Alexander Vindman, an honorable man

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected]

ERIC MINK

It’s been a rough five months of history.

It began with the mid-September release of a formal complaint detailing misconduct in office by President Donald Trump, and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it.

In October and November, we slogged through two rounds of House of Representatives committee hearings into the allegations, one open only to members of the investigating committees, the second public, with coverage fired across the country and around the world as an array of relevant witnesses gave sworn testimony and answered questions.

A House vote in mid-December officially impeached Trump, charging him with two counts of violating his sworn duty to serve the American people. It was only the third time in America’s 232 years that a president had been impeached. Trump’s trial in the Senate on those charges began Jan. 16 and ended Feb. 5 with his acquittal.

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These events have been exhausting, periodically maddening and sometimes dispiriting. They’ve generated libraries’ worth of documents and news reports, scores of hours of live coverage that felt like thousands and literally limitless amounts of material distributed via cyberspace.

Scattered through the witness testimony and statements and questioning were moments of eloquence, courage, inspiration, condescension, pettiness and deception.

And, for me, a hero: U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman.

A 44-year-old career Army officer with a master’s degree from Harvard in Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian studies, Vindman began what was supposed to be a one-year White House assignment to the Trump administration’s National Security Council (NSC) just as impeachment was heating up last summer. Vindman’s main responsibilities were coordinating national security initiatives among government agencies and advising John Bolton, then head of the NSC, on matters relating to Ukraine and neighboring countries.

As part of his new job, Vindman and others listened in on what became Trump’s notorious July 25 phone call last year with Ukraine’s recently elected reformist president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

What Vindman heard alarmed him. Congress already had passed legislation providing upgraded military aid to Ukraine for its hot war with Russia and spelling out how the aid served U.S. security interests. Trump had endorsed the measures with his signature.

But in their phone conversation, memorialized in a reconstructed summary (not a transcript), Trump had signaled Zelensky that the desperately needed aid might not be forthcoming. To keep it flowing, Trump hinted, Zelensky would need to do him the favor of having Ukraine conduct investigations that could taint the reputation of former Vice President Joseph Biden. At the time, Biden was the leading Democratic contender to oppose Trump in this year’s presidential election.

It was the second time in two weeks that the issue had surfaced. As he did the first time, Vindman told his direct supervisor that he was concerned that Trump was jeopardizing U.S. national security by undermining relations with Ukraine while ignoring a valid federal law. In both instances, the supervisor sent Vindman to NSC’s chief legal officer, the next step up the chain of command.

Vindman later was subpoenaed to testify about this for the House impeachment investigation and appeared twice, once Oct. 29, in a closed hearing and then Nov. 19 in a televised public session.

Watching Vindman’s live testimony that day, I was struck by his nerdy lack of pretense, his nervousness, a gentle sense of humor that surfaced only a couple of times and a straightforward narrative that rang as true as a bell. Looking and listening to Vindman, I saw and heard what seemed to me to be an honest, honorable person.

Last week, in the wake of Vindman’s Feb. 7 discharge from the NSC, I asked Susan Talve, the founding rabbi at Central Reform Congregation, about Vindman. She, too, had closely followed the impeachment events and likewise was struck by Vindman’s testimony and personal story.

A Jewish man born in 1975 in Kiev, Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), Vindman moved with his family to the United States at age 3 after his mother died. The toddler and his just barely younger twin brother, their older brother, their father and their maternal grandmother eventually came to the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, an area teeming in the late 1970s and ’80s with refugees from the depressed economies and resurgent anti-Semitism of failing Soviet client states.

“Jewish tradition,” Rabbi Talve said, “teaches that there need to be a certain amount of righteous individuals upon whose merit the world continues to exist. It feels like we are hanging on with the minimum, but it also feels like Col. Vindman is one of them.”

By testifying publicly about what he did and why, the rabbi said, Vindman “reminded us what America is supposed to be, and he honored the Jewish ethical and moral imperative to tell the truth and to recognize that the common good overrules self-interest.”

He also opened himself up to Trumpian attack dogs who slimed him after his November testimony with the coded anti-Semitism of “dual loyalties” and hints that he might be a Ukrainian agent committing “espionage.” There was no mention of the Purple Heart he earned in 2004 after an encounter with an exploding IED outside Fallujah in Iraq.

Sliming resumed two days after Trump’s acquittal by the Senate, when Vindman was discharged by the NSC and escorted off White House grounds by security personnel. So was his twin brother, Yevgeny, also a career Army lieutenant colonel serving at the NSC as a lawyer specializing in ethics. Trump said it would be a good idea if the Army undertook an investigation of Alexander Vindman. Thus far, the Army has said it won’t.

It was gratifying to see senior military officials who had worked directly with Vindman leap to his defense. Among them: former White House chief of staff and former Marine Gen. John Kelly; Joseph Dunford Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Peter B. Zwack, a retired Army brigadier general who worked with Vindman at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

“I would trust Alex with my life,” Zwack said.

But old habits die hard. Speaking a week ago at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, Trump’s fourth national security adviser (so far), Robert O’Brien, defended his decision to discharge the Vindman brothers.

“We’re not a country where a bunch of lieutenant colonels can get together and decide what the policy is of the United States,” O’Brien said in a spectacularly vile insinuation. “We are not a banana republic.”

I believe it was Shakespeare who wrote, “The flunky doth protest too much, methinks.”

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected] 

 

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