring his support for Trump and warning about the risks of testifying, his pragmatic wife was in the back seat. Rachel Vindman was quietly using her smart phone to search for a lawyer to represent her husband through the firestorm that was about to upend their lives – and the president's.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the National Security Council, testifies Nov. 19, 2019, before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in a public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into allegations President Donald Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the National Security Council, testifies Nov. 19, 2019, before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in a public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into allegations President Donald Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.

One month later, Alexander Vindman did testify before a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee, detailing an explosive quid pro quo he had heard Trump offer Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. During a phone conversation Vindman was monitoring in the Situation Room, Trump had asked for "a favor," for Kiev to announce a corruption investigation into political rival Joe Biden in exchange for the release of U.S. military aid.

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Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a  witness in President Donald Trump's first impeachment trial, says his father was adamant that he should support the president.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a witness in President Donald Trump's first impeachment trial, says his father was adamant that he should support the president.

Vindman details his side of the story – and his own "American story," as a 3-year-old émigré from the Soviet Union who made it to an office in the White House – in a book being published Tuesday by Harper Books. "Here, Right Matters," depicts a narcissistic, mercurial president who seemed to have little interest in the substance of national security policy, surrounded by aides whose priorities were currying favor and protecting his back.

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The book's title comes from the most memorable words of Vindman's testimony to Congress, a solemn figure in an Army uniform. They weren't part of his prepared opening statement but came during a later exchange with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y.

Nov 19, 2019;  Washington, DC, USA; Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence, 2nd from left, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the National Security Council, arrive to testify on Nov. 19, 2019 before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Nov 19, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence, 2nd from left, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the National Security Council, arrive to testify on Nov. 19, 2019 before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

At the hearing, Vindman didn't reveal his father's support for Trump or relate the initial advice he had heard from him. But he did tell the panel that he had reassured his dad about what might happen if he spoke out. He thanked him for his "brave act of hope" in emigrating from the the Soviet Union 40 years earlier as a widowed father with three small children. In the United States, he assured him, "I will be fine for telling the truth."

Why was he confident about that?

"Congressman, because this is America...," Vindman had replied. "And here, right matters."

More earnest nerd than political mastermind

Two years and one week have passed since that phone call. And Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of Vindman's return to civilian life after he realized that his once-bright future in the military had been extinguished by blowback to his decision to report the call, as he believed his duty required.

Sitting at his kitchen table, he comes across less as political mastermind and more as earnest nerd – the word he uses to describe himself – who still seems surprised by the historic spotlight in which he finds himself. Before all this, he had been sufficiently apolitical that he couldn't remember whether he cast a ballot for president in 2016, although if he did he's certain it wasn't for Trump. ("It's not something I take pride in now," he said sheepishly about having been an unreliable voter. "Actually, it's like 'shame on me.'")

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When the furor erupted and a friend phoned to say his name was exploding on cable news, the couple struggled to find where the channels were because they hadn't watched them before. "They were like, 'Turn it on!'" she recalled with a laugh. "And I'm like, 'I don't even know how to turn it on!'"

Now, of course, they know how to find the cable news stations. Rachel, who had moved 11 times during her first 10 years as a military spouse, following her husband's deployments, has become a public figure of her own. She cohosts a politically minded podcast called "The Suburban Women Problem" and is a more irreverent voice on social media than her husband.

Their daughter, now 10, has developed similar instincts. When Eleanor would spot a house with a Trump sign in the yard – not an uncommon sight in their neighborhood during the 2020 campaign – she would suggest that they ring the doorbell and offer to talk about it. "Maybe she takes after her mom a little bit," Rachel said.

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For Alexander Vindman, the path to this new stage in his life hasn't always been smooth. As it turned out, his father's warnings about potential repercussions – reprisals, character assassination, the end of his career – weren't entirely unfounded. They also eventually cost Trump this particular supporter; Vindman says his disenchanted father voted for Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.

Two days after Trump was acquitted in that first Senate impeachment trial, Vindman was fired from his job at the NSC as director for European affairs. His identical twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, then the top ethics official at the NSC, also was fired.

