Soviet emigre, decorated US Army officer wanted to be as American as can be. Now the president questions his motives.
By MARC FISHER | The Washington Post | Published: November 9, 2019
His father gave up everything to escape from communism, an overbearing government, anti-Semitism and the painfully narrowed opportunities that Jews faced in the Soviet Union. Alexander Vindman grew up in Brooklyn, determined to be as American as can be.
Now Vindman is suddenly a crucial figure in a controversy that could lead to the impeachment of President Donald Trump — hailed by many of Trump's critics as a patriotic truth-teller yet dismissed by the president and some of his allies as a disloyal tattler who is somehow not fully American.
Vindman and his identical twin, Yevgeny, were not quite 4 when they landed in the United States, settling in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, a half-hour subway ride from the ferry to the Statue of Liberty.
Grateful to the nation that adopted them, the twins enlisted in the U.S. Army and launched careers in government. Today, at 44, Vindman is a military man in a job that puts a premium on discretion — and the commander in chief, without evidence, calls him a "Never Trumper witness."
But those who have worked with Vindman describe him as a model officer.
"He was firm and he was balanced," said Peter Zwack, a now-retired brigadier general who was Vindman's boss when the young officer was a Defense Department official working in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. "Totally self-made, as you often get with immigrants. They're hungry. There's a drive to pay back the opportunity that your new nation gave you."
As director of European affairs for the National Security Council, Vindman was required to listen in to the July 25 phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine, where Vindman was born. After the call, Vindman felt compelled to report his alarm over hearing the president request that Ukraine investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Washington scandals have at times over the years featured previously anonymous bureaucrats who glimpsed wrongdoing and found themselves thrust into instant fame, their lives abruptly gone topsy-turvy, their motives and histories examined for bias or venal intent.
In this time of political division and Internet-facilitated inspection, Vindman has lost the anonymity that served him well in Army positions at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and in the White House. After consulting with an ethics lawyer — his twin brother, a National Security Council attorney who worked across the hall from him — Vindman took his concern up the chain of command. He was no whistleblower, but he ended up telling his story to investigators, to a congressional committee, and soon, he is expected to appear before lawmakers during nationally televised hearings.
If Vindman's first appearance on Capitol Hill was any indication, he will be a formidable witness. Wearing his military uniform, Vindman testified in closed session for 10 hours last month — a grueling, combative session recounted in a 340-page transcript released Friday by the House Intelligence Committee.
Vindman's brush with fame quickly got ugly. On Fox News, Laura Ingraham described him as "a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president's interests," and John Yoo, a Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, replied that "some people might call that espionage." On CNN, former congressman Sean Duffy, R-Wis., suggested that Vindman "has an affinity, I think, for the Ukraine."
As a defense attache posted to an embassy overseas, Vindman, in the military's nonpartisan tradition, has insisted that he had no politics other than representing his government.
"I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country, irrespective of party or politics," he told the congressional committee last month. In his written text, he put the word "our" in capital letters.
"I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America," Vindman said.
Both Vindman brothers registered to vote as Democrats when they signed up in New York while still in their teens. After Alexander moved to Washington, he registered in the District of Columbia in 2012 without any party affiliation, according to city elections records.
But in today's Washington, where party affiliation can be viewed as a scarlet letter that brands even the apolitical as somehow biased, no affirmation of political neutrality seems to suffice.
Those who know Vindman well say nothing could pain him more than to have people question his allegiance to the country that gave him a home and a future.
Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who happened to feature the Vindman twins in a 1986 film about the Statue of Liberty, recalled them "fondly. Theirs is the story of America at its best."
As kids, the twins often dressed alike. They still do. Over four decades in America, they have moved from the powder-blue sailor suits their grandmother put them in to the deep-blue dress uniform of the U.S. Army, in which they both serve as lieutenant colonels. They both work in the White House, both for the National Security Council. They both live — five houses apart from each other — in Woodbridge, a leafy Virginia suburb 38 miles from their office.
The Vindmans came to America as part of a wave of hundreds of thousands of Jews who emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s. The Vindman boys' mother had recently died when the family made it to Brooklyn in 1979, after a brief stay in Italy. The twins arrived with their father, their grandmother, their older brother, Leonid, and $750.
The boys lived in a neighborhood known as Little Odessa, where the shops under the elevated trains had become a cluster of tastes of the old country — Russian dinner clubs where new bottles of vodka appeared with every course, Russian video and book shops. But Alexander and Yevgeny pressed to get out of their immigrant community and become as American as they could imagine.
"Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night," Vindman told the House committee. "He stressed to us the importance of fully integrating into our adopted country. For many years, life was quite difficult. In spite of our challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American Dream."
For Alexander, Yevgeny and Leonid, that meant serving their country in uniform. Their family left the Soviet Union in part so the boys would not be subject to being drafted into the Soviet military. But the brothers eagerly enlisted in the U.S. Army, in Alexander's case after graduating from Binghamton University in upstate New York — a school that so many Soviet emigrants chose that it eventually started a "Russian for Russians" course for native speakers, said Nancy Tittler, the school's undergraduate director of Russian studies.
Alexander - nine minutes older than his "kid brother," as he told lawmakers — served in South Korea, Germany and Iraq, where he was wounded in 2004 by an improvised explosive device, an incident that led to him being awarded the Purple Heart.
After his time in Iraq, Vindman's path shifted from combat infantryman to Harvard University student, where he earned a master's degree in Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asian studies. Already fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, he now gained the history and political grounding that would serve him well as a foreign area officer, a job in which military officers serve in embassies around the world.
Vindman held posts in Kyik, Ukraine, and in Moscow, where he, his wife and their baby daughter lived in a diplomatic apartment complex outside the central city. Vindman represented the Defense Department to his Russian counterparts, visiting military facilities, meeting with Russian officers and organizing visits by Americans.
The mission in Moscow in those years was to support President Barack Obama's effort to "reset" the American relationship with Russia. It wasn't going well. Russian President Vladimir Putin believed that the United States was behind pro-democracy demonstrations that were putting pressure on his regime, and Washington had moved against corrupt Russian oligarchs, freezing their assets.
Zwack, Vindman's boss, needed officers he could trust to engage the Russians. He found Vindman to be perfect for the job. Zwack said he never saw any indication that Vindman either held a grudge against the country his family had fled or had a soft spot for the Russian regime. "If he were a hard-ass to the Russians, it would have been difficult for him to succeed," he said. "And he never let his feelings about the country get in the way of his job."
During Vindman's tenure in Russia, from 2012 to 2014, Zwack said, "We weren't obsessed with the political situation as so many people are now. I never knew whether someone was an R or a D. Our job was to be supportive of whoever was president."
In July, when Trump spoke to the Ukrainian president, Vindman listened in from the Situation Room, growing ever more "concerned by the call," as he would tell members of Congress. "I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen. . . . The request to investigate the Bidens had nothing to do with national security."
Vindman felt compelled to register his concerns to his superiors. "The command structure is extremely important to me," he said.
Vindman has remained publicly silent since his name burst into the news. His attorney, Michael Volkov, said Vindman goes to the White House every day: "He is at work, busy, doing his job."
The Washington Post's Julie Tate and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.