Retired Army Lt. Col. and former National Security Council staffer Alexander Vindman alleges Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Chris Stewart have “blood on their hands” when it comes to the escalating crisis in Ukraine. He also accused the two members of Congress of jeopardizing national security through their support of former President Donald Trump in an interview with The Tribune.
[read the full Q&A with Vindman here.]
Vindman jumped from obscure career army officer to public prominence when he became a witness in former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2019.
He was on the infamous phone call where Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Joe Biden. Trump was holding up $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, which he later released. Vindman’s decision to report that phone call led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump was acquitted during his Senate trial (Utah Sen. Mitt Romney voted to convict on the obstruction of justice charge).
The Ukrainian-American has become one of the most sought-after voices on the current conflict. Vindman specialized in Eurasia during his military career, serving in the U.S. embassies in Ukraine and Russia. He specialized in Russia for the Joint Chiefs of Staff before accepting an appointment to the National Security Council in 2018.
Vindman says the seeds for the current conflict were planted when Russia interfered in the 2016 election that put Trump in the White House, an act that essentially went unpunished. During the campaign, the Republican Party removed a plank supporting Ukraine from the platform at the behest of the Trump campaign.
“Putin was emboldened and thought he sensed weakness and could operate with impunity,” Vindman said.
Vindman says Putin was further encouraged by Trump’s Republican supporters, including Lee and Stewart, who did little to push back against Trump or his support for the Russian leader.
“Mike Lee is one of two outliers in the Senate that doesn’t believe more should have been done to impose costs on Vladimir Putin for interfering in our elections,” Vindman said.
In 2017, Lee joined Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in voting against imposing sanctions on Russia for election meddling.
Stewart, too, went to great lengths to downplay Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Stewart acknowledged foreign interference but disputed the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that the goal was to help Trump. In 2018 Stewart told Anderson Cooper the CIA “got it wrong” on Russian interference in the election because he had examined the “raw intelligence.”
Stewart also suggested the “real” scandal that came out of the 2016 election was not foreign interference but the politicization of the FBI, Department of Justice and CIA.
Vindman and Stewart crossed paths during Trump’s first impeachment trial. The Utah congressman ferociously defended Trump from allegations he abused his power by tying aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political rivals. During his opening statement during the impeachment hearings, Stewart slammed the accusations that Trump acted improperly, saying, “the coup has started.”
Stewart also had the opportunity to question Vindman directly during the inquiry.
“I don’t remember everything, but there are a couple of interactions I remember clearly. Stewart was one of them,” Vindman recalled.
Stewart began by questioning why Vindman chose to wear his dress uniform to the hearing.
“He proceeded to attack me for the fact I wore a uniform. Of course, I’m going to wear a uniform. I’m an active duty serving officer. He was trying to portray me as someone who was wishing for attention, which is the last thing I wanted,” Vindman said.
The second part of Stewart’s questioning of Vindman zeroed in on the meaning of the word “favor.” In the phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Trump responded to a request to purchase anti-tank weapons by saying, “I would like you to do us a favor,” before pressing him to have his government investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
”I understood the power dynamics. You have President Zelenskyy trying to avoid the exact outcome we have today,” Vindman said, referring to the Russian invasion. “You have the President of the United States acting like a Mafia don trying to extort him. There was no other way to understand it except as an effort to extort this investigation.”
Lee played a crucial role during the Senate trial following Trump’s impeachment by the House, advising Trump’s defense team.
“What he (Trump) did was not impeachable. It was not criminal. And I don’t think what he did was wrong,” Lee said at the time.
Vindman says that “cheerleading” for Trump’s defense by Lee, Stewart and other Republicans helped embolden Putin.
“You could see a quite reasonable alternative reality in which Trump was held accountable, and he was impeached. We would not be in this position where we’re on the cusp of world war but for people like Mike Lee and Chris Stewart,” Vindman said.
Vindman’s criticism of Lee goes far beyond the impeachment episode.
He points to Lee’s votes rejecting funding for military assistance to Ukraine. Most recently, Lee was one of 31 Republican senators who said “nay” to the $1.5 trillion appropriations package passed by Congress last week, which contained nearly $14 billion in military aid for Ukraine. Sen. Mitt Romney also voted no. There also is Lee’s trip to Russia in 2019, where he discussed the possibility of dropping sanctions against some Russian officials.
According to Vindman, Lee and Stewart and their fellow Republicans created the environment that helped bring about Putin’s invasion. Both Lee and Stewart voted against Trump’s second impeachment after his failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election and the subsequent attack on the U.S. Capitol. Stewart joined the majority of House Republicans in voting to reject the election results from Pennsylvania, while Lee again helped advise Trump’s defense during the Senate trial.
“It was the Republicans that were backing Trump and the pro-Putin line that were critical in suggesting that this opportunity existed. It should be abundantly clear that these folks were complicit, and they put this country in danger because this war has every possibility of being a protracted war and a war that can pull the U.S. in,” Vindman said.
Lee’s spokesperson Lee Lonsberry sent the following statement to Vindman’s comments:
“Senator Lee has opposed Vladimir Putin’s despotism and aggression his entire time in the Senate. Sanctions are complex issues. As recently as mid-January, a bipartisan group of senators voted down sanctions on Russia that Senator Lee supported,” Lonsberry said.
The mid-January bill came during Russia’s preinvasion military buildup. The proposal, which imposed sanctions on the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, was defeated by Senate Democrats who favored imposing sanctions only if Russia moved against Ukraine.
Lonsberry rejected any suggestion Lee has been soft on national security.
“Senator Lee stands with the people suffering from Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. He condemns this senseless, unprovoked violence, and he is committed to keeping Americans safe. His record in the Senate shows his strong commitment to national security,” Lonsberry said.
Rep. Stewart’s office has not responded to a request for comment.