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Democrats cry foul on Trump’s dismissals of Vindman and Sondland

Sen. Dianne Feinstein called the removals “as clear a case of retribution as I’ve seen during my 27 years in the Senate.”

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, former National Security Council Director for European Affairs, and his brother Leonid Vindman leave impeachment inquiry hearings in November 2019.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Democrats are condemning President Donald Trump’s dismissal of two officials who testified in the impeachment inquiry, an action party leaders argue is evidence of clear political retaliation from a president emboldened by his acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial.

Former US ambassador to the European UnionGordon Sondland and National Security Council member Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman were both pushed out of their posts Friday after providing damning testimony before House members last year.

“President Trump is exacting his retribution, removing those who complied with subpoenas, came forward, and testified about his misconduct,” wrote House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), one of the leaders of the impeachment inquiry. “These are the actions of a man who believes he is above the law — Precisely the kind of conduct Congressional Republicans enabled.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was somewhat less pointed, calling Vindman “an American patriot” whose “brave testimony showed America that right still matters,” while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the firings “as clear a case of retribution as I’ve seen during my 27 years in the Senate.”

Vindman was a top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council who was listening in last summer when Trump spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He told House investigators that the call was “inappropriate” and could have “significant national security implications” for the US. Vindman’s twin brother, who was a lawyer on the NSC, was also removed from his post.

The White House has claimed the decision was based on a desire to shrink the NSC’s staff, and stressed the men were not fired, merely reassigned to the Department of the Army. The timing of the decision, however, raises questions about the validity of that claim, as does the firing of Gordon Sondland.

Sondland was an early Trump supporter and major campaign donor before becoming an ambassador. In that role, he became a key figure in the campaign to pressure Ukraine into investigating Trump’s political enemies, despite Ukraine not being part of the EU. He spoke with US diplomats in Ukraine about the matter, and inquiry witness David Holmes, an aide at the US embassy in Ukraine, testified he heard Sondland discussing the the investigation with Trump.

In his own opening statement before House Democrats in November, Sondland said: “I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’”

He then said, “The answer is yes.”

The dismissals came just two days after Trump was acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial, and that fact had some Democrats like Rep. Jackie Speier comparing the situation to the famed “Saturday night massacre” that occurred during President Richard Nixon’s tenure, when a number of high-ranking officials within the administration left or were fired as the Watergate scandal unfolded. Speier referred to the Trump dismissals as a “Friday Night massacre.”

Many other officials who testified left their roles ahead of the trial’s conclusion. Former US ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled — and may have been under surveillance by allies to Rudy Giuliani — retired in January; shortly before she did so, William Taylor, who was serving as the top US diplomat in Ukraine in her place, stepped down. Kurt Volker, the former US special representative for Ukraine, resigned last September before delivering his testimony. Others, including national security aide Jennifer Williams and national security official Tim Morrison have left their posts as well.

The Vindmans and Sondland did not seem poised to leave their posts voluntarily, however, and now have been removed. University of Alabama law professor Joyce Alene has noted that it’s illegal to retaliate against witnesses, but added “it seems trivial to mention at this point” after Senate Republicans acquitted Trump. Senate Republicans dismissed a Government Accountability Office report that found the president acted illegally in withholding the Ukraine aid, and there is little to suggest his party would censure him for some other illegal act.

Republicans say Sondland’s firing and Vindman’s dismissal are justified after they betrayed Trump

As Democrats’ outcry continues, Republicans are already defending Trump’s removals as a logical actions against employees he no longer trusts.

Vindman “was assigned to NSC to serve the President who has a right to have people he trusts on his staff,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida wrote on Twitter. “Sondland was a politically appointee. No point in having a political appointee who no longer has the Presidents confidence.”

Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s oldest son, took it a step further, sarcastically sending a shout out to Schiff on Twitter for revealing the weakest links in their administration. “Were it not for his crack investigation skills, [Trump] might have had a tougher time unearthing who all needed to be fired.”

The tweet makes clear the White House didn’t fire Vindman in a “broader effort to shrink” the administration’s foreign policy team as they said, but was motivated by revenge.

Trump himself put a finer point on it Saturday morning, tweeting that Vindman “was very insubordinate, reported contents of my ‘perfect’ calls incorrectly, & was given a horrendous report by his superior... In other words, ‘OUT’.”

Some wonder whether Trump will continue to retaliate against those who complied with the House impeachment inquiry. As Vox’s Alex Ward wrote:

Perhaps by pressuring Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to push out George Kent — one of the diplomatic corps’ top Ukraine experts who testified in the House impeachment investigation — or getting Defense Secretary Mark Esper to kick out Laura Cooper, the Defense Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, who told investigators the White House directed the freeze on military aid to Kyiv.

Regardless, the president has made it clear that those who speak out against him are at risk of losing their jobs — and that Trump knows he’s unlikely to be punished for it.

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