In his first interview, a key witness in the impeachment trial says Trump goes out of his way to try to please the Russian president.
Shortly after midnight on June 17, 1972, an unusually attentive security guard named Frank Wills discovered an unlocked door in the garage of the Watergate office complex. A piece of tape had been placed over the latch. Wills removed the tape and continued on his rounds. When he returned a while later, he found the lock taped again. He called the police. Twenty-six months later, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency.
“This is the door,” I tell Alexander Vindman, late of the United States Army and the National Security Council. Vindman and I were supposed to be walking along the Potomac, but we took a detour to visit the Watergate. I wanted to show him this particular door. There is no plaque here, but there should be one, dedicated to the Constitution, to the free press, and to the most important security guard in American history.
Vindman, who is an idealist—this is why he took a job in the Trump White House despite having read about the Trump White House—seems moved. “The system worked,” he says. Then he asks a question.
“Who am I in the Watergate story? John Dean?”
Dean, Nixon’s lawyer, facilitated the Watergate cover-up, and then turned witness against the president. No, I say. Dean did wrong before he did right. Did you start by doing something wrong?
“I did my duty as an American citizen and Army officer,” Vindman says.
If that’s the case, I said, that might make you the Frank Wills of the Trump impeachment. All you did was tell your colleagues that you may have witnessed a crime in progress.
WE SIT IN THE SHADE outside the Kennedy Center, masks off. People walk by, but no one recognizes him. He’s in shorts and wearing glasses. He looks more like an engineer who forgot his pocket protector than a former infantry officer, one wounded in Iraq. Utterly obscure in the summer of 2019—a bright, awkward, ambitious lieutenant colonel laboring in the salt mines of the U.S. national-security apparatus—by fall he was a linchpin witness in Donald Trump’s impeachment. His fame, all of the controversy, the demolition of his military career are owed to a single telephone call—a “perfect” call, in Trump’s formulation. On July 25 of last year, Vindman, who, as the National Security Council’s director for European affairs, organized the call, listened, with other officials, to a conversation between Trump and the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“I would like you to do us a favor,” Trump told Zelensky, working his way to the subject of Joe Biden: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it …”
Vindman was surprised by Trump’s approach, and by its implications. Like other American specialists in the successor states of the former Soviet Union, he was invested in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. And like most national-security professionals, he was interested in countering Russia’s malign influence—along its borders, in places like Ukraine and Belarus and the Baltic states; across Europe; and in American elections. He believed in buttressing Ukraine’s new leadership. He also had an aversion to shakedowns, and this, to him, felt like a shakedown.
He did not fully understand at the time, he says, that the Trump administration had two separate foreign policies. The first was run out of the National Security Council, and by the many agencies and departments that are collectively charged with protecting America from its adversaries. The second was being manufactured by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, with a goal of ensuring Trump’s reelection. What Vindman learned that day, he says, wasn’t just the extent to which Giuliani was attempting to weaponize the Ukrainian justice system against Biden, but that Trump himself was involved.
“I just had a visceral reaction to what I was hearing,” he says. “I suspected it was criminal, but I knew it was wrong. President Trump knew that Zelensky needed a meeting with him in Washington to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the entrenched opposition at home. So Trump was putting the squeeze on this leader to conduct a corrupt investigation. Trump knew he had them over a barrel. I found it repulsive and un-American for an American president to try to get a leg up by pressuring a foreign leader to get dirt on an American politician. I knew by then that Giuliani was somewhere in the background. But I refused to believe that the president was party to what Rudy was doing. I learned in that phone call that the president was the driving force.”
Shortly after the call, Vindman visited his twin brother, Yevgeny, also an Army lieutenant colonel, also on the staff of the NSC, and told him about Trump’s demands. He made an official complaint to John Eisenberg, the chief NSC lawyer, and Michael Ellis, a White House lawyer and Eisenberg’s deputy. Vindman’s reporting set in motion all that was to come. A whistleblower shared details of the call, and Vindman later realized that he could be compelled to testify.
He says he was untroubled by the consequences of his reporting. “I had to choose between the president and the Constitution. I was aware of the fact that I could be compelled to testify. But I chose the Constitution. No Army officer wants to be put in that position, but there I was.”
One of the questions I’ve wanted to ask Vindman since learning about the events of July 25 concerned his decision to seek a position in the Trump White House. He was an Army foreign area officer, a well-regarded one, who had done tours in the American embassy in Moscow and in the Pentagon. His first day at the NSC, July 16, 2018, was also the day that President Trump, meeting Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, told a press conference that he trusted Putin no less than he trusted U.S. intelligence agencies. “I have confidence in both parties,” Trump said, to the dismay of the intelligence chiefs who report to him.
I ask Vindman whether he should have taken Helsinki as a warning.
He pushes his glasses back. “This might be a conceit of government officials,” he says, “but there’s the idea that maybe you can make a difference. It’s a conceit. Maybe it’s unhealthy. We all believed we could make a difference. I thought I could potentially communicate with him, maybe speak to his better angels, explain to him that his ideas about Russia were harmful to the United States.”
You wanted to appeal to Donald Trump’s better angels? I ask him. This is a clarifying moment. I have made certain assumptions about Vindman that are proving incorrect.
