In Limelight Again, Key Impeachment Witnesses Still Experience a Divided Response

In Limelight Again, Key Impeachment Witnesses Still Experience a Divided Response

WASHINGTON — Admirers still stop and thank them on the street and in airports, send fan mail and sometimes even offer to pay for their meals. But supporters of President Trump still insult and threaten them online — even the ones who work in the White House.

The star witnesses of last November’s House impeachment proceedings shook the Trump White House and turned a handful of previously obscure government officials into political household names.

And just as their names and faces were beginning to fade from public memory, they were resurrected this week in the Senate by the House Democrats presenting their case for convicting the president. The House managers repeatedly played video clips of those witnesses, on large screens set up in the old Senate chamber, to buttress their case that Mr. Trump improperly pressured Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter Biden, as well as discredited allegations of Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election.

The effect has cut both ways for these accidental political stars. In some quarters, they are being cheered anew by admirers, while in others they are drawing a new round of insults and invective from supporters of Mr. Trump — and even from the president himself.

Some are in the awkward position of carrying on within the government. They include Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a National Security Council aide, who testified that, when he listened to the president’s July 25 phone call with Mr. Zelensky, he “couldn’t believe” what he was hearing.

Mr. Vindman continues to serve on the National Security Council, but that has not prevented Mr. Trump from attacking him. On Friday, Mr. Trump retweeted Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, who a day earlier had resurrected an October quote about Colonel Vindman from his former commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jim Hickman: “Do not let the uniform fool you. He is a political activist in uniform.”

In response, a lawyer for Colonel Vindman issued a statement denouncing Ms. Blackburn’s “slander” and “cowardice,” writing that while the senator “fires off defamatory tweets, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman will continue to do what he has always done: serve our country dutifully and with honor.”

Also still working in the extended White House complex is Jennifer Williams, a career Foreign Service officer and national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence who testified in November that Mr. Trump’s July 25 call with Mr. Zelensky had been “unusual.”

Ms. Williams has not spoken publicly since Mr. Trump tweeted on the day of her testimony that “Jennifer Williams, whoever that is” should “meet with the other Never Trumpers” aligned against him and “work out a better presidential attack!” Other witnesses who have returned to their government posts, without public incident, include George P. Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Laura Cooper, who holds an equivalent post at the Department of Defense.

Then there is the whistle-blower whose original complaint about Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on Mr. Zelensky ignited the fuse that led to his impeachment.

Each day, the whistle-blower goes to his job at the C.I.A.’s headquarters and continues to work on intelligence related to Europe and, his expertise, Ukraine, according to people familiar with his work.

Although his identity is known by many inside the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies, supervisors have reminded intelligence officers to respect his public anonymity. As a result, inside the C.I.A., intelligence officers make no mention of the impeachment proceedings to him. That, according to friends, has allowed the whistle-blower to focus on his intelligence work, but it has contributed to a sense of isolation.

While the whistle-blower remains silent at work, he has discussed the stress of the events and the gravity of impeachment with friends and expressed frustration that his decision to remain anonymous has meant that right-wing attacks on his character and motivations go unanswered.

By contrast, Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland, appears to be mounting a public rehabilitation campaign, smiling and schmoozing his way back to normalcy after public testimony that angered Mr. Trump.

During the House appearance in which he contradicted Mr. Trump’s prior insistence that the president never sought a “quid pro quo” from Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Sondland made clear his intention to carry on with his diplomatic job. Later, he was seen checking in for his flight at Dulles International Airport and saying that he was “going back to work.”

And he has. Mr. Sondland, a businessman whose main qualification for his job appeared to be a $1 million donation to Mr. Trump’s inaugural fund, is again posting regularly on an official Twitter feed, smiling broadly alongside a series of foreign officials and working on issues like trade, the Balkans and Iran. He no longer mentions Ukraine, once a cherished part of his portfolio.

Radislaw Sikorski, a Polish member of the European Parliament who met last week with Mr. Sondland in Strasbourg, France, suggested that the experience had changed him.

“I’ve talked with him a year ago, three months ago and last week,” Mr. Sikorski said. “And he’s learned.” Before, Mr. Sikorski said, “he was borderline offensive, but now he’s found a way to not to be so offensive.’”

Several other witnesses who provided memorable, and often damning, testimony have left government. Among them is William B. Taylor Jr., who served as ambassador to Ukraine during the Bush administration and as de facto ambassador after Marie L. Yovanovitch was recalled to Washington last spring.

Mr. Taylor left his post for good on Jan. 2, soon before his temporary appointment was set to expire.

A Vietnam War veteran whose commanding voice drew comparisons to the famed news anchor Walter Cronkite, Mr. Taylor officially remained a State Department employee until Jan. 10. During a visit to the building’s cafeteria before his departure, Mr. Taylor was seen trying to buy a coffee and scone for breakfast when a well-wisher swooped in and insisted on paying.

Mr. Taylor is expected to return next month to the federally funded United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he was working in mid-2019 when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo persuaded him to return to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on a temporary basis.

Asked about his future plans during an interview with the Ukrainian newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli a few days before his departure from Ukraine, Mr. Taylor said, “I am hoping that I will have a chance to keep working for the good of the U.S.-Ukrainian relations.”

Mr. Taylor’s predecessor in Kyiv, Ms. Yovanovitch, is officially still employed by the State Department, which a Fox News reporter spotted her visiting this month. She is also teaching a class, one morning per week, at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and is scheduled to receive an award next week from the university’s School of Foreign Service for “Excellence in the Conduct of Diplomacy.”

Ms. Yovanovitch has remained in the news thanks to texts released this month suggesting that associates of Mr. Trump’s private lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani were having her watched in Kyiv. And on Friday, ABC News reported the existence of a recording of Mr. Trump, in the spring of 2018, saying “take her out,” in an apparent reference to Ms. Yovanovitch.

“Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care,” Mr. Trump says, according to the report. “Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. O.K.? Do it.”

Mr. Trump’s former top National Security Council aide for Russia, Fiona Hill, had already left the White House months before she publicly testified about “fictions” involving Ukraine promoted by Mr. Trump and his allies. This past week, as the Senate impeachment trial was opening, she returned as a fellow to her previous employer of many years, the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

Ms. Hill has told friends she is declining speaking engagements, plowing through unopened mail and contemplating writing a book drawn from her past research on Russia.

Kurt D. Volker, the former United States special envoy to Ukraine, who worked with Mr. Sondland and Mr. Giuliani, in what Mr. Taylor described as a “highly irregular channel” of diplomacy to Kyiv, resigned on Sept. 27.

Mr. Volker also left the job he retained as executive director of the McCain Institute, but is again an adviser with the Washington lobbying firm GBR Group. He has also returned to the foreign policy circuit, appearing at conferences where he has been a regular over the years.

Tim Morrison, who succeeded Ms. Hill as the National Security Council’s director for Russia affairs, left the White House a day before he testified behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee at the end of October.

Mr. Morrison has maintained a low profile since then, although on Jan. 15, he was a featured speaker at a dinner panel hosted by the George Washington School of Media and Public Affairs on the future of nuclear arms control. Maintaining his hard-edge position toward Russia, he derided it is as “a Mafia-run gas station with a lot of nuclear weapons.”

But Mr. Morrison avoided discussing National Security Council policymaking and rebuffed efforts to coax him into any conversation about impeachment. On Thursday, he became a nonresident fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington.

Peter Baker contributed from Washington, Steven Erlanger from Brussels and Danny Hakim from New York. Kitty Bennett contributed research.


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