Washington • Exacting swift punishment against those who crossed him, an emboldened President Donald Trump on Friday ousted two government officials who had delivered damaging testimony against him during his impeachment hearings. The president took retribution just two days after his acquittal by the Senate.
First came news that Trump had ousted Lt. Col Alexander Vindman, the decorated soldier and national security aide who played a central role in the Democrats' impeachment case. He was escorted out of the White House complex Friday, according to his lawyer, who said he was asked to leave in retaliation for “telling the truth.”
“The truth has cost Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman his job, his career, and his privacy,” David Pressman, an attorney for Vindman, said in a statement. The Army said in a statement that Vindman and his twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, who also was asked to leave his job as a White House lawyer on Friday, had been reassigned to the Army.
Next came word that Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, also was out.
“I was advised today that the President intends to recall me effective immediately as United States Ambassador to the European Union," Sondland said in a statement.
The White House had not been coy about whether Trump would retaliate against those he viewed as foes in the impeachment drama. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Thursday that Trump was glad it was over and "maybe people should pay for that.”
Sondland was a crucial witness in the House impeachment inquiry, telling investigators￼ that “Everyone was in the loop” on Trump’s desire to press Ukraine for politically charged investigations￼. He told lawmakers how he came to understand that there was a “quid pro quo” ￼connecting a desired White House visit for Ukraine’s leader and an announcement that the country would￼ conduct the investigations the president wanted.
Alexander Vindman's lawyer issued a one-page statement that accused Trump of taking revenge on his client.
“He did what any member of our military is charged with doing every day: he followed orders, he obeyed his oath, and he served his country, even when doing so was fraught with danger and personal peril,” Pressman said. “And for that, the most powerful man in the world — buoyed by the silent, the pliable, and the complicit — has decided to exact revenge.”
The White House did not respond to Pressman's accusation.
“We do not comment on personnel matters,” said John Ullyot, spokesman for the National Security Council, the foreign policy arm of the White House where Vindman was an expert on Ukraine.
Vindman's status had been uncertain since he testified that he didn't think it was “proper" for Trump to "demand that a foreign government investigate" former Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s dealings with the energy company Burisma in Ukraine. Vindman's ouster, however, seemed imminent after Trump mocked him Thursday during his post-acquittal celebration with Republican supporters in the East Room and said Friday that he was not happy with him.
“You think I'm supposed to be happy with him?" Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. "I'm not. ... They are going to be making that decision.”
Vindman, a 20-year Army veteran, wore his uniform full of medals, including a purple heart, when he appeared late last year for what turned out to be a testy televised impeachment hearing. Trump supporters raised questions about the immigrant's allegiance to the United States — his parents fled the Soviet Union when he was a child —and noted that he had received offers to work for the government of Ukraine, offers Vindman said he swiftly dismissed.
“I am an American,” he stated emphatically.
Trump backers cheered Vindman's removal, while Democrats were aghast.
“The White House is running a two for one special today on deep state leakers,” Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, wrote on Twitter.
A Twitter account used by the president's reelection campaign, @TrumpWarRoom, claimed Vindman leaked information to the whistleblower whose complaint about Trump's call ignited the investigation, and “colluded with Democrats to start the partisan impeachment coup."
Former Trump NSC official Tim Morrison testified that others had brought concerns that Vindman may have leaked something. Vindman, in his own congressional testimony, denied leaking any information.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the firing was another example of how the “White House runs away from the truth."
“Lt. Col. Vindman lived up to his oath to protect and defend our Constitution," Schumer said in a statement. “This action is not a sign of strength. It only shows President Trump’s weakness.”
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, recalled how Vindman said in testimony before the House impeachment panel that he had reassured his worried father that he would be “fine for telling the truth."
“It’s appalling that this administration may prove him wrong," Clinton said in a tweet.
At last fall's hearing, when the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, addressed him as “Mr. Vindman,” the Iraq War veteran replied, “Ranking member, it’s Lt. Col. Vindman please."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked what the Pentagon would do to ensure that Vindman faces no retribution. “We protect all of our service members from retribution or anything like that," Esper said. "We've already addressed that in policy and other means.”
Alexander Vindman is scheduled to enter a military college in Washington, D.C., this summer, and his brother is to be assigned to the Army General Counsel’s Office, according to two officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pressman said Vindman was among a handful of men and women who courageously “put their faith in country ahead of fear” but have “paid a price.”
“There is no question in the mind of any American why this man's job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House,” Pressman said. “Lt. Col. Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”
AP writers Nancy Benac, Zeke Miller, Eric Tucker and Bob Burns contributed to this report.