Alexander Vindman was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, a director of the National Security Council and valued Ukraine expert when his career was turned upside down in the space of one phone call. Vindman was on the line when former President Donald Trump tried to pressure Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, into announcing an investigation into then-candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump told Zelenskyy he would hand over much-needed security aid and a coveted White House visit, but first, “I would like you to do us a favor.”
That call would launch Trump’s first impeachment, with Vindman smack in the middle of it.
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A high-ranking member of the military who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, Vindman did the right thing. Concerned about the call’s legality and possible national security implications, he reported it up his chain of command. When subpoenaed to testify before the House of Representatives, he willingly told the truth. In other words, he did precisely what we would hope our public servants would do.
What followed his testimony is the subject of a new civil lawsuit Vindman filed. Trump was, of course, acquitted at his impeachment trial. Vindman’s career with the military was ended. And now, he’s trying to find some measure of accountability for what happened to him and, perhaps as well, to the country.
Vindman alleges that following his testimony, a group of people inside the Trump White House and in the former president’s inner circle, including Trump himself and at least one member of the media, conspired to “prevent him from and then punish him for testifying.” Stories were spread across news and social media outlets that Vindman was a spy for Ukraine and that he was not loyal to the United States. Vindman alleges in the lawsuit that the conspiracy effectively ended his military career.
It would be bad enough if this case was about a president using the power of his office to intimidate one man. But it’s not.
It would be bad enough if this case was about a president using the power of his office to intimidate one man. But it’s not. Other members of Vindman’s family were targeted for harassment, including his wife and his brother, a lawyer at the NSC whose position was also compromised. Vindman’s complaint alleges that the damage goes much further: “The actions taken by Defendants against Lt. Col. Vindman sent a message to other potential witnesses as well: cooperate and tell the truth at your own peril.”
That message seemed to hit home at the time of Trump’s first impeachment. Some witnesses, like Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, did come forward. But many others didn’t, including Trump’s man in Kyiv, Rudy Giuliani, national security adviser John Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. They delayed, using sometimes dubious assertions of privilege that prevented them from testifying before the proceedings ended.
Vindman’s lawsuit alleges that the chilling effect of his treatment didn’t stop with Trump’s impeachment trials: “Witnesses subpoenaed by Congress in connection with its investigation into the events of January 6, 2021, continue to heed former President Trump’s instructions to defy those subpoenas, undermining Congress’s constitutional oversight role and the fundamental principle of checks and balances between three co-equal branches of government.” The allegation is both stunning — that a president would undermine the rule of law in such a serious and pervasive manner — and unsurprising, at least for anyone who paid attention during Trump’s time in office.
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Whether the lawsuit is ultimately successful, Vindman’s concern is an important one. Elected officials — and certainly presidents — shouldn’t be able to use the power of their office to threaten or retaliate against witnesses who testify truthfully in official proceedings. Genevieve Nadeau of the nonprofit Protect Democracy is one of Vindman’s lawyers. “It’s important to understand this is a case of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice that is well outside the bounds of what's fair game in any sort of normal, even ugly politics,” Nadeau told me.
When individuals push back against abuses of power, they deserve our respect. Such fortitude often results in intense pressure and even personal risk; but in willingly subjecting themselves to that pressure, people like Vindman become de facto guardrails for democracy.
Yes, Vindman will face hurdles in his lawsuit. It has been carefully crafted to include details of Trump’s involvement but does not actually name him as a defendant, at least at this early stage in the proceedings. This could avoid the delays he has caused with other cases by using his former presidential status. But Vindman will still have to offer proof on contentious issues, including whether defendants like Giuliani and former White House staffers actually formed a conspiracy to plan and execute the campaign against him. And there is no clear law that confirms impeachments fall within the meaning of court proceedings, which is essential to his witness retaliation claim.
No president should be able to besmirch a public servant with lies about his patriotism in an effort to deflect attention from his own misconduct.
Sometimes it can be enough, or at least a start, to take the first step forward, on principle. This, we can hope, is one of those moments. No president should be able to besmirch a public servant with lies about his patriotism in an effort to deflect attention from his own misconduct. And the courage of one person to call out wrongdoing may inspire others, including both career employees and political appointees who found themselves in Trump’s orbit during the orchestration of the big lie. Truth is essential to democracy. Perhaps Vindman, by standing for the truth, can inspire others to do the same.
Does right still matter in America, as Vindman emotionally pledged in his impeachment testimony? Or can a former president obstruct his way into a second term? Let’s hope we are still a country where individuals, whether they hold government office or are private citizens, will have the courage to stand up for the rule of law, like Vindman is doing with his lawsuit.