In 2019, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman blew the whistle on President Donald Trump's alleged abuse of power in the now-infamous call with the President of Ukraine. That thrust Vindman into the national spotlight.
"When I reported my concerns, my only thought was to act properly and carry out my duty," Vindman says. "I never thought that I would be sitting here testifying in front of this committee and the American public about my actions."
Vindman was a hero to some, a villain to others. He says he never hesitated to report the actions of the most powerful man in the world.
“That was the easiest part. That and frankly, in a lot of ways the testimony were the easiest part," he says. "It's the dealing with the consequences that was by far the most challenging element.”
It cost Vindman his career, but it was worth it, he says.
Today, On Point: Alexander Vindman joins us with his message for all Americans.
Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, former director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Russia on the White House’s National Security Council under President Trump. Military fellow at the Lawfare Institute. His new book is “Here, Right Matters: An American Story." (@AVindman)
You are one of a tiny number of people who directly listened to that call on July 25th. So I'm wondering if you could start by putting us in the room. Where did you listen to that call?
Alexander Vindman: "It's a small Situation Room, White House Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing. There have been pictures of the more kind of glamorous room adjacent to it, the Kennedy conference room. This was kind of a smaller, more intimate space. Reserved for seemingly less important meetings.
"Although there are pictures of this particular room, there is one picture with President Barack Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listening or observing the mission to the UN to neutralize Osama bin Laden. So in that room, there's a panel of screens. And then there's this big, long wooden table. And intercom in the middle. And the screens were off on this occasion, and everybody was focused on the intercom in the center of the room."
The national security team knew what they were hoping President Trump would say on this call. ... And you knew those talking points most of all. Can you tell us why?
Alexander Vindman: "Yes, because I wrote the talking points. I was responsible for managing the relationship between Ukraine and the White House. And being the synchronizer of U.S. policy for Ukraine with the White House. And this happened to be a slightly larger set of folks participating because of the import of this meeting. Usually wouldn't necessarily have the vice president's staff in here.
"But I had orchestrated meetings with the vice president's national security advisor. So they had taken an interest. And everybody was generally on the same page about bringing Ukraine along on the road to integration with the West, helping them achieve prosperity through anticorruption and reform measures. And, you know, that was the the whole purpose of this phone call."
At what point did you know that the call wasn't going according to plan?
Alexander Vindman: "I write that, in fact, I was quite apprehensive about the call in the first place. Because even in the days before I was on again, off again, the national security advisor, John Bolton, at the time, had basically declined to recommend this call to the president. Because he had deep concerns. And when it popped onto the schedule, the president's schedule, I learned it was as a result of Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, doing an end run. Which I'd seen before with Mick Mulvaney, the president's chief of staff. But that's the proximate concerns.
"Before that, there were months of unfolding troublesome, non-government related policy or non-government related activity that was impacting policy. And those were the claims by Rudolph Giuliani, and Don Jr. and a bunch of other folks about Ukraine having some information on the Bidens, and there needing to be an investigation. And that was what came together in this phone call, where the president was asking for this. The president was apparently the driving force behind all of these."
How did you personally react at that instant when you heard the words that were going to change your life, essentially?
Alexander Vindman: “It's, I think, a feature of being an Army officer and being in difficult situations throughout the entirety of my career, my head did snap up. I did look around to see who else had taken note, and kind of just to quickly assess the situation. But at the same time, I went back immediately to the business of taking notes, making sure that I had an accurate transcript. In the back of my mind ... I already had probably the initial thoughts of reporting this, even though I was laser focused on making sure I understood what was being said.
"I was the only person in that room that correctly had the wherewithal to understand the Ukrainian before it was translated into English and to make sure that there was no kind of mistranslations and things of that nature. So I was laser focused on what was going on. And at the same time, the wheels were spinning and I was thinking about the next steps. And how we could start to reverse the damage that was done, because in that moment I perceived a threat to our democracy and free and fair elections.
"But I also, as I mentioned in my testimony, I understood that there was a keen threat to our Ukraine policy, which isn't about Ukraine, to be frank. It's about U.S. national security interests. And weak Ukraine that could be subordinated and suborned, words from Zbigniew Brzezinski in his analysis of the import of Ukraine. That becomes a much greater threat if Ukraine becomes part of Russia's orbit. ... All those calculations were going through my mind in those moments."
On knowing it was his duty to report what he heard in the meeting
Alexander Vindman: "It's a very, very small staff on the National Security Council. And what you have is you have a single person responsible for a group of countries. And I was that official responsible for the relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine. So I knew immediately it was my responsibility to take whatever action I thought was appropriate. That's always been the case. That's always the case with regards to any policy.
"But in that moment, I also judged that either the other officials in that room were honorable detailees, that the obligation didn't fall squarely on them. Or, they were political actors that either missed what was going on. Because, to be, I guess, frank, but harsh, they were not necessarily sophisticated actors that picked up on all the nuance. Or, they saw some merit in not reporting and preserving their own position, this sense of careerism. So all of that weighed in on me. But I didn't think about it too deeply. I frankly just knew that it was my responsibility to take action."
On why the call is considered quid pro quo
Alexander Vindman: "The whole idea that the president was trying to advance was in exchange for an investigation into the Bidens and wrongdoing. And wrongdoing that didn't exist, frankly. I did significant due diligence to find out if there were any merit to these accusations or these narratives that were being spun out by Giuliani. None. I talked to the people that were much, much more capable and had a deeper knowledge within the intelligence community, within the State Department, at the embassy.
