Jasmine De Leon
On October 25, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman visited the School of Diplomacy and International Relations to promote his new memoir, Here, Right Matters, and share his experience of serving during the Trump administration. The World Council of New Jersey organized the book presentation and discussion.
In 2019, Lt. Col. Vindman gained international recognition when he testified before U.S. Congress in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump’s relations with Ukraine. In addition to other evidence, Vindman’s testimony eventually led to President Trump’s impeachment in 2019 on charges of abuse of power.
The event began with questions about Lt. Col. Vindman’s upbringing. He revealed that he grew up with his twin brother “as refugee kids from the USSR settling in Brooklyn, NYC,” adding that growing up hearing stories from his father about the Soviet Union helped him understand that there are places in this world where people have to face fundamental challenges.”
Vindman expressed that up to graduating college “there was a lot of energy and very little focus” in his life up until joining the military after he graduated from university. “Things came to a point of sorts where I was looking to be more disciplined and more focused. [The military] offered me an outlet for all my excess energies,” Vindman said. Later in his career, Vindman decided to specialize in Eastern European studies. He picked up Ukrainian as a language, traveled through the former Soviet space, received an advanced degree from Harvard University, and became a foreign area officer in Moscow. Afterward, he landed in the Pentagon as a Russian Affairs Officer. Eventually, Vindman became the director for European Affairs on the National Security Council (NSC). He assisted in managing U.S. policy towards Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Though he described his first year on the NSC as “normal,” he noted that then-President Trump made certain components of his work difficult. “If the president was about engaging and being friendly to Putin, the rest of the government was focused on fulfilling the president’s own policy which was countering Russia’s malign influence and Russian oppression,” Vindman noted.
He first noticed a turning point in policy in 2019, when he saw that U.S. domestic policy had begun to influence national security issues. He first noticed this in reference to the removal of Marie Yovanovitch from her post as the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, “even though we tried to keep her in her position because she was a terrific public servant,” Vindman said. Her removal was, ultimately, due to a negative tweet by one of President Trump’s sons regarding her lack of support for the president.
Vindman further noticed similar changes when translating a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which President Trump congratulated President Zelensky for his political party’s success in rolling out more reforms in Ukraine. Vindman said that during the phone call, Zelensky told Trump he wanted to buy weapons systems from the U.S. to defend his country. According to Vindman, President Trump responded with “‘I would like you to do us a favor though,’ and he proceeded to spin out a bunch of conspiracy theories that were unfounded.”
Vindman added that his reverence for the Office of the President was a block that prevented him from realizing that Trump was the corrupt actor in this situation. After the phone call, Vindman made a report and brought the information to senior officials, who he hoped would be able to convince Trump to reverse course. What Vindman did not know, however, was that in making the report “and doing my job, I started a process that resulted in congressional notification of the president’s wrongdoing.”
Vindman explained that Trump took advantage of Ukraine’s position as a country at risk of war which had no choice but to give in to the president’s demands. He added that the situation was exacerbated by the investigation into current President Biden’s dealings with Ukraine. Vindman said that “it seemed that President Zelensky was about to deliver this investigation,” which would have cast a shadow over President Biden’s campaign and prevented him from receiving the Democratic nomination for the elections. “We were that close to getting a second Trump administration,” he added.
Toward the end, Vindman stated that he felt a responsibility to Ukraine when he made the report and that his obligations were “visceral” because “the president was trying to compel a foreign government to investigate his opponent to gain an edge in an election.” When asked about his fears of the consequences of testifying to Congress and how he navigated the situation, he responded, “I did what I thought my duty was and did not dwell on the fears.”