Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman has seen (and heard) a great deal in his experiences in public service. He became a household name as a key witness in Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings in 2019. His memoir, out August 2021, "Here, Right Matters: An American Story," shares insight into the lead up and events following the infamous call at the center of the trial between former U.S. President Trump and Ukrainian president Zelensky. Vindman joins to discuss that, immigrating to the US, serving in the military, his take on global relations, and what’s next for him.
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. If you've been following the news—which my strong suspicion is that those of you who (LAUGH) listen to the podcast are probably pretty avid news consumers—you know, we're learning more and more every day about what I've been calling on the show, and I think justifiably, the coup, the failed coup by ex-President Donald Trump to install himself in power over the wishes of the American people and spell the end to American democracy in its current form.
In Spanish, the term is "autogolpe," which is, like, "self-coup," which is when the leader stays in power against the wishes of the people, as opposed to seizing power in more traditional coups. But, you know, whatever you call it, it was pretty clear. It's very clear. It wasn't, like, a gag and it wasn't just, you know, him fuming in the West Wing or in the Oval Office.
Like, they tried very hard to overturn the American election and the will of the, you know, 81 million voters that voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, and put the loser in over the winner, and have minority rule. And Lord knows what woulda happened after that.
And one of the things that's sort of fascinating about learning this is there are just incredible echoes to all sorts of previous Trump shenanigans and plots in a few ways. One is the fact that there were people around him who recognized the evil they were in the presence of and did the right thing.
That includes, you know, a guy that I did not hold in particularly high regard, the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, who was basically left this job by Bill Barr, who, you know, refused to use the DOJ—as far as we know—to help Donald Trump pull off a coup but rather than going public with that knowledge or decrying and denouncing it, just left his job and left it for Jeffrey Rosen to handle while issuing this, you know, cringe-inducingly pathetic encomium to the brilliance and amazingness of Donald Trump.
So Jeffrey Rosen, you know, stood up and did the right thing, as did a few of his deputies at the Department of Justice. And this has been a theme, right, throughout, that when Donald Trump does something abhorrent, you know, morally indefensible and corrosive, democratically dangerous, et cetera, there are people around who are like, "Wait a second. This isn't right."
So that's one theme that has emerged. The other is that he basically tried to do the exact same thing with the Department of Justice that he tried to do with the Ukrainian president Zelenskiy that led to his first impeachment. Remember, that plot was he wanted to create a taint, an aura of corruption around Joe Biden.
And in order to do that, he wanted an official pronouncement, an imprimatur from an official body, announcing an investigation into Hunter Biden. Remember, the ask that happens on the phone call that leads to Donald Trump's first impeachment when he says, "I want you to do me a favor though," the ask is an announcement of an investigation. It's not actually an investigation 'cause he doesn't care about the investigation. He wants the announcement of the investigation 'cause he wants to use that to taint Joe Biden.
Well, fast forward to December of 2020, and what we're finding out is that what he wanted was the Department of Justice-- he does the exact same thing with his own acting attorney general. He says, "I want you to announce that the Department of Justice is investigating the election." He says at one point in notes that we now have, "Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen."
So it's the exact same plot rerun. It didn't work the first time, and it doesn't work the second time, (LAUGH) which says something about the sort of intelligence, competence, and wiles of the man. But it was not for lack of trying. And I thought in this context it would be really, really fascinating to talk to someone who saw all of this up close, not in the second iteration but in the first, a person who worked in the White House, worked around Trump people, and saw his morally corrosive anti-democratic nature up close and personal, and then blew the whistle on it, and then suffered, you know, real recriminations and consequences for it.
And I'm speaking of course of Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. He has a new memoir out called Here, Right Matters: An American Story. That's a quote from a line that he very famously delivered in his testimony during the impeachment trial.
He's the former director for European affairs for the U.S. National Security Council, and he's currently a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting fellow at Perry World House. Lieutenant Colonel, it's great to have you. Thanks for coming on the program.
Alexander Vindman: Thank you, Chris.
Chris Hayes: You've got an amazing story, just a fascinating story before anything happens with Donald Trump. And I thought maybe we can start with that. Where were you born?
Alexander Vindman: I was born in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1975.
Chris Hayes: And tell me about your family and what the conditions were like there in Kyiv.
Alexander Vindman: My family was a relatively small family, at least the nuclear family. It was my dad. My mom passed away of cancer when I was about three years old. My older brother, about six and a half years old. And my twin brother. A grandmother that came over to the United States. So that was really kind of the small family that I grew up with until my dad remarried here in the U.S. And then we gained both a stepmother and a stepbrother.
Chris Hayes: So your father raised you basically by himself after the death of your mother, which must have been incredibly difficult. You write about, you know, what a kind of strong person he is in the book.
Alexander Vindman: Yeah, he was probably the most important figure in our youth. Him and our older brother. Our older brother mainly because he was in charge of fun. And all he had to do was basically kind of threaten us that he would cut us off from having a good time, and we'd listen to him. And oftentimes because my dad worked his, you know, enormously long hours, my older brother was involved kind of in our upbringing. Those two and my grandmother until she passed away, those were the central figures in our youth.
Chris Hayes: And, as is often the case with twins, you are extremely close to yours.
Alexander Vindman: Yes, very close. Endless competition. You know, even in the White House when we are on our best behavior, we'd every now and then glance around, make sure nobody's around, and kinda punch each other in the shoulder or something like that. We were caught a couple times. Maybe some of it's on footage caught on camera. But, yeah, we're very close, as we've always been since we started out as wombmates.
Chris Hayes: And you talked about your father working very hard in Ukraine. What did he do?
Alexander Vindman: He was a civil engineer that had a very, very successful career. In spite of the major headwinds that a Jewish person would have in Ukraine, was able to rise to really senior positions in the city government of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and generally have a very comfortable life, frankly.
