'He's trying to muzzle everyone': National security veterans were shaken by Trump's decision to 'purge' witnesses who testified against him
President Donald Trump sent shockwaves through Washington on Friday when he abruptly fired two key impeachment witnesses and a third official who wasn't involved in the impeachment inquiry but is related to one of the witnesses. National security and intelligence veterans were stunned. A current FBI special agent characterized Trump's move as "appalling," adding, "He's trying to muzzle everyone who speaks out against him, even if they use the appropriate legal channels." "We have every reason to expect that — far from having learned his lesson, as some would have us believe — Trump is in the midst of attempting to do away with potential witnesses who would be in a position to call out his wrongdoing," NSC veteran Edward Price told Insider. "A purge is a good way to put it," Frank Montoya, Jr., a former FBI special agent, told Insider. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The rumblings of payback began almost as soon as the Senate acquitted President Donald Trump on Wednesday of the two charges against him following a bitter impeachment trial. The next morning, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham gave the public a preview of the plan of action Trump would outline in a speech Thursday afternoon addressing his acquittal. "He is going to be honest, going to speak with honesty and I think with a little bit of humility that he and the family went through a lot," Grisham told Fox News. "But I think he's also going to talk about just how horribly he was treated and, you know, that maybe people should pay for that." The first person to pay the price was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council. Vindman, a decorated war veteran and Purple Heart recipient, was abruptly fired and escorted out of the White House on Friday along with his twin brother, Yevgeny, who also served on the NSC. Vindman was given no explanation for his dismissal, but his attorney made it clear in a statement to Insider that the army colonel was forced out as retaliation for testifying against Trump in the impeachment hearings after receiving a congressional subpoena. Shortly after, Gordon Sondland, the US's ambassador to the European Union and another pivotal impeachment witness against Trump, was recalled from his post. It was something like a Friday Night Massacre, a peculiar reversal of the famous Saturday Night Massacre in the 1970s, when the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned in protest during the Watergate scandal after refusing to carry out President Richard Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor investigating him. "This is an unconscionable act of retaliation," Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and an expert in criminal and constitutional law, told Insider. He went on to excoriate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander, who argued that Trump had learned his lesson from impeachment. But "the opposite is happening," Ohlin said. "Trump is emboldened, angry, unhinged, and vindictive."
'He's trying to muzzle everyone who speaks out against him' Bloomberg News reported on Thursday, hours before Alexander Vindman was dismissed, that the White House planned to package his removal as part of a broader effort to slim down bureaucracy in the foreign policy apparatus. But Trump "taking direct aim at his perceived critics is something that much more closely resembles a purge than an orderly streamlining," Edward Price, the former senior director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, told Insider. He added: "We have every reason to expect that — far from having learned his lesson, as some would have us believe — Trump is in the midst of attempting to do away with potential witnesses who would be in a position to call out his wrongdoing." One current FBI special agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to publicly comment on the matter, characterized Trump's actions as "appalling." "He's trying to muzzle everyone who speaks out against him, even if they use the appropriate legal channels," the agent told Insider. Asked whether there could be any motivation for ousting the Vindmans that wasn't rooted in political vengeance, Price deadpanned, "Two brothers from different Directorates with different responsibilities sacked on the same day, at the same time, in the same unusual way? No." Frank Montoya, a former FBI special agent, echoed that point, telling Insider, "A purge is a good way to put it. The fact that [Vindman's] brother got the axe, too, seals it." Vindman is fluent in English, Russian, and Ukrainian and brought a deep knowledge of the US-Ukraine and US-Russia relationship with him to the NSC when he joined in 2018. "It's a loss to the nation when the White House gets rid of a subject matter expert as highly qualified as [Lt. Col.] Vindman simply because they don't like that he speaks truth to power," Montoya said. "That makes us weaker, not stronger."