Eugene and Alexander Vindman at Alexander's promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, in the Joint Staff Flag Room of the Pentagon in November 2015.
Eugene and Alexander Vindman at Alexander's promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, in the Joint Staff Flag Room of the Pentagon in November 2015.

Alex remembers the words of the NSC official who arrived unannounced in his office that day, accompanied by a security officer who would escort him off the premises. "Please step away from your computer," she told him. "Leadership has determined your services are no longer required."

That surprised no one. Indeed, Vindman had already packed up and carted home his personal items. More surprising, and more dismaying to him, was the apparent conclusion of Pentagon brass that he had become too politically toxic – that he had "flown too close to the sun" – to resume the full promise of his military career. After 21 years of service, including a Purple Heart for injuries he suffered in Iraq, he reluctantly retired.

"I loved my military service," he said. But when he was under attack, his family's safety threatened, he thought Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley were "weak-kneed" in their response, perhaps because they felt under fire from Trump themselves. "I ultimately came to the conclusion that there was no point in sticking around."

Now 46 years old, he has landed on his feet, albeit onto a landscape quite different from the one he inhabited before. He writes for the Lawfare blog, is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House, has signed a consulting contract with a multinational corporation and delivers speeches about principled decision-making. He is working on his doctoral dissertation at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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He also has gained a certain authority when it comes to presidential impeachment. “The next time there’s an impeachment,” he said half-jokingly, “I’ll be back up there like John Dean," the White House counsel who was a crucial witness in President Nixon's impeachment and emerged as a regular commentator during Trump's impeachments.

Vindman has become a hero to those who credit him with saving democracy and a villain to those who blame him for undermining a president they revere.

On Twitter, the platform that Trump had used to such effect before being banned, Vindman now has more than half a million followers. His avatar is a tiny cartoon version of himself wearing a military uniform and oversized cap. His posture ramrod, he is looking straight ahead with a determined expression on his face.

Weighing the 'what ifs'

The moment the call between Trump and Zelensky was over, Vindman knew he would have to report it up the chain of command, whatever the consequences. He walked from the Situation Room to his brother's office at the NSC and closed the door.

"If what I just heard becomes public," he told him, "the president will be impeached."

Even after the impeachment and official reports that have followed, the public transcript of the call is incomplete, he says. In Vindman's contemporaneous notes, Zelensky explicitly mentioned Burisma Holdings, the energy board on which Biden's son, Hunter, had served. And Trump declared, in a statement not supported by evidence, that "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution" of that company.

For whatever reason, his efforts to correct that record didn't make it into the final version of the call. "It's possible somebody screened out my edits because they are significant, but I don't know that for certain," he said. The omissions also might be the result of "bureaucratic incompetence," he said.

Let's think about the "what ifs," I asked Vindman. For himself, what if he hadn't reported that phone call?

"I'd be a colonel," he said. He already had been recommended for a promotion to full colonel and chosen for an elite program at the U.S. War College. With that done, he would be in a position to become, perhaps, the Army attaché in Moscow or Kiev. Eventually, he might have had a realistic prospect of being promoted to general.

For the country, what if he hadn't reported that phone call?

Under "the most rosy scenario," he said, the House committees that were beginning to investigate why the Trump administration was holding up military aid to Ukraine approved by Congress might have uncovered the president's pitch to Zelensky.

"But that's the most rosy outcome," he went on. "I think the more likely outcome would be that none of this potentially would have unfolded."

Vindman then raised another "what-if" question: What if Trump had been convicted by the Senate in his first impeachment trial and removed from office?

"The president was not held accountable for his actions," bolstering his belief that he was basically above the law, Vindman said. That conclusion is threaded through what followed in the final year of Trump's presidency.

"There's a direct kind of narrative that feeds through being emboldened and acting with impunity through the early days of COVID...the riots in the summer that the president inflamed, the insurrection," Vindman said. "I think there's a continuous line because the Senate and the political actors chose not to live up to their rules" in demanding accountability then.

"At the same time, the American public weighed all that," he added, "and voted him out of office."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Here, right matters': Alexander Vindman and Trump's first impeachment

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