Chris Hayes: So you settle in New York City. You become a New York City kid, you and your twin brother. Your older brother obviously has a sort of different set of experiences. And sort of what were your teenage years like and your childhood growing up here in the States?
Alexander Vindman: I think it's very different than what Brooklyn is identified as now, very kinda hipster, gentrified. This was a kind of rough inner city. And I would get into fights quite a bit, channel my energies into kind of athletic pursuits. Wasn't the very best student, although frankly I didn't have to really try very hard either. Some of that came easy, and maybe I was bored. But maybe a mediocre student, an underachiever. And that's really most of my high school and public school years, were like that.
Chris Hayes: Yeah, I mean, the part of Brooklyn that you're in still exists today. I think you're right that the press, the media conception of it is a fairly small amount of gentrified Brooklyn. But there's huge swaths of Brooklyn that are very much working middle class, first-generation, particularly Jewish first-generation immigrants--
Alexander Vindman: Sure.
Chris Hayes: And that world is very totalizing. I mean, for you, were you around a lot of folks that were from the former Soviet republics? Were you enmeshed in that kind of life world?
Alexander Vindman: Not so much. I think in the first year, year and a half, we lived in Brighton Beach, which was basically-- you know, it was called "Little Odessa," for a port city on the Black Sea and we were immersed in that kind of setting. But very quickly, my dad realized the pitfalls, as he's done, you know, various times in his life, kind of a prescient vision that comes from lots of experience and, you know, keen appraisals of what's goin' on around him.
And he pulled us out of that environment and put us in a different neighborhood of Brooklyn, which might as well be a different country or a different city certainly, one that was a lot more kind of heterogeneous. We had, you know, a traditionally Hispanic neighborhood on one end, a Orthodox Jewish neighborhood on the other end, and an older kind of established Italian neighborhood, and then a surge of, you know, mainly Chinese, although frankly, you know, different Asian cultures coming into another corner. So it was a very, very rich kind of neighborhood with a whole bunch of different kinds of people in it.
Chris Hayes: I mean, Brighton Beach is a fascinating place and was kinda rough in those years.
Alexander Vindman: It was.
Chris Hayes: And there's also a lot of, like-- you know, it's funny because there's this incredible lattice. Sort of, you know, Michael Cohen's wife is, you know, the daughter of this sort of famous Brighton Beach-- I don't know what you'd call him. Impresario? (LAUGH)
Alexander Vindman: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: And, you know, it's a fascinating place there. You went to SUNY Binghamton. Tell me about you and your brother's decision to enter the armed forces.
Alexander Vindman: So I think the motivation originated with my older brother, who when he was at Dartmouth started ROTC. And this was in the early '90s when frankly a lot of schools were canceling their ROTC program because of—now, it's a clearly regressive policy—but Don't Ask Don't Tell. So a lot of schools were closing it down.
So it started there, and continued ROTC elsewhere, and also joined the Reserves. And his, you know, preparations, his kind of athletic engagement, running, rope climbing, and all that stuff appealed to us, you know, when we were 12, 13 years old. And as we came closer to graduating, it was a no-brainer that we were going to go into the Army for a spell. And we started ROTC.
Chris Hayes: Were you guys together?
Alexander Vindman: Not initially. I started out at American University, and my poor study habits didn't allow me to continue there. (LAUGHTER) So I took a semester off, did the extended program. But in a way, it was useful. I mean, I spent a lotta time doing ROTC stuff, Ranger Challenge. And I didn't have the discipline to then kind of continue on with academics. But after being suspended, I took a semester off, and went back to Binghamton, and finished with a better GPA than the rest of my brothers. So that's good.
Chris Hayes: Were you kind of a screw-up? What was goin' on?
Alexander Vindman: "Screw-up" is pretty harsh. (LAUGHTER) My parents might say that. I would say that I was aimless and undisciplined. And fortunately, I caught myself early enough to basically focus, and give myself some direction, and recover. And for a long time, you know, there was a, you know, decade-or-more spell in which I consciously thought of, "Have I done enough to recover from my errant youth?" And, you know, I think until I went to Harvard for graduate school, I was always like, "Okay, am I able to recover from all this?" I guess now I'm where I want to be or something of that nature.
Chris Hayes: What were your father's politics like? What were the politics of the home you grew up in?
Alexander Vindman: So I do remember us talking about politics on a regular basis and always through kind of an argumentative lens and not one that was overly hostile. But we would oftentimes agree to disagree or disagree to disagree. Because I think my father spending the majority of his life in the Soviet Union rejected anything that smacked of the left.
And there's an overcorrection that we see to this day, well, in that community, the Russian refugee emigrant community. But it's the same thing that you see in the Venezuelan community. It's the same thing that you see in the Colombian community. You know, communist systems are not effective because they're actually not, you know, Marxian communist systems. They're not equitable. There is no kind of egalitarianism. There is always a core elite; it's a party elite. And it just doesn't work.
And he rejected anything that kind of smacked of his experience with that kind of system. And it's a vulnerable population in that they could be roused either internally by domestic political actors. We see that now. We see that happening under the Trump administration. But even by, you know, the former homeland.
Russians are very effective at propagandizing the diaspora community. To a certain extent, you know, other societies or other ethnicities in the U.S. face similar challenges. They speak the same language. They understand the hot button issues affect 'em. And in a way, these are communities that could be easily radicalized for the purposes of the right.
Chris Hayes: So you join the Army, right?
Alexander Vindman: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).Chris Hayes: And when do you deploy to Iraq?
Alexander Vindman: So I joined the Army before the global war on terror, before the Twin Towers, before Al Qaeda. And I spent my first year and a half in Korea. Fascinating. At that point in time, it was really the most forward-deployed Army unit in the world. This was unaccompanied assignments, always just soldiers doing training.
