WASHINGTON (AP) – Taking swift and harsh action against those who crossed him, President Donald Trump on Friday ousted two government officials who had delivered damaging testimony during his impeachment hearings. Trump made the moves just two days after his acquittal by the Senate.
First came news that Trump had ousted Lt. Col Alexander Vindman, the decorated soldier and national security aide who played a central role in the Democrats’ impeachment case. He was escorted out of the White House complex Friday, according to his lawyer, who said he was asked to leave in retaliation for â€œtelling the truth.â€
â€œThe truth has cost Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman his job, his career, and his privacy,â€ David Pressman, an attorney for Vindman, said in a statement. The Army said in a statement that Vindman and his twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, who also was asked to leave his job as a White House lawyer on Friday, had been reassigned to the Army.
Next came word that Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, also was out.
â€œI was advised today that the President intends to recall me effective immediately as United States Ambassador to the European Union,” Sondland said in a statement.
Sondland was a crucial witness in the House impeachment inquiry, telling investigatorsï¿¼ that â€œEveryone was in the loopâ€ on Trumpâ€™s desire to press Ukraine for politically charged investigationsï¿¼. He told lawmakers how he came to understand that there was a â€œquid pro quoâ€ ï¿¼connecting a desired White House visit for Ukraineâ€™s leader and an announcement that the country wouldï¿¼ conduct the investigations the president wanted.
Alexander Vindman’s lawyer issued a one-page statement that accused Trump of taking revenge on his client.
â€œHe did what any member of our military is charged with doing every day: he followed orders, he obeyed his oath, and he served his country, even when doing so was fraught with danger and personal peril,â€ Pressman said. â€œAnd for that, the most powerful man in the world – buoyed by the silent, the pliable, and the complicit – has decided to exact revenge.â€
The White House did not respond to Pressman’s accusation.
â€œWe do not comment on personnel matters,â€ said John Ullyot, spokesman for the National Security Council, the foreign policy arm of the White House where Vindman was an expert on Ukraine.
Vindman’s status had been uncertain since he testified that he didn’t think it was â€œproper” for Trump to “demand that a foreign government investigate” former Vice President Joe Biden and his sonâ€™s dealings with the energy company Burisma in Ukraine. Vindman’s ouster, however, seemed imminent after Trump mocked him Thursday during his post-acquittal celebration with Republican supporters in the East Room and said Friday that he was not happy with him.
â€œYou think I’m supposed to be happy with him?” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. “I’m not. … They are going to be making that decision.â€
Vindman, a 20-year Army veteran, wore his uniform full of medals, including a purple heart, when he appeared late last year for what turned out to be a testy televised impeachment hearing. Trump supporters raised questions about the immigrant’s allegiance to the United States – his parents fled the Soviet Union when he was a child -and noted that he had received offers to work for the government of Ukraine, offers Vindman said he swiftly dismissed.
â€œI am an American,â€ he stated emphatically.
Trump backers cheered Vindman’s removal, while Democrats were aghast.
â€œThe White House is running a two for one special today on deep state leakers,â€ Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, wrote on Twitter.
A Twitter account used by the president’s reelection campaign, @TrumpWarRoom, claimed Vindman leaked information to the whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s call ignited the investigation, and â€œcolluded with Democrats to start the partisan impeachment coup.”
Former Trump NSC official Tim Morrison testified that others had brought concerns that Vindman may have leaked something. Vindman, in his own congressional testimony, denied leaking any information.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the firing was another example of how the â€œWhite House runs away from the truth.”
â€œLt. Col. Vindman lived up to his oath to protect and defend our Constitution,” Schumer said in a statement. â€œThis action is not a sign of strength. It only shows President Trumpâ€™s weakness.â€
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, recalled how Vindman in testimony before the House impeachment panel said that he reassured his worried father that would be â€œfine for telling the truth.”
â€œItâ€™s appalling that this administration may prove him wrong,” Clinton said in a tweet.
At last fall’s hearing, when the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, addressed him as â€œMr. Vindman,â€ the Iraq War veteran replied: â€œRanking member, itâ€™s Lt. Col. Vindman please.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked what the Pentagon would do to ensure that Vindman faces no retribution. â€œWe protect all of our service members from retribution or anything like that,” Esper said. “We’ve already addressed that in policy and other means.â€
Alexander Vindman is scheduled to enter a military college in Washington, D.C., this summer, and his brother is to be assigned to the Army General Counselâ€™s Office, according to two officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pressman said Vindman was among a handful of men and women who courageously â€œput their faith in country ahead of fearâ€ but have â€œpaid a price.â€
â€œThere is no question in the mind of any American why this man’s job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House,â€ Pressman said. â€œLt. Col. Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.â€
AP writers Zeke Miller, Eric Tucker and Bob Burns contributed to this report.