Meet Alexander Vindman, the Colonel Who Testified on Trump’s Phone Call

He fled Ukraine at age 3 and became a soldier, scholar and official at the White House. That’s where, he told impeachment investigators, he witnessed alarming behavior by President Trump.

Alexander S. Vindman, left, with his twin brother, Yevgeny, at the Pentagon in 2016. They are both lieutenant colonels in the Army.
Alexander S. Vindman, left, with his twin brother, Yevgeny, at the Pentagon in 2016. They are both lieutenant colonels in the Army.Credit...Carol Kitman
Sheryl Gay Stolberg

WASHINGTON — The twin brothers were 3 when they fled Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, with their father and grandmother, Jewish refugees with only their suitcases and $750, hoping for a better life in the United States.

In the 40 years since, the first-born twin, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, has become a scholar, diplomat, decorated officer in the United States Army and Harvard-educated Ukraine expert on the White House’s National Security Council.

And on Tuesday, Colonel Vindman’s past and present converged as he became a star witness in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, which is centered on the president’s dealings with the colonel’s native Ukraine.

Ensconced in the secure hearing rooms of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in a midnight-blue dress uniform, a bevy of medals pinned to his chest, Colonel Vindman testified privately from morning until night. He recounted for House investigators how he was so alarmed by the president’s request to enlist Ukraine to smear his political rivals, and similar efforts by Mr. Trump’s allies, that he reported them to his superiors — twice.

It was one of the more memorable turns in an inquiry that has been full of them. Colonel Vindman, who is fluent in Ukrainian, was the first White House official to testify who listened in on a July 25 call between Mr. Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. With his long résumé and military credentials, he immediately became a problem for Republicans.

Mr. Trump assailed him on Twitter, though not by name, branding him a “Never Trumper” without evidence. Conservative pundits and allies of the president questioned the colonel’s loyalty, insinuating he might be a spy for the country of his birth. But House Republicans, perhaps fearing a backlash, took pains to defend Colonel Vindman’s honor — even as they insisted he was wrong about Mr. Trump.

“He’s a veteran, a combat veteran and he needs our respect and appreciation,” said Representative Tim Burchett, a freshman Republican from Tennessee who participated in Tuesday’s closed-door hearing, echoing the statements of leadership. “But he also needs to be questioned.”

Inside the secure room, known as a SCIF, the atmosphere grew tense, as Republicans questioned Colonel Vindman about his private conversations in what Democrats viewed as an effort to discern the identity of the whistle-blower who prompted the inquiry. The colonel pushed back, participants said, making clear he was unwilling to share such information, especially when it involved members of the intelligence community.

But beyond the substance and the drama, Colonel Vindman offered a compelling immigrants’ tale and a glimpse into the story of twin brothers who have lived a singular American experience, one that was featured in a Ken Burns documentary when they were children. From their days as little boys in matching short pants and blue caps, toddling around the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn — known as Little Odessa for its population of refugees from the former Soviet Union — and into adulthood, they have followed strikingly similar paths.

Like Alexander Vindman, Yevgeny, who goes by Eugene, is a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He also serves on Mr. Trump’s National Security Council, as a lawyer handling ethics issues. During his testimony, Alexander Vindman referred to him as “my kid brother” — and insisted that lawmakers do the same, telling them with wry amusement that he was born six minutes earlier than Yevgeny was.

When Alexander Vindman decided to alert a White House lawyer to his concerns about Mr. Trump’s July telephone call with the Ukrainian president, he turned to his twin, bringing him along as he reported the conversation to John A. Eisenberg, the top National Security Council lawyer.

“He was very honorable, very believable, very precise with his remarks,” said Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts. “He seems to have followed every single procedural safeguard and has, as a lieutenant colonel, followed the chain of command in every respect.”

The twins both married women with Native American ancestry, live in the same Northern Virginia suburb, and have offices across from each other in the West Wing of the White House, according to Carol Kitman, a photographer who met the family when they were boys, chronicled their upbringing and remains a close family friend.

