'He's trying to muzzle everyone': National security veterans were shaken by Trump's decision to 'purge' witnesses who testified against him

REUTERS/Jonathan ErnstLt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, testifies before a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump
  • President Donald Trump sent shockwaves through Washington on Friday when he abruptly fired two key impeachment witnesses and a third official who wasn’t involved in the impeachment inquiry but is related to one of the witnesses.
  • National security and intelligence veterans were stunned. A current FBI special agent characterised Trump’s move as “appalling,” adding, “He’s trying to muzzle everyone who speaks out against him, even if they use the appropriate legal channels.”
  • “We have every reason to expect that – far from having learned his lesson, as some would have us believe – Trump is in the midst of attempting to do away with potential witnesses who would be in a position to call out his wrongdoing,” NSC veteran Edward Price told Insider.
  • “A purge is a good way to put it,” Frank Montoya, Jr., a former FBI special agent, told Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The rumblings of payback began almost as soon as the Senate acquitted President Donald Trump on Wednesday of the two charges against him following a bitter impeachment trial.

The next morning, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham gave the public a preview of the plan of action Trump would outline in a speech Thursday afternoon addressing his acquittal.

“He is going to be honest, going to speak with honesty and I think with a little bit of humility that he and the family went through a lot,” Grisham told Fox News. “But I think he’s also going to talk about just how horribly he was treated and, you know, that maybe people should pay for that.”

The first person to pay the price was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council. Vindman, a decorated war veteran and Purple Heart recipient, was abruptly fired and escorted out of the White House on Friday along with his twin brother, Yevgeny, who also served on the NSC.

Vindman was given no explanation for his dismissal, but his attorney made it clear in a statement to Insider that the army colonel was forced out as retaliation for testifying against Trump in the impeachment hearings after receiving a congressional subpoena.

Shortly after, Gordon Sondland, the US’s ambassador to the European Union and another pivotal impeachment witness against Trump, was recalled from his post.

It was something like a Friday Night Massacre, a peculiar reversal of the famous Saturday Night Massacre in the 1970s, when the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned in protest during the Watergate scandal after refusing to carry out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating him.

“This is an unconscionable act of retaliation,” Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and an expert in criminal and constitutional law, told Insider.

He went on to excoriate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander, who argued that Trump had learned his lesson from impeachment. But “the opposite is happening,” Ohlin said. “Trump is emboldened, angry, unhinged, and vindictive.”

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Wildwood, New Jersey, U.S. January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Leah MillisReutersU.S. President Donald Trump campaign rally in Wildwood

‘He’s trying to muzzle everyone who speaks out against him’

Bloomberg News reported on Thursday, hours before Alexander Vindman was dismissed, that the White House planned to package his removal as part of a broader effort to slim down bureaucracy in the foreign policy apparatus.

But Trump “taking direct aim at his perceived critics is something that much more closely resembles a purge than an orderly streamlining,” Edward Price, the former senior director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, told Insider.

He added: “We have every reason to expect that – far from having learned his lesson, as some would have us believe – Trump is in the midst of attempting to do away with potential witnesses who would be in a position to call out his wrongdoing.”

One current FBI special agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to publicly comment on the matter, characterised Trump’s actions as “appalling.”

“He’s trying to muzzle everyone who speaks out against him, even if they use the appropriate legal channels,” the agent told Insider.

Asked whether there could be any motivation for ousting the Vindmans that wasn’t rooted in political vengeance, Price deadpanned, “Two brothers from different Directorates with different responsibilities sacked on the same day, at the same time, in the same unusual way? No.”

Frank Montoya, a former FBI special agent, echoed that point, telling Insider, “A purge is a good way to put it. The fact that [Vindman’s] brother got the axe, too, seals it.”

Vindman is fluent in English, Russian, and Ukrainian and brought a deep knowledge of the US-Ukraine and US-Russia relationship with him to the NSC when he joined in 2018.

“It’s a loss to the nation when the White House gets rid of a subject matter expert as highly qualified as [Lt. Col.] Vindman simply because they don’t like that he speaks truth to power,” Montoya said. “That makes us weaker, not stronger.”

Alexander VindmanAndrew Harnik/APNational Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie US aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

Trump ‘is now getting rid of war heroes and not some D-list star’ on ‘The Apprentice’

The way the Vindmans were fired also set off alarms.

“It’s incredibly unusual,” Price said. The Obama administration downsized its NSC staff just like the Trump administration claims to be doing now. But in the former case, “zero staffers were escorted off the premises, and it happened through natural attrition, as was supposed to have been the case in this process.”

Vindman catapulted into the national spotlight when he testified last year about his firsthand knowledge of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and White House lawyers’ subsequent efforts to cover up records of the conversation after Vindman reported his concerns.

During the call, Trump repeatedly asked Zelensky to launch politically motivated investigations targeting former Vice President Joe Biden – a 2020 Democratic presidential frontrunner – and the Democratic Party as a whole. Trump made those demands while withholding vital military aid and a White House meeting that Zelensky desperately wanted and still hasn’t gotten.

Vindman listened in on the phone call and testified that he immediately reported what had taken place to the NSC’s top lawyer, John Eisenberg, because he was “concerned” and found Trump’s “demand” both “inappropriate” and “improper.”

Sondland, meanwhile, was one of Trump’s handpicked agents in charge of running what witnesses characterised as the administration’s “irregular” foreign policy channel that sought to carry out a “domestic political errand.” Specifically: investigations in exchange for military aid and a White House meeting.

The now-former EU ambassador testified that there was a “quid pro quo” in which Trump leveraged a White House meeting in exchange for investigations. Sondland also told Congress that “everyone was in the loop,” including top brass at the White House and State Department.

Price told Insider that Friday’s developments indicate that there is “every reason to expect that – far from having learned his lesson, as some would have us believe – Trump is in the midst of attempting to do away with potential witnesses who would be in a position to call out his wrongdoing.”

Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department, skewered the president for his actions, telling Insider, “He has the right and power to be a vindictive accused who was let off the hook by a gaggle of politicians afraid of his tweets.”

What Trump is doing is “a far cry from when he was on his game show,” “The Apprentice,” Cramer added. “He is now getting rid of war heroes and not some D-list star.”

Vindman’s ouster, in particular, could have other far-reaching consequences.

Price said he believed Vindman should have been afforded whistleblower protections, as Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer requested of the Department of Defence last year.

But rather than protecting Vindman, the NSC terminated him, “sending a clear signal not only to Vindman but to all would-be whistleblowers throughout the administration that protections won’t apply to them,” Price said. “The implication from that is clear.”

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