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Senator to block more than 1,000 military promotions unless Pentagon vows not to retaliate against Vindman

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., listens to Mark Esper's testimony during his Secretary of Defense confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in July, 2019.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By DONNA CASSATA AND FELICIA SONMEZ | The Washington Post | Published: July 2, 2020

WASHINGTON — A Democratic senator is blocking promotions for 1,123 senior members of the military until she gets assurances from Defense Secretary Mark Esper that he will not retaliate against an Army officer for his role in the past year’s impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said Thursday that she wants confirmation in writing from Esper that he did not or will not block the promotion of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Until she gets that assurance, she will maintain a hold on Senate confirmation of the hundreds of promotions.

Duckworth is a Purple Heart recipient and a former Army helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in the Iraq War.

Vindman, who received a Purple Heart related to his service in Iraq and later served as a White House aide on European affairs, is among hundreds of officers selected to be promoted to colonel this year.

In February, the White House ousted Vindman from his post on the National Security Council. He had testified to Congress in November that he was disturbed by Trump’s call for Ukraine to investigate the president’s political rivals.

“Our military is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy,” Duckworth said in a statement. “It is simply unprecedented and wrong for any Commander in Chief to meddle in routine military matters at all, whether or not he has a personal vendetta against a Soldier who did his patriotic duty and told the truth — a Soldier who has been recommended for promotion by his superiors because of his performance. … This goes far beyond any single military officer, it is about protecting a merit-based system from political corruption and unlawful retaliation.”

Duckworth’s office described her move as “unprecedented in modern times” and said it was a response to “numerous efforts by Donald Trump to politicize the nation’s Armed Forces.” In recent weeks, the president has threatened to send active-duty troops to quell protests against police brutality and has used top military officials “as props for a photo op,” Duckworth’s office said.

The president posed for a photo with Gen. Mark Milley — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — and others near the White House in June after authorities forcibly removed peaceful protesters from the area — an appearance for which Milley was criticized roundly and later apologized.

Trump’s ouster of Vindman from the National Security Council in February was condemned as vindictive and an attempt to intimidate government officials who speak out against Trump. Asked at the time about Vindman’s future, the president said only that he was “not happy with him.”

“You think I’m supposed to be happy with him?” Trump said. “I’m not.”

Duckworth is the latest senator to seek to hold the president accountable by blocking promotions or the consideration of Trump nominees.

In June, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime advocate for federal watchdogs, announced that he will block two of Trump’s nominees until the White House provides an explanation for the recent firings of intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson and State Department inspector general Steve Linick.

The Washington Post’s Shane Harris and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.

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