And then when I came back to the United States, while I was in Ranger School is when the Twin Towers were attacked. And that was the turning point for this country, for the military. And that took us out of, you know, this unipolar moment focused on reaping the benefits of, you know, the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War towards a global war on terror, before our most recent pivot back to great power competition. So I guess I got a chance to see all of that during the course of my career, which is pretty unique.
Chris Hayes: How long were you in Iraq?
Alexander Vindman: I was in Iraq for a year. It was in the early stages, 2004-2005. And, you know, if people remember that period, that was when we had that massive fight in Fallujah in November 2004.
Chris Hayes: You were awarded the Purple Heart for your bravery in the midst of an IED explosion. Deployed in combat. Just tell us about that day.
Alexander Vindman: Sure. Yeah, so this is one of those things that I'm always reluctant to talk about because the Purple Heart, first of all, it's a beautiful award. This is not a prop. I didn't, like, intend to do this. But it sits here--
Chris Hayes: That's awesome.
Alexander Vindman: --right in my desk. You know, I haven't figured out what to do with some of this stuff. But the thing about the Purple Heart is it is awarded not just to people that received wounds like my own, but to people that died in combat. So to me, it's one of those things where, like, the range of awardees is enormous.
And it's hard kinda to accept people talking about me as a Purple Heart veteran when, you know, I made it out with relatively light wounds and other people didn't. But that day-- I apologize for the aside, but it's always kind of a touchy issue, I think, with folks that have Purple Hearts. But that day, I was on a patrol. It was a reconnaissance mission actually. We were getting ready for that big fight that I mentioned earlier. And we had to take--
Chris Hayes: This is in Fallujah?
Alexander Vindman: This is the suburb of Fallujah. There's a number of cities ringing Fallujah. The city was called Al-Karmah. It was a hotbed of insurgent activity. And we were getting ready to take over that battle space to free up one of the Marine units that actually was gonna go do the assault into Fallujah.
Ultimately, our battalion also participated not just in isolating the city and making sure that you didn't have Al Qaeda escaping there and moving on to other parts, but we also sent a rifle company into the city for combat operations.
Chris Hayes: After the injury, what were you thinking about your experience in the Army, whether you wanted to stay there, what you wanted to do with your career?
Alexander Vindman: I had joined the military with an eye on serving a tour and then moving on. You know, at one point there was a thought about going to medical school. I didn't do myself any favors by being an underachiever. But I guess, you know, if I put my mind to something, kinda I do a pretty good job of getting there.
So there was still the thought of maybe, you know, going to medical school through a much more circuitous and difficult road that I'd put myself on. But that's not what ended up happening. I ended up getting some additional opportunities to command a rifle company, 174 guys gettin' ready to go to combat.
I had a chance to become a foreign area officer and leverage my cultural expertise, my language skills. They sent me to graduate school. They sent me to some of the most fascinating assignments. I lived and served in Ukraine. I lived and served in Moscow during just an awesome moment where we still had initially a somewhat normal relationship with Russia—that completely fell apart after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So I ended up piecing together, I don't know if I would say inadvertently but through a series of wonderful opportunities, a 20-year-plus career in the military.
Chris Hayes: All right. So you end up in the White House, a National Security Council staffer with your brother, your twin, the two of you, the two Vindmans both there. (LAUGH) And I want to talk about what that experience was like as the Trump administration was starting before everything went down right after we take this quick break.
Chris Hayes: All right. So you and your brother both end up in posts in the National Security Council in the White House. How did that happen? And that seems like that must have been awesome. Like, I (LAUGH) would be super psyched to work with my brother.
Alexander Vindman: It was awesome. It is awesome. He lives four doors down from me. I should have him pop over on the podcast and say hi. But, you know, it's interesting. We had different roads. I think what allowed me to be positioned for the NSC was both my desire and kind of keen focus on getting there as kind of one of the most prestigious positions you can get, and a series of fortunate assignments.
Fortunate in that, you know, I was able to take advantage of the opportunities, but I also had built the kind of skills required to be successful in these opportunities. So I spoke Russian. I was trained in Ukrainian. I went to Harvard. I went to Russia as my very first assignment.
I got on-the-ground experience tangling with the Russians to a certain extent and understanding how they conducted hybrid warfare, including their war against Ukraine. I advised the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I authored the national military strategy Russia, co-authored that one actually with a good friend of mine, and then was the principal author for the global campaign plan. And that's how I came to the attention of the NSC.
Chris Hayes: And--
Alexander Vindman: Eugene kinda lucked into it.
Chris Hayes: (LAUGH) So maybe what I thought would be useful is I don't think people have a sense. When my wife worked in the White House from 2009-2011 (she was in the White House Counsel's Office), there was a lotta things that I learned from her time there that I didn't know beforehand.
One of them was that the NSC and the national security architecture is kind of the dominant institution in the White House. It actually in a staffing sense makes up I think the bulk of the staff. You know, the White House is a national security operation with some other stuff attached. (LAUGH) I think people don't quite understand that. And I think you talk about what the National Security Council is, how big that staff is, and what your job was there.
Alexander Vindman: Sure. It is a large enterprise, but it still is frankly a smaller component of the executive offices of the president. You've got a whole kind of White House military office that is several hundred people. You know, a couple times the size of the NSC. But those are logisticians, communicators, you know, some Marine security guards, and things of that nature.
You have the offices of the vice president that also fall into that enterprise. You have all the administrative support. The NSC is actually in itself a pretty small number of subject matter experts that have, you know, a mastery of their particular portfolio.
For instance, in my case there was no let's say Ukraine section. I remember somebody referencing it in an article like, "The Ukraine section is really having a tough go of it right now," or something like that. I'm like, "Okay." I'm looking around. (LAUGHTER) No, it's just me.
But you have one director that's responsible for coordinating all of the government's activities with regards to the countries that fall into this portfolio. In my case, I had Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and eventually the Caucuses. Strangely, I picked that up after all this unfolded because our staffing got cut more and more. You know, we just kept picking up more and more.