He came to America as a small child, in 1979. His father, recently widowed, had fled the Soviet Union with his three young sons and his mother-in-law, taking advantage of a slight crack in the door that allowed Soviet Jews to escape. The Vindman boys were raised by their father to be proud, patriotic Americans—all three would join the Army. But in thinking about Vindman’s life, I had imagined that his understanding of human nature would have been colored by his birthplace, by its literature, by his family’s story, by his knowledge of communism and Putinism. But his essential Americanness obscured something for him: that Trump, in his understanding of power, resembled a Russian autocrat in many ways. And that the culture of the Trump White House resembled that of Putin’s Kremlin.
It is noteworthy that two other key witnesses in the impeachment—Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Fiona Hill, formerly the senior director for European and Russian affairs at the NSC (and Vindman’s boss)—were immigrants. Yovanovitch was born in Canada and grew up speaking Russian at home; Hill came from England. “The truth is that Masha and Alex were very good in their roles, but they were in shock much of the time as this all unfolded,” Hill told me. “Mugged right outside your own door. You can’t quite believe it, because this is not the America that they idealized. I idealized it too, when I got here. There’s no Rudy Giuliani playing this kind of role in your American dream.” William Taylor, who served as acting ambassador to Ukraine after the Trump administration removed Yovanovitch, said of Vindman, “One thing Alex Vindman is not is cynical. I’m absolutely convinced he’s a patriot, to the point where he’s a bit Boy Scoutish.”
Vindman put it this way: “With previous Democratic and Republican administrations, there have been left and right guardrails that helped define what was acceptable in terms of Russia policy. I thought we were operating within those boundaries. With Democrats, it might have been more engagement; with Republicans, it could have been more hard power.” He tells me that he especially admires the policies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, but also recognizes that Democratic presidents have credibly contained Soviet and post-Soviet Russian expansionism. “I didn’t know precisely what Trump’s boundaries would be, but I did think we would be operating within boundaries.”
Vindman came to find that there were no such boundaries, he says. Trump’s desire to impress Putin, and to shape American policy in ways that please Putin, has caused many former U.S. intelligence officials, and even some officials who have worked directly for him, to suspect that he has been compromised by Russia. In his new book, Rage, Bob Woodward writes that Dan Coats, the former director of national intelligence, “continued to harbor the secret belief, one that had grown rather than lessened, although unsupported by intelligence proof, that Putin had something on Trump.” Woodward goes on, “How else to explain the president’s behavior? Coats could see no other explanation.” Peter Strzok, the former FBI counterespionage chief, told my colleague Anne Applebaum that Trump “is unable to put the interests of our nation first, that he acts from hidden motives, because there is leverage over him, held specifically by the Russians but potentially others as well.”
I ask Vindman the key question: Does he believe that Trump is an asset of Russian intelligence?
“President Trump should be considered to be a useful idiot and a fellow traveler, which makes him an unwitting agent of Putin,” he says. Useful idiot is a term commonly used to describe dupes of authoritarian regimes; fellow traveler, in Vindman’s description, is a person who shares Putin’s loathing for democratic norms.
But do you think Russia is blackmailing Trump? “They may or may not have dirt on him, but they don’t have to use it,” he says. “They have more effective and less risky ways to employ him. He has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him. He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So he’ll try to please Putin.”
Vindman continues, “In the Army we call this ‘free chicken,’ something you don’t have to work for—it just comes to you. This is what the Russians have in Trump: free chicken.”
AT THE OUTSET of Vindman’s congressional testimony, he decided to address his elderly, immigrant father directly: “Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Today, he is largely fine, though not completely. “The president destroyed my Army career,” he says. “I’m not crying over spilled milk. I have other things to do.” Nevertheless, he says, he had hoped to be promoted to full colonel. He believes that what his attorney has labeled “a campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation” destroyed his chance for a successful career. Shortly after the Senate acquitted Trump in his impeachment trial, both Vindman and his brother were removed from the White House. (The secretary of defense, Mark Esper, has argued that Vindman would have been protected from any form of retaliation in the military, though it was hard for Vindman to imagine advancing in a meaningful way. After all, he had been publicly criticized as incompetent and dishonest by the commander in chief.) Yevgeny is still in the Army but filed a whistleblower complaint last month, citing retaliation for his own role in the Ukraine matter and registering complaints about alleged ethics violations committed by the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. The White House communications director, Alyssa Farah, called Vindman’s allegations “ridiculous and false.”
“The awful thing in all of this is that a normal National Security Council is a great career enhancement for people from the agencies and departments,” Fiona Hill told me. “But this was not a normal NSC and not a normal White House.”
Vindman left the Army at the end of July. He is now studying for his doctorate at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. When I ask him why he’s speaking out now about Trump, he says, “I was drawn into this by the president, who politicized me. I think it’s important for the American people to know that this could happen to any honorable service member, any government official. I think it’s important for me to tell people that I think the president has made this country weaker. We’re mocked by our adversaries and by our allies, and we’re heading for more disaster.”
Ultimately, he says, he wants to put his knowledge of authoritarianism to good use, “before it’s too late.”
“Authoritarianism is able to take hold not because you have a strong set of leaders who are forcing their way,” he says. “It’s more about the fact that we can give away our democracy. In Hungary and Turkey today, in Nazi Germany, those folks gave away their democracy, by being complacent.”
He goes on, “Truth is a victim in this administration, I think it’s Orwellian—the ultimate goal of this president is to get you to disbelieve what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. My goal now is to remind people of this.”
This article first appeared in The Atlantic. Subscribe to their newsletter.