“I did my duty as an American citizen and Army officer,” Vindman says.
If that’s the case, I said, that might make you the Frank Wills of the Trump impeachment. All you did was tell your colleagues that you may have witnessed a crime in progress.
WE SIT IN THE SHADE outside the Kennedy Center, masks off. People walk by, but no one recognizes him. He’s in shorts and wearing glasses. He looks more like an engineer who forgot his pocket protector than a former infantry officer, one wounded in Iraq. Utterly obscure in the summer of 2019—a bright, awkward, ambitious lieutenant colonel laboring in the salt mines of the U.S. national-security apparatus—by fall he was a linchpin witness in Donald Trump’s impeachment. His fame, all of the controversy, the demolition of his military career are owed to a single telephone call—a “perfect” call, in Trump’s formulation. On July 25 of last year, Vindman, who, as the National Security Council’s director for European affairs, organized the call, listened, with other officials, to a conversation between Trump and the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“I would like you to do us a favor,” Trump told Zelensky, working his way to the subject of Joe Biden: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it …”
Vindman was surprised by Trump’s approach, and by its implications. Like other American specialists in the successor states of the former Soviet Union, he was invested in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. And like most national-security professionals, he was interested in countering Russia’s malign influence—along its borders, in places like Ukraine and Belarus and the Baltic states; across Europe; and in American elections. He believed in buttressing Ukraine’s new leadership. He also had an aversion to shakedowns, and this, to him, felt like a shakedown.
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He did not fully understand at the time, he says, that the Trump administration had two separate foreign policies. The first was run out of the National Security Council, and by the many agencies and departments that are collectively charged with protecting America from its adversaries. The second was being manufactured by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, with a goal of ensuring Trump’s reelection. What Vindman learned that day, he says, wasn’t just the extent to which Giuliani was attempting to weaponize the Ukrainian justice system against Biden, but that Trump himself was involved.
“I just had a visceral reaction to what I was hearing,” he says. “I suspected it was criminal, but I knew it was wrong. President Trump knew that Zelensky needed a meeting with him in Washington to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the entrenched opposition at home. So Trump was putting the squeeze on this leader to conduct a corrupt investigation. Trump knew he had them over a barrel. I found it repulsive and un-American for an American president to try to get a leg up by pressuring a foreign leader to get dirt on an American politician. I knew by then that Giuliani was somewhere in the background. But I refused to believe that the president was party to what Rudy was doing. I learned in that phone call that the president was the driving force.”