Trump 'is now getting rid of war heroes and not some D-list star' on 'The Apprentice' The way the Vindmans were fired also set off alarms. "It's incredibly unusual," Price said. The Obama administration downsized its NSC staff just like the Trump administration claims to be doing now. But in the former case, "zero staffers were escorted off the premises, and it happened through natural attrition, as was supposed to have been the case in this process." Vindman catapulted into the national spotlight when he testified last year about his firsthand knowledge of Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and White House lawyers' subsequent efforts to cover up records of the conversation after Vindman reported his concerns. During the call, Trump repeatedly asked Zelensky to launch politically motivated investigations targeting former Vice President Joe Biden — a 2020 Democratic presidential frontrunner — and the Democratic Party as a whole. Trump made those demands while withholding vital military aid and a White House meeting that Zelensky desperately wanted and still hasn't gotten. Vindman listened in on the phone call and testified that he immediately reported what had taken place to the NSC's top lawyer, John Eisenberg, because he was "concerned" and found Trump's "demand" both "inappropriate" and "improper." Sondland, meanwhile, was one of Trump's handpicked agents in charge of running what witnesses characterized as the administration's "irregular" foreign policy channel that sought to carry out a "domestic political errand." Specifically: investigations in exchange for military aid and a White House meeting. The now-former EU ambassador testified that there was a "quid pro quo" in which Trump leveraged a White House meeting in exchange for investigations. Sondland also told Congress that "everyone was in the loop," including top brass at the White House and State Department. Price told Insider that Friday's developments indicate that there is "every reason to expect that — far from having learned his lesson, as some would have us believe — Trump is in the midst of attempting to do away with potential witnesses who would be in a position to call out his wrongdoing." Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department, skewered the president for his actions, telling Insider, "He has the right and power to be a vindictive accused who was let off the hook by a gaggle of politicians afraid of his tweets." What Trump is doing is "a far cry from when he was on his game show," "The Apprentice," Cramer added. "He is now getting rid of war heroes and not some D-list star." Vindman's ouster, in particular, could have other far-reaching consequences. Price said he believed Vindman should have been afforded whistleblower protections, as Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer requested of the Department of Defense last year. But rather than protecting Vindman, the NSC terminated him, "sending a clear signal not only to Vindman but to all would-be whistleblowers throughout the administration that protections won't apply to them," Price said. "The implication from that is clear."SEE ALSO: 'I'm not happy with him': Impeachment witness Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is being reassigned from the White House after Trump complained about him Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Extremists turned a frog meme into a hate symbol, but Hong Kong protesters revived it as an emblem of hope
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Fiona Hill and David Holmes gave powerful testimony about how everything was about to 'blow up' with Trump and Ukraine. Here are the biggest takeaways from their impeachment-inquiry hearing.
Fiona Hill, the National Security Council's former top Russia analyst, and David Holmes, a key State...Fiona Hill, the National Security Council's former top Russia analyst, and David Holmes, a key State Department aide, were the last witnesses to testify in Congress' public impeachment hearings. Holmes and Hill gave riveting testimony about what they witnessed in President Donald Trump's pressure campaign to strong-arm Ukraine into delivering political dirt while withholding military aid and a White House meeting. They forcefully defended former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from the "shameful" smear campaign carried out against her by the president and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The witnesses described how "shocked," "saddened," and "deeply disappointed" they were with Trump's July 25 phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Hill described a stunning conversation with another US ambassador in which she told him things were going to "blow up" with Trump's Ukraine policy. Scroll down to read more key takeaways from Thursday's hearing. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. Thursday's public impeachment hearing featured the last two witnesses who testified about President Donald Trump's efforts to force Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating his political rival while withholding vital military aid and a White House meeting. The officials who testified were: Fiona Hill, the National Security Council's former senior director in charge of Russian and Eurasian affairs. David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the US embassy in Ukraine. Both witnesses laid out a devastating picture of the president and his allies' shadow foreign-policy campaign in Ukraine. They described key conversations they'd had and their looming sense that things were about to "blow up." Here are the biggest takeaways from Thursday's hearing: Hill said she believed testimony that Gordon Sondland, the US's ambassador to the EU, gave the previous day was "not credible." Sondland was one of the "three amigos," a group of US officials who oversaw an irregular channel of US policy in Ukraine that involved pressuring the government to give Trump the investigations he wanted. One of those investigations was into Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian natural-gas company that employed former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter until earlier this year. Sondland testified that he didn't know at the time that when Trump said "Burisma," he really meant that he wanted an investigation into Biden, one of his main political opponents. "It is not credible to me that he was oblivious," Hill said of Sondland. This is indeed