The Veteran Who Could Be VP

The Illinois senator and Purple Heart recipient is looking to leverage her military experience into a big promotion.

Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois at a podium
Joe Raedle / Getty

Tammy Duckworth is up for a big promotion: Joe Biden’s advisers are vetting her to be his running mate. In the meantime, she’s focused on protecting the promotion of another lieutenant colonel.

The senator from Illinois, who lost both her legs as a helicopter pilot in Iraq and was awarded the Purple Heart, has placed a hold—Senate-speak for preventing a vote—on hundreds of military promotions, she told me. She’ll maintain that hold until she gets written confirmation from President Donald Trump’s defense secretary, Mark Esper, that he won’t block the anticipated promotion of Alexander Vindman, the lieutenant colonel who testified in the House hearings that led to Trump’s impeachment. The White House dismissed Vindman from his position on the National Security Council two days after Trump was acquitted in the subsequent Senate trial. (He’s since been reassigned to the Pentagon.) But Duckworth worries that kicking Vindman out of 1600 Pennsylvania won’t be enough for Trump, whose score-settling has been a running feature of his presidency. And she may be betting that attacking Trump as a failed commander in chief could win her some attention as Biden’s running-mate search draws to a close.

Duckworth isn’t seen as a likely Biden pick at the moment. She’s not particularly well known, and doesn’t have some politicians’ natural smoothness in interviews and other appearances. That sort of camera readiness is more important than ever in a pandemic campaign, given how much of voters’ exposure to the vice-presidential nominee will come via TV appearances on Zoom. Biden’s running mate will also face a high-stakes debate with Mike Pence, whose years as a radio host and politician made him more agile in the 2016 VP debate than his political opponents like to claim.

Duckworth is working hard to boost her VP chances, helped along by events—starting on June 1, when law enforcement violently dispersed protesters so that Trump, escorted by Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could march across Lafayette Square and be photographed holding up a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. She blasted that action as a “misuse” of the military, prompting Milley to call her a week later, ahead of a video statement in which he apologized for appearing in the photo op. “He did what military leaders were supposed to do and what this president does not do,” Duckworth told me. “He took responsibility for the mistake that he made. He said it was his mistake and he should not have done it, and he regrets that he did that.”

Now Duckworth says that Trump is proving “incompetent” in his response to Russia reportedly paying the Taliban bounties to kill American soldiers. When we spoke yesterday, she’d just come from a briefing about this in the Senate. I asked whether what she heard put her at ease. “Not at all,” she said. The officials whom the administration sent to the Senate said that they hadn’t been involved in briefing the president, leaving them unable to offer many answers. “I won’t say there was blood on his hands, but I want to know why he stopped investigating this,” Duckworth told me, referring to Trump’s apparent failure to follow up on intelligence agencies’ findings about the bounties. I asked her how she’d feel if she were deployed right now, and read this news. “I would be proud of my service for my country, but I would be absolutely appalled that my president was not watching out for me and my troops,” she said.

Traditionally, active service members and veterans skew Republican. Trump clearly believes that’s the natural order of the world, and earlier this week tweeted that any Republican who doesn’t support him must not support “a new & powerful Military.”

Duckworth is eager to counter the idea that the military is monolithic, and she jumped on Trump’s announcement Tuesday night that he will veto the upcoming defense-authorization bill because it includes an amendment to rename military bases that honor Confederate officers.

“He cares more about dead traitors than he does about money for training, than he does about money for military families, than he does about fixing the military housing issue, than he does about making sure that our troops have enough equipment to do their jobs?” Duckworth said. “He cares more about preserving the legacy of dead traitors than he does about making sure that our troops get a pay raise, while we have soldiers and marines in harm’s way right now, downrange?”

Duckworth likely hopes these recent events might earn her a closer look as a potential vice president. Biden is clearly disturbed by the reports about the Russian bounties, accusing Trump of an “absolute dereliction of duty.” On Tuesday, at a press conference he held in Wilmington, Delaware, he was visibly angry as he relayed a story about his wife asking him what he would do if he’d found about this when his late son, Beau, was still serving in the National Guard. “What are those parents thinking out there?” Biden said. “What are those sons and daughters, husbands and wives?”

Duckworth served in the National Guard before being elected to the House in 2012. In 2016, on the same night Trump won the presidency, she was elected to the Senate, flipping back the seat that had been Barack Obama’s. Coincidences like that often resonate with Biden. And there are some obvious political upsides to picking a woman whose mother was a Thai immigrant and whose father can trace his roots to the Revolutionary War—not to mention a veteran who gave her legs in service to the country and is now the mother of two young daughters.

Duckworth insisted that her vocal critique of Trump has nothing to do with the VP selection process. She’s always been outspoken: Back in January, a Republican congressman claimed that Democrats who criticized the strike that killed an Iranian general were “in love with terrorists.” She responded: “I left parts of my body in Iraq fighting terrorists.”

“I feel that I have a unique role to play, in terms of those who are in the Senate, to call out the president when he’s not doing his job as commander in chief,” Duckworth told me. She also has a duty, she said, to remind her colleagues that members of the armed services aren’t all conservative old white men. As the Baby Boomers who have been in leadership roles retire, the military is undergoing important generational and demographic shifts.

“It’s Gen Xers who are now flag officers. Millennials are now mid-career. They’re now company commanders,” she said. “They’ve only ever served with women serving to their left and to the right. They came of age after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Today’s members of the armed services look and think, Duckworth argued, much more like her than like Milley or James Mattis or John Kelly. And that’s why she was especially upset about the involvement of the military in the response to protests last month. “Many of them have family members probably who were there, and they showed up and did their job anyway,” she said, “which speaks to the professionalism of our military—something this president does not seem to exhibit himself in his personal conduct.”

On Tuesday, Biden said his potential vice-presidential picks include “a number of women of color. There are Latino women. There are Asian.” On Biden’s list, only Duckworth and Harris, whose mother was Indian, fit the latter description. Biden also said to expect the process to keep going for a few more weeks. “I can’t guarantee you August 1, but it will be in early August,” he said. “Several weeks before the convention.” That scaled-down convention is scheduled to start August 17.