But it's a small number of folks that are coordinating the rest of government. All the activities that State Department, Department of Defense, Treasury, that they're all doing by convening meetings, by organizing the activities of the rest of the government to make sure it's seamless. And I was asked to join the team based on my capabilities, I guess, in that area.
Chris Hayes: So at this point, did you grow up speaking Russian?
Alexander Vindman: It was spoken in the home with my parents. But with my brothers, I spoke English. Frankly, my parents are the only ones that insisted on it, fortunately. And that helped me gain the foundation that I needed to teach myself how to read Russian and then improve my Russian significantly when I went to grad school.
Chris Hayes: Yeah, so you're one of those, like, sort of classic first-generation kids where your parents spoke it to you, you didn't speak it a ton, but there was a foundation when you went and studied it before, became quite fluent. So you've got this portfolio. You've got a very hot portfolio because obviously, you know, like you just said, the Russian invasion of Crimea and occupation is this incredibly transgressive (LAUGH) act that they basically got away with.
It alters the trajectory significantly of Russian relations with the U.S. and other countries. There's, you know, continuing fallout. You're there at the NSC. What are you thinking when the Trump people come in? What are your interactions with them? What is your sort of first impressions?
Alexander Vindman: So when the Trump administration came in, I was still on the chairman's staff. I had a chance to kind of observe the NSC and the Trump White House for about a year and a half before I joined them. And I was asked to join in 2017, in the fall of 2017, but I still had a commitment to the Pentagon that they wouldn't let me out of.
So I got a chance even after they offered me the job, I knew I was going to there, to kinda weigh my decisions on what the possibilities would be for me to continue to do what I thought was right. I drafted the strategy for the military on how we deal with an aggressive Russia, and I was calculating whether we would actually be able to basically magnify that strategy not just for the military but for all of government to act in concert to face the challenges of an aggressive, assertive Russia.
That was my lens going into the NSC. I was apprehensive as to whether I'd be able to maybe get the president to buy off on kind of a maximalist approach. "How do we deter Russian aggression, you know, to maximum effect?" But I still had some confidence actually in those early days before Helsinki that in spite of kind of the rhetoric and, you know, the Flynn fiascoes with him calling the, you know, Russian counterparts and Russian ambassadors, that some of this was just ham-handed, poor capabilities on the parts of folks rather than having a keen understanding that the president was simpatico with Putin and in a lotta ways kind of fancied himself as a Putin-like figure, you know, an authoritarian wannabe.
That is a part that I didn't see. I thought I could still take all of that work that I'd been doing for defense and employ it on behalf of the U.S. and advancing U.S. national security interests. As time wore on, I mean, there were elements that gave me confidence that I would be able to do that on behalf of the nation and there were some significant setbacks.
Fiona Hill joining the team, a excellent professional, very capable and skilled, keen understanding of Putin, keen understanding of the Kremlin regime, wanting me to join the team was obviously something that, you know, I was happy to do. On the flip side, the rhetoric coming out of the White House, again, with a authoritarian bent was a major issue and a major hurdle.
But I don't know if it was ego, pride, or the fact that I had been successful to that point, you know, focusing the government on threats, that I thought maybe I could be helpful in that regard and maybe educate, you know, White House staff and even the president on what we should be doing with regards to Russia. That's why I went on there, 'cause I thought I could do some good.
Chris Hayes: What was your reaction to Helsinki?
Alexander Vindman: That was my very first day on the job. And, you know, you go in there, (LAUGHTER) you do your human resources stuff, you get your computer accounts. You get, like, you know, your business-- I didn't have any of that. I think I went to the first two meetings and then I sat in, listened to the president's remarks in Helsinki, and our policy with Russia almost went off the rails.
This is a recurring theme. You kind of talked about themes when you first started this segment. But one of the recurring themes that we should keep in mind is the president's own personal involvement is what usually derails something. And it could either derail kind of government policy. It could derail relationships.
But oftentimes, it's self-destructive and it derails his own agenda and his own objectives. In that case, he almost did that with regards to the Russian relationship. He certainly changed my trajectory because it was clear to Fiona that I wouldn't be able to do that much in Russia on the Russian portfolio. So we organized my portfolio for what I'd call "Russia external": How do we push back not directly against Russia but by strengthening allies around Russia to make sure that they serves as a buffer and things of that nature?
Chris Hayes: I want to follow up on that because this gets to some of the criticism that came your way during the impeachment. And, you know, the vast majority of it was unfair, but there was a kernel of something that I thought was at least fair or worth debating. You talked about the president derailing his own policy.
One of the arguments you saw when you and Fiona Hill and others were coming forward, right, to testify in the impeachment was people saying, "Hey, look. You guys all work for the president. The democratic sovereignty of the nation in the executive branch is invested in the person who stands for office and is elected.
And he can make bad decisions or good decisions, but he's the guy. He got elected to run American foreign policy. If some mid-level civil servant, you know, even active duty bureaucrat like Alexander Vindman doesn't like it, no one elected him."
Alexander Vindman: Yep.
Chris Hayes: --"you know, too bad. (LAUGH) This is the way it works." So I want you to talk through the sort of tension that's inherent there about, we kept hearing in the impeachment sort of the policy of the United States versus what Donald Trump wanted to do and how much that is vested in the presidency itself.
Alexander Vindman: So, you know, it's interesting. You would think this is a tough question, but it's not. Because as a military officer, we have a very hierarchical structure. And oftentimes, you'll get some commands from higher that you might disagree with but you shut up and color.
If the president had actually laid out a policy and said, "This is what I want to do with Ukraine," or, "This is what I want to do with Russia," we would just shut up and color. As long as it was legal, as long as it was a lawful order, we were obligated to fulfill it. The problem is that this president didn't do that.