“They say nothing,” Ms. Kitman said, when asked if the two had revealed their views about Mr. Trump. “They’re very smart and they’re very discreet.”

Along with their older brother, Leonid, the twins left Kiev with their father shortly after their mother died there. Their maternal grandmother came along to help care for them. The family sold its possessions to survive in Europe while waiting for visas to the United States.

“I think their father felt they would do better in the United States as Jews,” said Ms. Kitman, who recalls spotting the grandmother and the two boys, then known as Sanya — for Alexander — and Genya — for Yevgeny — under the elevated train in Brooklyn. She spoke to the grandmother in Yiddish, she said, and returned the next day, aiming to do a book about their lives.

“Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night,” Colonel Vindman told House lawmakers on Tuesday. “He stressed to us the importance of fully integrating into our adopted country. For many years, life was quite difficult. In spite of our challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American dream.”

Ms. Kitman’s website tells the story in pictures.

“Genya is always the smiling twin. Sanya is serious,” she wrote in the caption accompanying the image of them in their blue ball caps and short pants in 1980, the year after they arrived. A 1985 photograph of them with their grandmother on a boardwalk bench appeared in Mr. Burns’s documentary “The Statue of Liberty.”

“We came from Kiev,” they said almost in unison, in a clip on the filmmaker’s website. “Our mother died, so we went to Italy. Then we came here.”

When they were 13, Ms. Kitman captured the Vindman twins in matching red shirts. When Colonel Vindman married, she photographed him and his bride under a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, at their wedding.

The twins’ father, Semyon Vindman, went on to become an engineer, Ms. Kitman said, and the twins’ older brother entered the Reserve Officers Training Corps in college. She said the younger boys looked up to Leonid and decided to pursue their own military paths.

“It’s incredibly compelling,” said Representative Tom Malinowki, Democrat of New Jersey, who emigrated from Poland when he was a child and said he was very touched by the story of fellow immigrants from Eastern Europe. He added, “You can’t make this up.”

In his testimony, the colonel mentioned his “multiple overseas tours,” including in South Korea and Germany, and a 2003 combat deployment to Iraq that left him wounded by a roadside bomb, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart.

Since 2008, he has been an Army foreign area officer — an expert in political-military operations — specializing in Eurasia. Colonel Vindman has a master’s degree from Harvard in Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asian Studies. He has served in the United States’ Embassies in Kiev, Ukraine, and in Moscow, and was the officer specializing in Russia for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before joining the National Security Council in 2018.

By this spring, he said in his opening statement, he became troubled by what he described as efforts by “outside influencers” to create “a false narrative” about Ukraine. Documents reviewed by The New York Times suggest the reference is to Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, and his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and implicate Ukraine, rather than Russia, in interfering with the 2016 election.

In May, a month after Mr. Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine in a landslide victory, Mr. Trump asked the colonel to join the energy secretary, Rick Perry, to travel to Ukraine to attend the new president’s inauguration.

By July, Colonel Vindman had grown deeply concerned that administration officials were pressuring Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden. That concern only intensified, he told investigators, when he listened in to the now-famous July 25 phone conversation between Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Trump.

“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen,” he told investigators, “and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”

His heritage gave Colonel Vindman, who is fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian, unique insight into Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign; on numerous occasions, Ukrainian officials sought him out for advice about how to deal with Mr. Giuliani.

Colonel Vindman’s testimony was sprinkled with references to duty, honor and patriotism — but also his life as an immigrant and a refugee.

“I sit here, as a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, an immigrant,” he said, adding, “I have a deep appreciation for American values and ideals and the power of freedom. I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country, irrespective of party or politics.”

Ms. Kitman, the photographer, said that was what she would expect from both the Vindman twins.

“When you talk about what good immigrants do,” she said, “look at what these immigrants are doing for this country.”

Danny Hakim and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.