This article was updated on Tuesday, October 29 at 1:58 pm.
The White House can’t muster a substantive defense of President Donald Trump’s behavior regarding Ukraine. Democrats more or less gave way to Republican process complaints about impeachment on Monday. So with few other options left, Trump and his allies are returning to the mode that got him elected in the first place: toxic xenophobia.
Monday evening, the opening statement from Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman was released to the press, ahead of his appearance before House investigators today. In another age, Vindman’s statement would be called a smoking gun, though by this stage the facts are clear enough that it adds little to the established record.
Vindman wrote that he heard Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Trump’s European Union envoy, demand that Ukrainians investigate Joe Biden’s family and that he told Sondland this was inappropriate. Moreover, he was listening to Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and was disturbed by Trump’s requests.
“I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained,” Vindman said. “This would all undermine U.S. national security.”
Vindman’s testimony sidesteps the whistle-blower complaint that kicked off this scandal. Unlike the whistle-blower, whose identity is still unknown, Vindman had firsthand knowledge of the call; he also complained up the chain of command.
Vindman would seem like a difficult witness to attack: a career soldier, an active-duty lieutenant colonel in the Army, a Purple Heart recipient for a wound from an IED in Iraq. Yet imagining that Trump’s allies might struggle to impugn Vindman badly overestimates their scruples.
Shortly after the statement was released, Laura Ingraham covered his story on her Fox News show.
“This is buried in the New York Times piece tonight,” Ingraham said. “He’s a decorated colonel, by the way, in the Iraq War. ‘Because [Colonel Vindman] emigrated from Ukraine along with his family when he was a child and is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, Ukrainian officials sought advice from him on how to deal with Mr. Giuliani, though they typically communicated in English.’”
She went on: “Here we have a U.S. national-security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest, and usually they spoke in English. Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle to this story?”
Ingraham’s comment is spurious in several ways. First, it was Vindman’s job to speak with Ukrainians. Second, it is of course useful for foreign-policy professionals to speak the language of the foreign countries they handle. Third, other officials, including Sondland and Ambassador William Taylor, have recounted offering advice to Ukrainians about navigating their relationship with Rudy Giuliani. Fourth, there is no evidence that Vindman was acting against the president’s interest; indeed, he was trying to execute official U.S. foreign policy regarding Ukraine, even as Giuliani ran a rogue and dubiously legal shadow foreign policy.
John Yoo, a former official in George W. Bush’s administration and a law professor at UC Berkeley, reacted to Ingraham’s prompt by casually accusing Vindman of treason.
“I find that astounding, and some people might call that espionage,” Yoo said. (This may illustrate the danger of allowing Yoo, the author of a Bush-era legal opinion justifying torture, to weigh in on questions of law and morality.) Later on Tuesday, responding to a torrent of criticism, Yoo told the Washington Examiner that he “meant to say that this sounded like an espionage operation by the Ukrainians.”
The attacks continued Tuesday morning. On CNN, the newly hired contributor and former Representative Sean Duffy baselessly accused Vindman of dual loyalty or treason.
“It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense,” Duffy said. “I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy, but his main mission was to make sure that the Ukraine got those weapons. I understand that. We all have an affinity to our homeland, where we came from … He’s entitled to his opinion. He has an affinity for the Ukraine, he speaks Ukrainian, and he came from the country, and he wants to make sure they’re safe and free. I understand that.”
Host John Berman, astonished, asked, “Are you saying a decorated war veteran isn’t looking out for America first, yes or no?”
“I don’t know what he’s doing,” Duffy replied, suddenly losing the ability to read Vindman’s mind, though he had demonstrated it moments earlier.
On Fox & Friends, Brian Kilmeade added, “We also know he was born in the Soviet Union, emigrated with his family, young. He tends to feel simpatico with the Ukraine.”
At least one Republican defended Vindman. “It is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this country,” said Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a close ally of the president’s.
Vindman is the model of what an immigrant ought to be. He came to the United States as a Jewish refugee from Soviet oppression. “Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night,” he wrote in his prepared testimony. “He stressed to us the importance of fully integrating into our adopted country.”
Vindman’s connection to his adopted country was so great that he joined the military and served multiple tours overseas. (This is the latest example of how Trump is delighted to use the military writ large as a prop when it suits him, but Trumpists are quick to smear actual veterans if they don’t toe the president’s line.) Vindman’s brother Yevgeny is also an Army lieutenant colonel. And Alexander Vindman is putting his career on the line by speaking up now on principle.
Vindman’s experience as a refugee doesn’t make him a traitor; it makes him more viscerally able to appreciate the importance of the rule of law, absent in the Soviet system that his family fled. Suggesting otherwise without evidence is appalling and immoral, but it is the natural progression of Trumpism. The president kicked off his 2016 campaign by attacking unauthorized Mexican immigrants as “rapists and criminals,” and his allies have now moved on to attacking decorated veterans as traitors. If they are searching for scoundrels, there are plenty who were born on American soil.