Chris Hayes: Right, right-- (LAUGH)
Alexander Vindman: This president almost never did that.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Alexander Vindman: As a matter of fact, the things that he put pen to paper on were like the national security strategy, which—you know, the unclassified version's online—actually took a pretty darn harsh turn with regards to Russia. It was about reinforcing deterrence. It was about pushing back on Russian aggression. It was about, you know, countering Russian malign influence. These are all kind of key phrases in there, you know, they're wonky stuff that people don't get, but this is verbatim content out of--
Chris Hayes: No, but that's a perfect--
Alexander Vindman: --these documents.
Chris Hayes: --perfect example of, like, the Trump presidency on paper, which is, like, the more normal workflow process that produces things like the national security strategy, which has essentially nothing to do with actual Donald Trump's presidency. It's just like--
Alexander Vindman: That's--
Chris Hayes: --a constellation of stuff that, like, he's either checking in on or not.
Alexander Vindman: Yep. It's one of those things that somebody put in front of him and he reluctantly signed it in between signing, you know, papers with his picture on it so he could send it to foreign leaders, 'cause he liked to do that, or some other nonsensical kind of self-serving thing. The president never took the time to understand or involve himself in process. And that's not a justification for somebody kind of subverting the president. It's just there wasn't enough.
Chris Hayes: There wasn't a "there" there--
Alexander Vindman: He just didn't offer enough--
Chris Hayes: Yeah. Right, right.
Alexander Vindman: There wasn't a "there" there. And we--
Chris Hayes: Your point is that there was nothing to contravene because there was no actual--
Alexander Vindman: There was nothing to contravene.
Chris Hayes: Yeah, right.
Alexander Vindman: That's exactly right. There was nothing to contravene. And in my case, on the Ukraine portfolio, it was actually even clearer than that. We had the entirety of the U.S. government moving in one direction. In this time frame as the Ukraine scandal unfolded, I had already foreseen Zelensky sweeping into power based on his popularity. He's a funny guy. You know, that helps.
Chris Hayes: I've actually watched a little bit. I've watched some subtitled versions of the show--
Alexander Vindman: Oh, good.
Chris Hayes: --that he made in which a comedian sort of accidentally becomes president.
Alexander Vindman: That's right.
Chris Hayes: And it's a genuinely very, very good and funny show. It's a really good--
Alexander Vindman: It is.
Chris Hayes: --show.
Alexander Vindman: It is. And I think it was a learning experience for him as he went into office, too. Some of those plot lines reappeared repeatedly throughout his tenure as president--
Chris Hayes: Yeah. (LAUGH)
Alexander Vindman: But, you know, it's interesting. I saw it as an opportunity. I saw it as an opportunity to take a Ukraine that was ambivalent about where it wanted to be. Did it want to be in Russia's camp? Did it want to be a corrupt authoritarian state? Did it want to be an oligarchy in which corrupt wealthy basically ran the country as their own piggy bank? Or did it want to join the West?
In selecting Zelenskiy, they made a clear choice. He came in very popular. His party right before that phone call—the, you know, not-so-"perfect" phone call—swept in with a massive mandate into their parliament (called "Rada"). And, you know, I'm not saying I was a genius, but I saw some of this kind of unfolding.
And what I did was I organized kind of a series of meetings to seize the opportunity, come up with a coherent plan to help them advance their own agenda on reforms, on anti-corruption, on economic prosperity. And I brought the rest of the government-- or, you know, I don't want to overstate it 'cause it would sound egotistical.
But basically, I played a role in kind of pulling all this together and then kicked it up the chain of command all the way up to the deputy's level. So at the highest levels really, we had consensus on what we should be doing. And on the other side, we had, you know, nonsensical tweets, we had kind of irrational kind of flip-flopping on Ukraine, and we had kind of just a visceral reaction to some QAnon conspiracy theories about CrowdStrike service.
I asked, you know, a Trump kind of political appointee, Tim Morrison, at one point, "What do we do with this? I mean, did that call amount to a policy shift?" And the guy looks at me. Knowing where his bread is buttered, he said, "No. Just disregard." And that had happened so many times because the president just behaved like that. He behaved like, you know, a child throwing a tantrum.
Chris Hayes: Let me raise another piece, 'cause this is in the context here when we talk about Zelenskiy and, you know, Yanukovych's departure—which comes after these street protests which are very much supported by the U.S. In fact, to the extent that Victoria Nuland, you know, goes and puts flowers in the Maidan, which is the sort of site of some of the demonstrations and in fact street fighting that happens amidst this uprising in Ukraine that ends up chasing out the corrupt Putin-allied dictator.
I want to play the devil's advocate here in a way that I'm slightly sympathetic to, which is basically: You know, if there are street protests in Mexico City against a U.S.-allied government, one that we had a good relationship with, and it ended up chasing the leader out on a plane to the U.S., and we knew that either the Chinese or the Russians were very much supporting it, and now there was a very Chinese-aligned government on, you know, the American border in Mexico, like, you know, we would be a little freaked.
We would be like, "Hey, that's our backyard. Like, we don't want you messing there." And this is not to say, like, "It's okay to invade Crimea," but that, you know, the Russian sphere of influence in Ukraine goes back literally to the Middle Ages. It's essentially, you know, very similar societies, even though, you know, there's a distinct Ukrainian identity. But that from a geopolitical standpoint, it's not crazy for them to be a little paranoid and freaked out with essentially a EU/U.S.-aligned government on their doorstep.
Alexander Vindman: Well, I'm so happy you raised this issue because this is right in my bailiwick and I'm eager to discuss it. So the bottom line is that there was some moral support offered by Victoria Nuland going through the Maidan and, you know, offering bread and so forth. But the will of the people was being manifest, and the whole purpose of her doing that is to indicate that, you know, "This has the U.S. attention. Violent crackdowns is not something that we're gonna miss." That was the extent of the signaling. There was not, like, you know, an invasion, arms being provided--
Chris Hayes: No, but, okay--
Alexander Vindman: --you know, Tiananmen-style crackdowns, or anything like that.
