'We're not some banana republic': National security adviser defends removal of Trump impeachment witness from White House job

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON — National security adviser Robert O’Brien said Tuesday evening there had been “absolutely” no retaliation involved in Friday’s departure of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council, even as President Trump seemed to indicate that the military would “look into” whether to take disciplinary action against the Army officer.

Vindman, who had been the NSC’s director of European affairs, testified in November during the impeachment proceedings against the president, saying he considered Trump’s efforts to have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter “inappropriate.” With his twin brother, Yevgeny, also an Army lieutenant colonel on the NSC staff, Vindman was escorted from the White House grounds Friday.

Trump said Tuesday that it would be “up to the military” whether Vindman is disciplined for his role in the impeachment proceedings. “But if you look at what happened, they’re going to certainly — I would imagine — take a look at that,” he said. 

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

However, later in the day, O’Brien denied that there had been any retribution involved in the ouster of the Vindman brothers. “There’s absolutely no retaliation with respect to the Vindmans as far as impeachment goes,” O’Brien told CBS journalist Margaret Brennan during a question-and-answer session at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “But the president is entitled to a staff that he has confidence in and that he believes will execute his policies.”

Nonetheless, O’Brien then seemed to suggest that the Vindman brothers were engaged in an effort to “dictate” policy to Trump. “We’re not some banana republic where lieutenant colonels get together and decide what the policy is or should be,” O’Brien added.

“It’s really a privilege to work at the White House, it’s not a right,” O’Brien said, adding that the Vindmans had each served at the NSC for more than a year. “It was just time for them to go back,” he said. “Their services were no longer needed.” 

O’Brien initially tried to portray the Vindmans’ departure as part of a larger restructuring of the NSC staff will see more than a hundred staffers — mostly career personnel from the military, the intelligence community or other agencies — leave their positions.

Some of those cuts are already happening. He said that by the end of the week the number of people on the NSC will be down to about 115 to 120.

“They weren’t fired,” O’Brien said of the Vindmans. “None of the detailees that leave the NSC are fired.” He downplayed the reports of the Vindmans being walked off the White House grounds, describing that as “standard procedure” for people on their last day of work there. “I just wouldn’t read anything into that,” he said. 

But pressed by Margaret Brennan of CBS, he acknowledged that Vindman’s position was not being phased out and was already being filled by someone else.

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