Trump administration ousts 2 key impeachment witnesses
Alexander Vindman removed for 'telling the truth,' lawyer says
Exacting swift punishment against those who crossed him, an emboldened U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday ousted two government officials who had delivered damaging testimony against him during his impeachment hearings. The president took retribution just two days after his acquittal by the Senate.
National security aide Lt.-Col. Alexander Vindman was escorted out of the White House complex on Friday, according to his lawyer, while the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union said Trump intends to recall him from his post.
"I was advised today that the President intends to recall me effective immediately," Gordon Sondland, who testified in the president's impeachment inquiry, said in a statement.
Vindman's lawyer said the decorated soldier was asked to leave in retaliation for "telling the truth."
"He did what any member of our military is charged with doing every day: he followed orders, he obeyed his oath, and he served his country, even when doing so was fraught with danger and personal peril," David Pressman said in a statement.
"And for that, the most powerful man in the world — buoyed by the silent, the pliable, and the complicit — has decided to exact revenge."
The White House had not been coy about whether Trump would retaliate against those he viewed as foes in the impeachment drama. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Thursday that Trump was glad it was over and "maybe people should pay for that."
Sondland was a crucial witness in the House impeachment inquiry, telling investigators that "everyone was in the loop" on Trump's desire to press Ukraine for politically charged investigations.
He told lawmakers how he came to understand that there was a "quid pro quo" connecting a desired White House visit for Ukraine's leader and an announcement that the country would conduct the investigations the president wanted.
Meanwhile, Vindman's status had been uncertain since he testified that he didn't think it was "proper" for Trump to "demand that a foreign government investigate" former vice-president Joe Biden and his son's dealings with the energy company Burisma in Ukraine. Vindman's ouster, however, seemed imminent after Trump mocked him Thursday during his post-acquittal celebration with Republican supporters in the East Room.
"We do not comment on personnel matters," said John Ullyot, spokesperson for the National Security Council, the foreign policy arm of the White House where Vindman was an expert on Ukraine.
Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday that he was "not happy with him. "You think I'm supposed to be happy with him? I'm not."
Vindman, a 20-year army veteran, wore his uniform full of medals, including a purple heart, when he appeared late last year for what turned out to be a testy televised impeachment hearing. Trump supporters raised questions about the Soviet Jewish immigrant's allegiance to the United States and noted that he had received offers to work for the government of Ukraine — offers Vindman said he swiftly dismissed.
"I am an American," he stated emphatically.
When the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, addressed him as "Mr. Vindman," the Iraq War veteran replied: "Ranking member, it's Lt. Col. Vindman please."
WATCH | U.S. national security adviser finds strength in sense of duty
The statement from Vindman's lawyer did not say whether he would be reassigned to the Defence Department where he worked before being detailed to the White House.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper was asked what the Pentagon would do to ensure that Vindman faces no retribution if he is reassigned to the Pentagon. "We protect all of our service members from retribution or anything like that," Esper said. "We've already addressed that in policy and other means."
Esper referred questions about Vindman's next assignment to army officials.
Trump backers cheered Vindman's removal, while Democrats were aghast.
"The White House is running a two-for-one special today on deep-state leakers," Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, wrote on Twitter.
A Twitter account used by the president's re-election campaign, @TrumpWarRoom, claimed Vindman leaked information to the whistleblower whose complaint about Trump's call ignited the investigation, and "colluded with Democrats to start the partisan impeachment coup."
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the firing was another example of how the "White House runs away from the truth."
Vindman "lived up to his oath to protect and defend our Constitution," Schumer said in a statement. "This action is not a sign of strength. It only shows President Trump's weakness."
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, recalled how Vindman, in his testimony, said he'd reassured his worried father that would be "fine for telling the truth."
"It's appalling that this administration may prove him wrong," Clinton said in a tweet.
With files from Reuters