Chris Hayes: Totally.
Alexander Vindman: And, no, Chris--
Chris Hayes: I'm not saying there are, but let me just--
Alexander Vindman: I get what you're saying, Chris, but this is a very important point. Ukraine is not Russian territory. The Ukrainian people--
Chris Hayes: Yes, agreed.
Alexander Vindman: --and the Ukrainian government has every right--
Chris Hayes: Correct.
Alexander Vindman: --to determine its own future. It's as sovereign state. It's an independent state.
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Alexander Vindman: Russia never saw it that way. That's part of the problem.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Alexander Vindman: Russia saw it as it's a critical territory that, you know, has to be in Russia's camp. Otherwise, Russia's hopes of becoming, you know, a pole in a multipolar world, reestablishing empire disappear. It's an open quote actually in my thesis prospectus that I'm writing from Zbigniew Brzezinski that says, "It should not be understated that Russia without Ukraine ceases to be an empire; but with Ukraine subordinated and suborned, automatically becomes an empire." And that was what's goin' through Russia's mind. That's why it's so critical--
Chris Hayes: And, I mean, that's an old view of Russian imperial ambitions, right? I mean, (LAUGH) it's been there for a very long time--
Alexander Vindman: Ukraine and Belarus are essential to Russia's conceptions of power.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Alexander Vindman: It has to maintain a foothold over these territories. And it seemed for a time that could be indirectly through economic influence, through kind of a veto of sorts over the foreign policies of Ukraine and Belarus. But when Russia, because of its own ham-handed approach to Ukraine, heavy-handed approach in terms of using economic coercion, gas cutoffs, propagating corruption, strengthening the hand of kind of authoritarian figures there, Russia is what pushed Ukraine into the European camp.
'Cause, as you pointed out, there is a natural affinity between those peoples and populations. There are large numbers of what are called "ethic Russians" in Ukraine. By all rights, there should be an affinity. But it's Russia's mismanagement that forced them away. And when Ukraine chose its own path, a path that's separate from Russia, that's when Russia reacted in a hostile manner. And that's frankly not something that we as Americans based on our value system should accept.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. No, again, I want to make clear what my own views are, which is that Ukrainians have a right to self-determination and sovereignty like all peoples and that they're currently being occupied by a foreign power in the form of Russia. Again, the transgression here is really remarkable. I mean, it's just like a bright-line thing you can't do, is to, like--
Alexander Vindman: Right.
Chris Hayes: --go and take (LAUGH) part of someone's country, which they continue to occupy to this day. So you've got obviously this fraught situation, a delicate balance, I think, also because all U.S. bilateral relationships with Russia are delicate because, you know, both the legacy of the Cold War, two of the largest nuclear powers obviously. At what point does your spider sense go off (LAUGH) that something very untoward is happening in the Ukraine portfolio on a side channel?
Alexander Vindman: I would say early indicators were probably in, you know, the very beginning of 2019. There were some things that I just wasn't privy to. You know, Lev Parnas attests to all sorts of machinations occurring even earlier than that. But for us, it didn't become apparent until there started to be some engagements between Trump, cronies, and the Ukrainian government in those early days of 2019.
And those culminate in this ridiculous, you know, piece of writing by John Solomon in The Hill about Prosecutor General Lutsenko making accusations against Masha Yovanovitch that we thought frankly, you know, were gonna be dismissed outta hand because nobody was gonna find 'em credible.
And they did for, you know, about a two-, three-period until Don Jr. decides to weigh in and tweet about it, and then she was out within days of that. So, you know, before it was noise. The volume of that noise kept gettin' turned up. Masha Yovanovitch, who I have a great amount of respect for, awesome public servant, is removed.
And then that's not the end of it. You know, then I manage to convince Bill Taylor, Fiona and I manage to convince Bill Taylor to go back there, once-ambassador there. And he's running into headwinds. And we had this policy moving about closer cooperation with Ukraine, and it's being upset because Giuliani's talking about some conspiracies and investigations: conspiracies between, you know, the former vice president, Vice President Biden, and Ukrainian actors or something of that nature. And it was just a whole buncha stuff that ultimately culminated in a phone call.
Chris Hayes: Right. But I guess my question is: when all this stuff is happening-- because stuff out in public. I mean, there's a New York Times article about the fact that Giuliani's running around Ukraine tryin' to get them to-- you know, he's talking to all these people. Then you got Don Jr. popping up outta nowhere to express strong views on the ambassador of Ukraine, which is obviously preposterous.
Alexander Vindman: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: My question to you is: Did you get what the plan was? Because it looks weird and, like, "Oh, he's listening to the wrong people." But there's a plan. I mean, there's a very specific plan. And did you realize before the phone call what the plan was? Or was it in the phone call where you like, "Oh, that's what the plan is"?
Alexander Vindman: I mean, I certainly understood what the plan was as it was unfolding. It was to basically favor the president, tip the scales in, you know, President Trump's-- and I hate calling him "President Trump." He doesn't deserve that honorific. Trump's election in the 2020 elections.
The whole idea was basically to advance him, tip the scales in his favor. You could see that unfolding, you know, way early on with Giuliani's demands for these investigations into wrongdoing that never existed. The disconnect for me was not about the enterprise. It was about who was the driving force in that enterprise.
And partially because of my own, you know, blinders and reverence for the office of the president, in spite of, you know, understanding who this guy is both as a youth growing up in New York City, just as a bad actor, a failed businessman, and then all the way through his presidency, I will somehow stubbornly refused to believe that it was the president.
I thought it was just people ingratiating themselves with a man in power, you know, kind of like some sort of implied, "Do whatever it takes to win," and then people going off to extremes to make that happen, Giuliani looking to enrich himself. And those blinders obviously came off during the phone call.