"And there was no merit to it. So I then proceeded on the assumption that there was another objective in mind, it wasn't good governance. This wasn't going through an established channel where countries would pass information on potentially criminal wrongdoing, there is actually an established procedure for that. It wasn't that either.
"So the objective here was basically a pressure campaign against the Ukrainian government, which was beleaguered and besieged by Russia. ... Russia is still waging war on Ukraine. And the simple objective here was to exchange the announcement of an investigation for a White House visit and the ultimate release of 400 million dollars in security assistance that Ukraine desperately needed. That is textbook definition."
How did senior military leadership respond to your decision to report what you heard?
Alexander Vindman: “I'll just briefly take up the first part of that question. In a lot of ways, the president was a foil for me to kind of analyze my life and the tough decisions I had to make heading into the impeachment. And afterwards, all those building blocks, as you pointed out along the way, where I learned from both failure and success that comes through. I think the fact that I'm not probably as dry as I maybe come across on radio or in testimony, I'm kind of a fun-loving, happy guy. Definitely my daughter thinks I'm the funniest and most fun person she knows, so I'll take that. But you know, your question about military leadership.
"I think I've been struggling with this one. Because it should be clear from the book how much I love it and how much I appreciate my military service and how much I honor those institutions. But I've also come to realize that the senior leadership that occupies the leadership of those institutions doesn't always reflect the institutional values. And in my case, failed to live up to those values where they left somebody that was in certain ways, not really, frankly, able to defend himself. Because I was in uniform and couldn't speak out on my own behalf. Out on the battlefield alone, and they did that for unclear reasons.
"If it was to protect the organization, that is absolutely something I could live with. We're a service in which people have paid the ultimate price to defend this nation. And I knew that having served for decades, that there might come a time where that might be the case for me also. But I think it actually in this case, it wasn't. I think there was an element of careerism the same way that there was in that White House Situation Room where people were making cold calculations on how to preserve their positions and advance and profit. And I fear that that was, in part, driving senior leadership to leave me out there.
"And that was something that the president very well read into and perceived, as he marched out the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on those fateful days in June. To indicate that there was military support for suppressing peaceful protests. That's the same thing he did when he propagated this lie of stolen elections, which doesn't even make any intellectual sense. Because he was the party in power. ... How truly incompetent do you need to be to have somebody else steal an election when you're in power? But anyway.
"And then attempt to indicate that there was military support for the president, which there wasn't. And then to have people kind of sit back and quietly feed stories about the risks that they perceived from the president with an attempted coup or an insurrection. But only months after, and really to protect your career. Rather than when it really would have made a difference in protecting this country. So those are the things that it's hard for me to reconcile.
"And obviously I bore the cost. Because the military thought it was expedient to let me kind of go off on my own, and go into great detail as to why I made the decision to do that. And it's something I'm not holding back on. Because there's an opportunity to be introspective for the military, of where it fell short. Both in my case and in two decades of warfare, where we spent enormous treasure and blood, more importantly. And the military underperformed in achieving the nation's objectives.”
Can you tell us about how your father talked to you about his choice to come to the United States?
Alexander Vindman: "I think it's appropriate to start with the fact that there is a thread that connects all recent immigrants. And a sense of perspective about what it could have been like to remain in the old country. And that is, in fact, what drives, I think, new immigrants to work so hard and try to achieve some success in a part of the American dream. I think that is also something that's shared with all Americans. Going back, you know, it could be decades or centuries. That we all came from another land with a similar hope and a similar dream of prosperity in the United States because this country is different. And my dad thought about it the same way."
On why his father came to the U.S.
Alexander Vindman: "As a student of Eurasia and Eurasian history and the Soviet Union, I have a pretty strong sense of how difficult life was and how different it was from what we experience here in the United States. Where we adhere to Western liberal values, we have some principles about freedom of speech, freedom to practice your chosen religion, all these things that didn't exist for my dad. And it's interesting that I could understand this kind of intellectually, but he lived these experiences.
"He understood the moral corruption and moral decay. This idea that in communism, everybody is equal and the labor controls the means of production, that catch phrase. That didn't really exist, you still had a series of political elites, part Communist Party members, that profited off of what should have been kind of equally dispersed. It's just a system that's fundamentally flawed and can't really work with the nature of humanity at the moment.
"I don't know if it could ever work, but certainly not now where there is a drive to enrich and profit and so forth. And he understood that at least in the United States, with hard work, we would have opportunities that we just simply wouldn't have there. And it wasn't to improve his own personal life, because he was sacrificing a lot to get us here. It was for the sake of his children to give them opportunities, to give us opportunities that he came to the United States."
Do you think that right still matters across the United States?
Alexander Vindman: “I do. I have a sense of perspective from a life lived serving this country in overseas assignments. And understanding how really blessed we are to be Americans. And we are undoubtedly in a very difficult period in our history. But we've been in as challenging periods in our history in the past, frankly, with the civil rights movements where there were constant riots as a population attempted to assert its right to equality. World War II, which was an existential threat. World War I, the Civil War, our fight for independence in the Revolutionary War. We've overcome, and persevered, and prospered and moved towards a more perfect union.
"We are in the middle of a fight in kind of the fog of war right now. And it's hard to tell where we're going to end up. But I have faith, I guess, you know, based on my experience living here and living overseas that we'll overcome these. But I do have to say that we will only be able to do this if we make right matter. Right matters here, but only if we make it matter. And if we're complacent and think that this country is going to just advance on its own, that's not going to help get us through these difficult times. We need to shake off complacency and make right matter."
The following is an excerpt from the book HERE, RIGHT MATTERS by Alexander Vindman. Copyright © 2021 by Alexander Vindman. Published with permission by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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This program aired on August 12, 2021.