Impeachment casts shadow over Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman's promotion
By SHANE HARRIS, MISSY RYAN, JOSH DAWSEY AND GREG MILLER | The Washington Post | Published: June 17, 2020
WASHINGTON — An Army officer's promotion is in jeopardy over what some officials fear could be White House retaliation for his role in last year's impeachment inquiry, raising the possibility that President Donald Trump might again intervene in military affairs, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who received a Purple Heart for his actions in Iraq and later served as a White House aide on European affairs, is among hundreds of officers selected to be promoted to full colonel this year. Normally, such promotions are signed off on by Army then Pentagon leaders before moving to the White House and onto the Senate for a confirmation vote. The list now sits in a Pentagon personnel office.
Multiple government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address personnel matters, have voiced concern, however, that the White House could strike Vindman's name once it is conveyed, effectively sanctioning him for testimony he gave under subpoena to House lawmakers in October.
A senior official said the White House has not received or approved a list of those up for promotions. A second official said that Trump dislikes Vindman more than any other witness in the impeachment proceeding and noted that he was the first one fired when it ended.
"The president said it was a 'total disgrace' what he did," the official said.
The second official said it is not clear what Trump would do but couldn't imagine that he would support Vindman's promotion.
The uncertainty surrounding Vindman's promotion comes at a sensitive moment for Pentagon leaders as they seek to move past a major crisis in civil-military relations caused by the participation of armed forces in the response to recent civil unrest and the perception that top Defense Department officials were inappropriately involved in one of the most politically and racially charged episodes in recent U.S. history.
While the fate of an officer at Vindman's grade wouldn't normally draw the scrutiny of senior White House officials, decisions about his military career path have taken on political overtones after he emerged as a key figure in the impeachment drama.
In his role as the National Security Council's Ukraine expert, Vindman listened to a phone call last July between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the call, Trump asked the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. Vindman told House investigators that he was alarmed by the call and that Trump appeared to condition military aid to Ukraine on the investigation.
Vindman's testimony, which was corroborated by other officials as well as a partial transcript of the call released by the White House, became crucial firsthand evidence in Trump's trial in the Senate, where he was acquitted.
In February, Trump removed Vindman from his post at the NSC, in what many officials saw as retribution for his testimony. Vindman, a decorated combat veteran, was escorted out of the White House. At the same time, Trump ordered the ousting of Vindman's twin brother, Yevgeny, a chief ethics lawyer at the NSC who did not testify in the impeachment probe.
The president has also attacked Vindman personally and questioned his credibility.
Vindman "was very insubordinate, reported contents of my 'perfect' calls incorrectly, & was given a horrendous report by his superior," Trump tweeted after the officer's removal. "In other words, 'OUT.' "
One U.S. official said that finalization of the Army promotion roster had been held up longer than originally anticipated by a number of factors including the covid-19 crisis and concerns that the White House might remove Vindman's name from the list.
And several officers up for promotion have said they anticipated that the final list would have been approved by now and that it was being held up over Vindman and the potential reaction from the president his ascension might trigger.
Vindman's attorney, David Pressman, said if the list was delayed it would have professional consequences for other lieutenant colonels who the Army has approved for a step up in rank.
"For his lifetime of service and his commitment to the rule of law, Lt. Col. Vindman has been targeted by the President and his proxies in an effort to humiliate and intimidate," Pressman said in a statement to The Washington Post.
"Unsatisfied by the results of their campaign of intimidation, the White House has also sought to retaliate. This campaign of intimidation and retaliation has led a decorated soldier to be marched out of the White House, his family threatened, and now a coordinated effort to forever limit his ability to continue to serve our country," he said.
After abruptly being dismissed from his White House position in February, Vindman has been assigned to at Fort Belvoir outside Washington, where he is working on defense policy.
If Vindman's promotion was blocked over his involvement in the impeachment, many in the military would likely see it as another troubling sign at a moment of soul-searching for officers across the services following the events of recent weeks.
As protests mounted following the death in police custody of George Floyd late last month, Trump's desire to use active-duty military force against protesters prompted clashes with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who later spoke out publicly against that move.
But both Esper and Gen. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were subject to an outpouring of criticism from retired senior military officials over their role in those events and for appearing alongside Trump as he toured an area outside the White House from which protesters had been forcibly cleared by security forces.
Milley later apologized for appearing with the president in Lafayette Square.
Those events compounded the strains caused by Trump's repeated flouting of norms that have traditionally guided presidential interactions with the military, including his interventions in military justice casesand his use of the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes, during his first days in office, to sign a divisive ban on travel from several majority Muslim nations.
While proposed promotions can be stalled even at their final stages for a number of reasons, including investigations or disciplinary actions, it would be unusual for an officer's promotion to be derailed for this kind of reason.
Several days before the ouster of Vindman from the White House and the recall of diplomat Gordon Sondland from his position as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, both seen as acts of retribution, the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Trump of impeachment charges.
While Trump suggested the Army might investigate Vindman, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy later said he would not face a probe or disciplinary action. Vindman has been expected to spend the coming year at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.