But I understood what was going on. Just it was noise that we had to deal with, issues that we had to manage. You know, the Ukrainians would come back to us like, "What are we supposed to do here? Does this matter? I mean, it's the president's personal attorney. Should we be listening to him?"
We're like, "It's not an official channel. You know, this is politics. It's gettin' ready for a 2020 campaign. Just work within official channels." And that's one of the things I frankly told President Zelenskiy when I met with him, is that he should stay out of U.S. domestic politics.
So we didn't miss what was going on. This was a particularly brand of politicking going into a presidential election. The presidential corruption that became apparent on July 25th was, you know, I guess unprecedented, certainly unprecedented anytime in recent past.
Chris Hayes: You were listening on the phone call, right?
Alexander Vindman: Yes.
Chris Hayes: Take me through that penny-drop moment.
Alexander Vindman: Well, I mean, it was a bad call from the beginning. I mean, there was a significant amount of apprehension about even scheduling this thing based on all the noise being produced by Giuliani. And Ambassador Bolton, the national security advisor, actually killed it.
And then it jumped back on the calendar and, you know, it was unclear why. It turns out in hindsight that it was basically Gordon Sondland, you know, had convinced Mick Mulvaney, the chief of staff, that the president was going to get his investigation. All he had to do was hop on this call with Zelenskiy and close the deal.
So I didn't know that. In hindsight, that's now apparent. What I knew is that there were risks. This phone call could frankly be a good thing and get our relationship back on track. Everything that we'd been working on would kinda come together because the president would potentially, you know, start moving off of some of his animus. Or it could go to pieces.
And as soon as the president joined the line, the president's tone kinda said it all. And it went from bad to worse. The president was clearly reluctant to be on this phone call. He was kind of berating the Ukrainians for not being grateful enough for all the support that the U.S. gave them. And then in response to Zelenskiy's desire to get additional Javelin missiles to defend his country, the president said, "I would like you to do us a favor though," (LAUGHTER) you know? Like that. That's it.
Chris Hayes: And do you think the other people on the call recognized the transgression it was at that moment?
Alexander Vindman: I think some of them did. I would say probably my boss did. Some of the people were not necessarily sophisticated actors. That sounds pretty harsh, but they're people that don't focus on Ukraine, don't focus on Europe, and they're there for kind of functional expertise. You know, there's a press officer. There's somebody from the VP office. Some of these folks didn't get it, but there were people that did and understood right away what was going on.
Chris Hayes: Well, you say in the book that you told your brother afterwards, "If that comes out, he'll be impeached."
Alexander Vindman: I did. I didn't miss the gravity of the moment at all. I just didn't make the connection that somehow this was going to enter the public sphere. I thought this would be something that could be resolved in official channels with attorneys counseling the president that what he did was potentially criminal, certainly corrupt, and that was the way that the president was going to reverse course, like he had done frankly so many times in his tenure.
I mean, the guy would change positions constantly based on what he thought where the advantage was. So I thought this was gonna be something that could be fixed. And, you know, I didn't recognize that the president was going to in this case continue to double down because of his overriding fear that he was going to lose to Joe Biden in the 2020 election. He was not gonna let go of this one.
Chris Hayes: All this, of course, blows up in late August and September. The House moves towards impeachment and you testify. You become public and you were testifying while you are still working in the White House. And just the split screen. You and your brother are both goin' to work in the White House. You're doin' this. It's being covered. Like, what was that like?
Alexander Vindman: It was entering the lion's den, I think, in a lotta regards. I still felt a lot of support from the professional staff, you know, that come out of departments, and agencies, and intelligence community, State Department, Department of Defense that I feel would probably have, you know, basically taken the same actions I did.
Honorable public servants, lifelong public servants. But at the same time, that was a razor-thin layer of directors. Everybody else is basically political appointees. And everything, every moment was being kind of monitored. That's not an exaggeration.
You know, this whole minister of defense offer thing that came up during the public testimony, that was a classified memorandum that I had sent over to the security office basically notifying 'em of the fact that I received this offer of employment. Nothing wrong with it actually. There were precedents for people taking these jobs, but I notified 'em.
And this is the kind of dirt that, you know, the White House was looking for. They were lookin' for ways to trip me up, you know, attack my character, and so forth. And that's what we basically lived in for the last six months or so of my tenure there.
Chris Hayes: Well, one of the attacks on you—and this came from Fox and the frozen dinner heir over there—that you were essentially loyal to Ukraine over the U.S., that you were Ukraine's man inside the White House and doing their bidding as opposed to America's bidding.
Alexander Vindman: Yeah. It's interesting. They couldn't quite figure out the geopolitics of this one because at times they were saying that, you know, I was supporting Russia. At times I'd be supporting Ukraine. None of this obviously would make sense because Russia and Ukraine are in a state of war, but they just had some difficulties with the facts there.
But I don't think this is all that uncommon, to just completely manufacture attacks on folks. These narratives actually emerged directly out of the White House. There was a story, I think it was The Daily Beast, about this political operative Julia Hahn, who was one of Steve Bannon's people--
Chris Hayes: Yep.
Alexander Vindman: --sending out an email but ham-handedly—as almost everybody kinda closer to the president was less competent—sending out an email that went to not just, you know, the Fox News, the OANN, but more broadly with these attack lines. And they thought that somehow casting, you know, a military officer, 20 years in military service as, you know, somebody with dual loyalties was going to be effective.
And for people that were looking for kind of something to hook on to to discount my testimony and the facts I was laying about the president, that was gonna work. But I don't think most of America, or large swaths of America, in any way questioned my loyalty. It was just kind of a fringe element.
It was sufficient to cast a shadow over my testimony, not all that dissimilar to, like, a Kremlin playbook where you inject falsehoods, even if there was nothing truthful about 'em, but that's enough, that's just enough to undermine a truth narrative.
