Alexander Vindman on past events, future concerns

The visiting scholar spoke at a virtual event at Perry World House on the first anniversary of his testimony before the presidential impeachment inquiry.

Computer screen showing three people on a Zoom call
Retired Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman (top left) joined The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser and Perry World House Director Michael Horowitz (bottom) for a virtual event Oct. 29 called “For the People: Public Service in 21st Century America.”

Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman says he is concerned he’ll be targeted for retribution should President Donald Trump win a second term and thinks there should be a bipartisan “truth and reconciliation commission” to look at the events of the last four years once Trump is out of office.

Vindman, who served on the National Security Council as an expert on Ukraine before he was ousted in February, spoke at a virtual event at Perry World House (PWH) on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of his testimony before the presidential impeachment inquiry. The talk, called “For the People: Public Service in 21st Century America,”was moderated by Susan Glasser, a staff writer at The New Yorker who writes a weekly column on life in Trump’s Washington.

Vindman, who is also a Perry World House visiting scholar for 2020-21, didn’t hold back in the hourlong discussion, which covered everything from why he didn’t go the whistleblower route to whether workers in the security council were actively resisting Trump to if he’ll vote this election. (He said he has already voted for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.)

Vindman was a 20-year military officer who was among officials listening in on a July 2019 call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a “favor” by providing information on Biden.

Asked if the Republican-led Senate’s party-line acquittal of Trump has left him questioning whether there is accountability in the system, Vindman said he wasn’t surprised by the end result, and his role was to be a fact witness. There was accountability in that the House did its job in impeaching Trump for pressuring Ukraine to hand over information on Biden, he said.

“That’s a monumental event, and in a few days we will have the American public render its final appending opinion,” he said. “We’ll see what happens and how things play out. We might end up in the same place.”

As for whether there was active resistance, a sort of “deep state” as Trump has called it, within the security council, Vindman said there wasn’t anything like that, but rather Trump had such limited interest in foreign policy it gave a lot of space for the experts in the council to do what they thought was best in their area of expertise.

“It was just a lack of direction from senior leadership that provided space. We marched to the president’s direction as long as it wasn’t illegal, and if he had specific guidance we’d be obligated to fulfill it. But most of the time he didn’t,” he said.

Vindman described policy being made by tweets and how the policy shift in Syria was the result of a single phone call that was the opposite of earlier discussions, calling Trump’s policy-making efforts “scattershot.”

“It’s what his gut instinct says, and most of the time, like I said in The New York Times op-ed (co-written with John Gans, PWH’s director of communications and research), it’s self-serving, what’s going to make him feel good, what’s going to advance his own personal interests, and then everybody else has to pick up the pieces.”

Asked what caused him to be willing to speak out when so many others would not, Vindman said it was simple.

“The president is not above the law, and the president cannot get away with basically undermining the very foundation of our democracy,” he said. “I had strong views on my role and my duty, living up to my obligations as a military service member. As a government official I’d sworn an oath to defend the Constitution.”

He called Trump’s recent executive order stripping protections for civil servants “troubling” and said he hopes it gets more media attention once the chaos of the election season is over. But he also expressed his optimism that, despite the administration’s efforts to undermine “honorable bureaucrats,” the government has strong institutions that can withstand such attacks.

“We still have very capable people trying to fulfill the same roles that I had been doing before becoming a public figure and leaving government service,” he said.

Asked if he thinks the public will ever know what the relationship is between Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Vindman said he thinks the president “really has a soft spot for authoritarian leaders. So, I think that explains a lot of the president’s actions.”

He said that, even if Russia had compromising information on the president, he doubts they would ever use it.

“The potential for blowback is enormous,” he said. “I think they’re more sophisticated actors, and they already have what I refer to as free chicken with the president: He’s already kind of complicit in his mindset on authoritarianism and doing all sorts of damage to undermine American democracy. They don’t have to do much more.”

He expressed concerns that he and others will be targeted in a second Trump administration.

“There’s zero doubt in my mind that everybody that’s crossed the president will be targeted,” he said. “The president is going to want to settle the score. He’s going to want to say, ‘If you’re disloyal to me this is what happens.’ So, this is the kind of world we potentially could live in.”

In saying he voted for Biden, he urged everyone else to vote as well.

“That’s our responsibility as American citizens, probably one of our only responsibilities, is to go and vote and participate in the process,” he said, adding that the act has a perk. “It makes you feel better.”

A video of the virtual talk can be seen on Perry World House’s YouTube channel.