Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman has left Donald Trump and his allies in a difficult position. Vindman, a decorated war hero and the top Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council, testified to the congressional impeachment inquiry last week, and his opening statement painted a highly unflattering portrait of the president and his Ukrainian scheme.
Complicating matters, Vindman is a difficult witness to dismiss: he’s a current White House official with direct, first-hand information about what transpired – he was, for example, on the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky – and has the credibility that comes from being a decorated American combat veteran.
This did not stop some of the White House’s allies in conservative media from going after Vindman’s patriotism last week, and it now appears the president himself is taking aim at his own National Security Council official. Here, for example, was an exchange between NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell and Trump on Saturday night:
Q: Mr. President, do you regret calling Lieutenant Colonel Vindman a “Never Trumper” as Commander-in-Chief?
TRUMP: Do I re- – what? Say it again.
Q: Do you regret calling Lieutenant Colonel Vindman a “Never Trumper”?
TRUMP: Well, you’ll be seeing very soon what comes out. And then you – then you can ask the question in a different way.
It was possible that the president was just using this as a line to buy time. Indeed, the Republican does this frequently when confronted with questions he considers awkward and doesn’t want to answer: Trump suggests secret information will soon put the issue in a new light. Then time goes by, new controversies arise, and he never gets around to divulging the information that only existed in his mind.
But yesterday afternoon, the president again returned to the subject. Asked about possible evidence he has against Lt. Col. Vindman, Trump replied, “We’ll be showing that to you real soon, okay?”
It’s still quite possible that there is no evidence and Trump is casting aspersions as a political ploy that’s starting to resemble McCarthyism. It’s also possible, however, that the president and his team have done opposition research on an active-duty war hero who’s currently a member of the White House national security staff.
What’s more, let’s not lose sight of the larger context: Vindman has already testified as part of the impeachment inquiry, but he’s also expressed a willingness to speak again once the impeachment process moves forward with public hearings. It’s against this backdrop that the president’s rhetoric starts to resemble possible attempts at witness intimidation.
What’s more, Trump also appears to be sending a public signal to others who may have information to share with Congress: if the White House is willing to go after Vindman, the White House will come after you next.
Postscript: The president’s comments over the weekend came on the heels of multiple reports that John Eisenberg, the top legal adviser for the National Security Council, privately directed Vindman not to discuss his concerns about Trump’s misconduct with anyone outside the White House, reinforcing concerns about an attempted cover-up.