Chris Hayes: I kept thinking about you during this period for this reason. Like, I am someone who, somewhat to my sort of shame and disappointment, I still am not great with, like, a state of conflict even at 42. And I have biophysical reactions from it. I feel stressed out. I feel a knot in my stomach. I feel adrenalized.
And I just kept thinking about, like, if I were in your position going to work every day, I would just be a little bit of a wreck, like, physically. I mean, just the sort of stress, knowing I'm being watched, going to this place that you know is a hostile place, knowing there are people saying awful things about you in public. Like, did that get to you at all? Or just you're not that kinda person where it does?
Alexander Vindman: So I'll tell you, there were tools I assembled in my background that were really, really helpful to me. You know, everything from kind of getting into fights on the streets of Brooklyn to decades of service in combat, you know, that contextualized what real kind of threats are versus, you know--
Chris Hayes: Right. That's a good point. (LAUGH)
Alexander Vindman: --words. Words really don't hurt that much. And then, the three years in Moscow were absolutely essential. I mean, I received special training for my time in Moscow. Certainly a high degree of awareness about the fact that every movement I was making was being scrutinized and monitored. No semblance of privacy.
That equipped me quite well to kind of navigate both, you know, testimony and resisting, you know, interrogation techniques with regards to the Republicans' questioning but also kind of being under that level of scrutiny. I was lucky. I think, you know, if I hadn't had all those building blocks, I may have not made the same decisions. I may not have not kind of done things.
Even I tried to do the right thing, I may have not done it in the right way. So I was pretty fortunate to be equipped to kind of navigate this. And the biggest challenges for me were not the fact that I was under assault. It's the fact that I was not able to punch back.
In the military, you know, serving in the White House, I don't have my own voice. You know, I don't have a public presence. So when I'm being attacked, I just have to kind of rely on other folks to potentially defend me. My exceptional legal team would issue statements on my behalf. I had some dear friends and mentors: Ambassador McFaul, General Peter Zwack. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joe Dunford said some awesome things about me. That's really all I had. I didn't have my own voice.
And, unfortunately, I didn't have the Army saying, "This officer is in good standing. You know, he's earned his place there." Even without being partisan, that kind of support was one of the things that I was missing and made me refocus on the fact that, frankly, it's all on my shoulders or I have to take my counsel. I don't really have anything to fall back on.
Chris Hayes: Well, in the end, you end up getting punished. I mean, essentially you get terminated for doing what you did and they get away with doing that.
Alexander Vindman: They do. But in a way, it's a small price to pay. I exposed presidential corruption. I mean, you know, the QAnon folks, the far right will say I went there with the intent of finding something to target President Trump with. That's not the case. I went there to do my job. I went there to serve. I went there to advance U.S. national security interests.
The president crossed the brightest of red lines with his corruption, and I was not going to let that slide. "Here, right matters," to me meant, you know, defending my own value set, defending the United States, and defending this idea that in the United States we're different; we don't have these kind of corruption by the chief executive.
I mean, I could live with my actions. I could be honored by knowing exactly the moment I made a difference. I could look my daughter in the eye. I don't have to equivocate. It's in a way a small price to pay. I could rebuild, like my dad did, and, you know, keep movin' forward.
Chris Hayes: Your father voted for Trump, yeah?
Alexander Vindman: He did, in 2016.
Chris Hayes: And is he still a Trump supporter?
Alexander Vindman: Not by a long shot. I think certainly because of these propensities to shift to the right that was his starting point. But as he watched my own involvement in the scandal unfold, he took a critical eye to the information he was consuming. My mother basically banned Fox News in the house. That helped. You know, so I think, you know, cutting the cord on Fox News could help deprogram folks.
Chris Hayes: Wow--
Alexander Vindman: And when he started to consume, you know, other news sources and understand more of what was going on, you know, President Trump, it became apparent that he was in fact a weak, venal, vindictive president that was attacking his son. And there was no question he was gonna choose, you know, me over the president.
Chris Hayes: What next for you, Alex?
Alexander Vindman: So I haven't quite figured out exactly what it is I want to do. I bought myself some time by pursuing this doctorate from Johns Hopkins. I finished up my coursework. I have to write the darn thing. It's actually on a topic that you and I spent a little bit of time discussing: great power competition.
I'm specifically looking at the relationship between Russia and China and the effects on U.S. foreign policy. So I'll treat this idea of, you know, Ukraine being little Russia or part of Russia that I didn't get a chance to push back on yet, Chris, here.
But that's one of the things. You know, I've got a passion for learning. I'm in the NGO space working on the Renew Democracy initiative and looking for ways to help harden this democracy for the next time it's challenged from within. And, you know, in that regard, I'm pushing heavily on accountability.
My last series of engagements, I've really kind of focused in on the fact that there needs to be a lot more on accountability and this administration needs to be held accountable. This current administration cannot wish away accountability. They need to laser focus on this because there can't be any unity until we treat the underlying issues.
So that's another thing that I'm working on. I'm in a think tank. I'm gonna be talking to Governor Schwarzenegger. He wanted to do a book talk with me. We had a chance to meet sometime earlier on because he had a very passionate video about January 6th. So we connected after that. So I'm gonna have a conversation with him about how we could potentially work together. It'll be something that's gonna be on Crowdcast by our Harper-Collins folks.
But there's all sorts of interesting opportunities that are potentially open up, at least through communicating with people that have the same mission as I do and still working through the baggage of people that consider me political or radioactive. I mean, these are things that are not fully resolved. But I have an optimistic eye on the future.
Chris Hayes: U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman is author of Here, Right Matters: An American Story. He testified in the first impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump. He's a former director of European affairs for the U.S. National Security Council. As you heard, he's currently working on his dissertation at Johns Hopkins. Colonel, it was really, really great to have you. Thank you so much.
Alexander Vindman: Thank you. This was a true pleasure.
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