Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness in President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry, announced his retirement Wednesday after more than 21 years in the Army. One of mostly anonymous officers who serve the White House, Vindman became famous after he told Congress that Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine on July 25, 2019, was improper and a “partisan play” that “undermined U.S. national security.” He was compelled to testify, Vindman said, because “my only thought was to act properly and to carry out my duty.”
Vindman’s testimony positioned him in the center of the Ukraine firestorm and made him a public target of President Donald Trump’s wrath.
Vindman’s testimony positioned him in the center of the Ukraine firestorm and made him a public target of President Donald Trump’s wrath. Trump publicly stated that “he was not happy” with Vindman and fired him from the National Security Council staff in February, also ousting Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, in a clear effort to humiliate them.
A decorated Iraq war veteran, Vindman was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds he suffered in combat in 2004. But his story will likely be a leadership case study for cadets and midshipmen around the nation for reasons unrelated to his courage under fire. Rather, Vindman has forced America to reckon with questions a lot closer to home. Namely, where does an officer’s loyalty lie? To the president as commander in chief or the officer’s oath to the nation?
Vindman’s sudden decision to retire appears to be based on several factors. His attorney, David Pressman, stated that Vindman has endured a "campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation" spearheaded by the president following his testimony in the impeachment inquiry last year. (Vindman has previously raised concerns about the safety of his family.) Pressman also argued that Vindman believed his future in the armed forces would “forever be limited” due to political retaliation by the president and his allies.
Vindman — currently assigned as a student at the Army War College — had also reportedly been told by senior Army officials that he would not be deployable in his area of expertise, which includes Ukraine, and would need a “rehabilitative assignment” after graduating from the War College next June. It is also possible that the officer’s sudden fame may have resulted in lucrative civilian career opportunities or the chance to write a book about his experiences in the Trump White House at a critical moment.
Supporters of the president will argue that Vindman was a "Never Trumper" who, in the words of Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was just trying to “sabotage the president’s policies and, if possible, remove him from office.”
But loyalists should really be breathing a sigh of relief. Because while Vindman’s announcement this week engendered a predictable surge of anti-Trump sentiment, his departure actually avoided a possible collision between the White House, Pentagon civilian/military leadership and the Senate that would might have caused a far bigger stir.
An Army board had selected Vindman, along with hundreds of other officers, for promotion to full colonel. Normally, this is a routine bureaucratic process that requires the Army staff to forward the proposed list to the secretary of defense for review. It is then sent to the White House and subsequently to the Senate for final confirmation.
Aides to the president had made it clear that Trump did not want to see Vindman promoted. It has also been reported that the release of the promotion list was already being held up over Vindman. In order to avoid a public and embarrassing scene with Trump this summer, defense officials had told Vindman that they were considering forwarding his name on a special “list of one,” or holding his name back until after the election to avoid affecting the promotions of other officers. The White House had even asked Pentagon officials to find instances of misconduct and witnesses that would justify removing Vindman from the list. But Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy were unable to find reason to do this. Esper completed his review and forwarded the list, including Vindman’s name, to the White House on Monday.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., reported to be a leading vice presidential candidate, learned of these efforts and announced that she would block Senate confirmation of the 1,123 senior officers scheduled for promotion until she received confirmation from Esper that Vindman’s promotion to full colonel had not been blocked.
In taking this action, Duckworth — herself a decorated veteran — not only set up a confrontation with the White House but also may have placed Vindman in a difficult position that encouraged him to retire. He was now the reason his fellow officers would not to be promoted in a timely fashion.
Following news of Vindman’s tweet, Duckworth declared that his decision to retire "puts the spotlight on Secretary of Defense Mark Esper's failure to protect a decorated combat Veteran against a vindictive Commander in Chief" and that her partial hold on military promotions would remain in place until Esper "provides a transparent accounting of this disgraceful situation."
Whatever Vindman’s reasons for retiring early, there are several implications from this rather sordid affair.
But whatever Vindman’s reasons for retiring early, there are several implications from this rather sordid affair. Clearly, the nation has lost the services of a highly experienced officer who should be promoted. Former national security adviser John Bolton, who was Vindman’s boss in the White House, reiterated why this week. Vindman is a combat veteran who by all accounts served the nation well and had been appropriately selected for promotion along with many others by a board of senior officers.
Second, Trump’s relationships with the professional military as well as with the Pentagon civilian leadership have been further strained — despite the fact that he frequently cites his support for the military. Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have both sought to distance themselves from Trump’s recent decisions, including the use of armed troops and police to clear protesters from Lafayette Square so the president could have a photo-op.
Milley publicly apologized and issued a memorandum to the entire force reminding them of their oath to the Constitution. Esper has also stated his willingness to consider renaming military installations that are named after Confederate leaders, despite Trump’s opposition to the idea. Both doubtless wish to see the military move past a possible major crisis in civil-military relations.
No one is arguing that the president does not have the power to promote or reject officers. This is not a legal question. It is rather a matter of judgment and support for civil-military relations in a democracy. The actions taken by the president and his administration against Vindman send a direct message to America’s officer corps: Officers who want to advance in their careers should be publicly supportive of Trump — or at the least, quiet and compliant. This is yet another dangerous and corrosive message in a presidency filled with them.
On May 12, 1962, Gen. Douglas MacArthur delivered a farewell address at West Point. Every cadet who has entered the academy since has listened to MacArthur’s admonition that three words — “Duty, Honor and Country” — described an officer’s fundamental loyalties and dictated “what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.” Furthermore, he argued that this must be the “obsession of your public service.”
It would seem likely that Vindman believed he was living up to that credo, and yet has paid a tremendous price for doing so. It would be interesting to know what the old general would say about this leadership case study today.