WASHINGTON — President Trump and his aides wasted little time opening a campaign of retribution against those he blames for his impeachment, firing on Friday two of the most prominent witnesses in the inquiry against him barely 48 hours after the Senate acquitted the president.
Emboldened by his victory and determined to strike back, Trump fired Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, within hours of the White House dismissing Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. Vindman, a decorated Iraq war veteran who was a Ukraine expert on the National Security Council. Both officials testified to a House committee about the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to help him against his domestic political rivals.
“I was advised today that the president intends to recall me effective immediately as United States Ambassador to the European Union,” Sondland said in a statement just hours after Vindman’s dismissal. He expressed gratitude to Trump “for having given me the opportunity to serve.”
Vindman was escorted out of the White House by security officers on Friday afternoon and told that his services were no longer needed. His twin brother, Lieutenant Colonel Yevgeny Vindman, who also worked on the security council staff, was fired, too, and escorted out at the same time. Both will be sent back to the Defense Department.
“There is no question in the mind of any American why this man’s job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House,” David Pressman, his lawyer, said in a statement. “Lt. Col. Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”
Vindman spoke publicly only once, when ordered to under subpoena, Pressman added. “And for that, the most powerful man in the world — buoyed by the silent, the pliable, and the complicit — has decided to exact revenge.”
Trump signaled Vindman’s fate hours ahead of time when he told reporters that a decision would be coming soon. “Well, I’m not happy with him,” the president said of Vindman. “You think I’m supposed to be happy with him? I’m not.”
The ouster of the Vindman brothers and Sondland may only presage a broader effort to even accounts with the president’s perceived enemies. In the two days since his acquittal in the Senate, Trump has railed about those who stood against him, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, calling them “evil,” “corrupt,” and “crooked,” while his White House press secretary declared that those who hurt the president “should pay for” it.
Both brothers, whose tours at the White House were scheduled to last until July, will retain their Army ranks and now return to military service. Alexander Vindman, who had been expecting the move and had begun removing personal items, was told he will go to the Pentagon before moving to the National War College in July as originally planned, according to one person close to the situation. Yevgeny Vindman, who goes by Eugene, was more surprised and was told he will report to the office of the Army general counsel.
The action comes two days after the end of the trial, which had turned in part on the testimony of Vindman and other administration officials who described a campaign to pressure Ukraine into announcing corruption investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and other Democrats.
The president continued to go after lawmakers who voted for conviction, targeting Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, one of the Democrats the White House had hoped to win over, only to be bitterly disappointed when he voted along with the rest of his party. “I was told by many that Manchin was just a puppet for Schumer & Pelosi,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “That’s all he is!’’
Schumer said that the Pentagon had assured him that whistle-blowers “like LTC Vindman” would be protected. “Any reprisals against him or others who came forward to tell the truth are wrong and should be seen for what they are: An extension of President Trump’s cover-up,” he wrote on Twitter.
At least one Republican joined the protest. Senator Susan Collins of Maine said witnesses should not be punished for giving the House required testimony. “I obviously am not in favor of any kind of retribution against anyone who came forward with evidence,” she said in Maine, according to the Portland Press Herald.
As of a few weeks ago, Vindman was still doing his day-to-day job of coordinating Ukraine policy with career officials at other agencies but had been largely cut off from political appointees and had not yet met the new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, who has been in the job since September, according to the person briefed on the plans.
Vindman, a Ukrainian immigrant and decorated Iraq War veteran, told the House Intelligence Committee in November that he was surprised when he heard Trump pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate Biden and a conspiracy theory involving Democrats and the 2016 election during a July 25 telephone call. He told lawmakers that he reported his concerns to other security council officials.
Republicans questioning his motivations during the hearing pointed to the fact that Ukrainian officials sounded him out about becoming the country’s defense minister, a suggestion he said he rejected and reported to his superiors.
Even before the hearing, Vindman was subjected to virulent attacks on his patriotism on Fox News and social media that caused concern for his personal safety. Trump called him a “Never Trumper,” a term the colonel rejected. Fox aired a segment in which commentators noted that Vindman was an immigrant “working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest,” suggesting that might amount to “espionage.”
Vindman made Trump and his allies even angrier when he wore his uniform at the televised hearing and made comments that seemed more political than the other witnesses. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, called the colonel “a low-level partisan bureaucrat and nothing more.”
The attacks resumed during the Senate trial last month. “Adam Schiff is hailing Alexander Vindman as an American patriot,” Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee., wrote on Twitter during the trial, referring to the lead House manager prosecuting the case. “How patriotic is it to bad-mouth and ridicule our great nation in front of Russia, America’s greatest enemy?”