a dubious claim. At the time Sondland was pushing for the Burisma investigation, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani was all over the mainstream media talking about how Ukraine should investigate the Bidens. Giuliani was also Sondland's main point of contact on the shadow Ukraine policy. Holmes confirmed that security assistance to Ukraine was held up for one of two reasons. Either to express Trump's dissatisfaction with the fact that Ukraine had not yet publicly committed to or launched an investigation into Burisma and the Bidens, or to "increase the pressure" on Ukraine to do so. Hill and Holmes forcefully defended Marie Yovanovitch, the US's ambassador to Ukraine who was abruptly ousted in May after a "smear campaign" against her by Trump and Giuliani. Holmes praised Yovanovitch's "dedication, determination, decency, and professionalism." He said the allegations leveled against Yovanovitch were "unlike anything I've ever seen in my professional career." Hill agreed, saying the way Yovanovitch was "smeared and attacked" was "shameful." Both witnesses slammed the conspiracy theory promoting the idea that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. Hill was particularly forceful in her denunciation. "I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a US adversary and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016. These fictions are harmful, even if used for domestic purposes," Hill said. She also singled out Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee for pushing the conspiracy, saying their actions played right into Russia's hands. Holmes and Hill were "shocked," "saddened," and "deeply disappointed" by Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Both officials testified about their concerns that Trump strayed from discussing US foreign policy and national-security interests with Ukraine in that phone call and instead veered into domestic political territory. A White House transcript of the phone call shows Trump repeatedly pressing Zelensky to "do us a favor, though," and launch the investigations the US president wanted. He ordered a freeze on military aid to Ukraine days before, and testimony from a Pentagon official this week revealed that Ukrainian officials were aware of the aid being withheld the same day Trump spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart. "I think this is all going to blow up." Hill vividly detailed a meeting with Sondland in which she learned of the divergent channels of Ukraine policy: the official channel which she and other career diplomats controlled, and the unofficial channel that involved strong-arming Ukraine to accede to Trump's personal demands. The former NSC analyst recalled she and Sondland had several "testy" exchanges because she was angry he wasn't "coordinating with us" on Ukraine policy. She added that while she hadn't put her "finger on that at the moment," she was "irritated" with Sondland and "angry he wasn't fully coordinating." "And I did say to him, 'Ambassador Sondland — Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up,'" Hill said. "And here we are." Hill defended Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the NSC's top Ukraine expert who testified in the impeachment inquiry, from racist attacks on him from the Republican party. Republicans and right-wing media have repeatedly suggested that Vindman, whose family arrived in the US as refugees from Ukraine decades ago, has dual loyalty. Hill denounced the attacks on Vindman as "very unfortunate." "This is a country of immigrants," Hill said. "This is what, for me, really does make America great. This is, for me, this is the essence of America. It's why I wanted to be here and why I wanted to stay here." Thursday's witnesses gave a master class on what it means to be nonpartisan fact witnesses. Hill, in particular, was frank. She expressed her support for the president. She denounced the attacks on him during the 2016 campaign and after as "unfair." She said a Politico story describing Ukrainian officials' support for Hillary Clinton during the election was credible. Hill sympathized with Republican lawmakers and expressed support for some of them. At the same time, the former NSC official made it a point to delineate the unusual and dangerous nature of a pressure campaign against Ukraine based on political reasons. She rejected the notion that Russian interference in 2016 is a "hoax." She made a powerful statement denouncing any president asking a foreign power to investigate a political rival. She forcefully defended a US ambassador from the president and his lawyer. She laid out, in dramatic detail, how the president deployed his men to force a weaker ally into caving to his demands while withholding vital aid and a White House meeting. Through it all, she emphasized that she and Holmes testified as "fact witnesses" and nothing more. Read more of Insider's impeachment coverage: Here's who's scheduled to testify in this week's impeachment inquiry hearings Think Trump will get impeached? Gambling sites say the odds are in your favor Trump could be impeached and removed from office but still win reelection in 2020 Over half of the House of Representatives support the impeachment inquiry against Trump — see all of them here Everything you need to know about Trump's impeachment process: What's happened, who the players are, and what comes next SEE ALSO: A Pentagon official unexpectedly blew up Trump's defense in the Ukraine scandal and Gordon Sondland threw everyone under the bus. Here are the biggest takeaways from Wednesday's impeachment hearings. Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Extremists turned a frog meme into a hate symbol, but Hong Kong protesters revived it as an emblem of hope
Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who heard President Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine’s president and...Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who heard President Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine’s president and was alarmed, testified that he tried and failed to add key details to the rough transcript.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testifies in House Democrats' impeachment inquiry about President Trump's July 25 phone...Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testifies in House Democrats' impeachment inquiry about President Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president.