Republican Senators Tried to Stop Trump From Firing Impeachment Witness
WASHINGTON — A handful of Republican senators tried to stop President Trump from firing Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union who testified in the House impeachment hearings, but the president relieved the diplomat of his post anyway, according to people briefed on the discussions.
The senators were concerned that it would look bad for Mr. Trump to dismiss Mr. Sondland and that it was unnecessary, since the ambassador was already talking with senior officials about leaving after the Senate trial, the people said. The senators told White House officials that Mr. Sondland should be allowed to depart on his own terms, which would have reduced any political backlash.
But Mr. Trump evidently was not interested in a quiet departure, choosing instead to make a point by forcing Mr. Sondland out before the ambassador was ready to go. When State Department officials called Mr. Sondland on Friday to tell him that he had to resign that day, he resisted, saying that he did not want to be included in what seemed like a larger purge of impeachment witnesses, according to the people informed about the matter.
If they wanted him gone that day, Mr. Sondland conveyed to the State Department officials that they would have to fire him. And so they did, ordering him recalled from his post effective immediately. Mr. Sondland’s dismissal was announced just hours after another impeachment witness, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, and his twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, were marched out of the White House by security officers and told their services were no longer needed.
The ousters came just two days after the Republican-led Senate acquitted Mr. Trump on two articles of impeachment. Outraged Democrats called the firings a “Friday night massacre” aimed at taking revenge against government officials who were forced to testify under subpoena about what they knew.
The Republican senators who sought to intervene on Mr. Sondland’s behalf reached out to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, and Eric M. Ueland, the legislative affairs director, to register their protests, according to one of the people informed about the conversations, who like others declined to be identified discussing private talks.
The senators did not express the same concern about Colonel Vindman, who is viewed less sympathetically by the president’s allies. Republicans considered some of Colonel Vindman’s comments during his testimony overtly political and, in any case, believed it was untenable for him to remain on the staff of a president with whom he broke so publicly.
Mr. Trump on Saturday defended his decision to fire Colonel Vindman, calling the decorated Iraq war veteran “very insubordinate.”
“Fake News @CNN & MSDNC keep talking about ‘Lt. Col.’ Vindman as though I should think only how wonderful he was,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, without explaining why he put the colonel’s rank in quote marks.
“Actually, I don’t know him, never spoke to him, or met him (I don’t believe!),” the president continued, “but, he was very insubordinate, reported contents of my ‘perfect’ calls incorrectly, & was given a horrendous report by his superior, the man he reported to, who publicly stated that Vindman had problems with judgement, adhering to the chain of command and leaking information. In other words, ‘OUT’.”
Mr. Trump offered no explanation for why Colonel Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, who is also an Army lieutenant colonel and who worked as a lawyer on the National Security Council staff, was also fired and escorted out of the White House complex at the same time even though he did not participate in the House hearings. Nor did the president mention his decision to recall Mr. Sondland.
The president’s dismissals of the Vindman brothers and Mr. Sondland opened a campaign of retribution just days after his the Senate acquittal on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Fresh from that political victory, Mr. Trump and his staff have made clear that they plan to “exact payback” on those they blame for his impeachment.
Colonel Vindman, a Ukraine expert on the National Security Council staff, and his brother were scheduled to remain at the White House until July but will now be sent back to the Defense Department. Mr. Sondland, a political appointee, will return to the United States and presumably leave government service.
A lawyer for Colonel Vindman said Mr. Trump’s Twitter messages contained “obviously false statements” about his client.
“They conflict with the clear personnel record and the entirety of the impeachment record of which the president is well aware,” said the lawyer, David Pressman. “While the most powerful man in the world continues his campaign of intimidation, while too many entrusted with political office continue to remain silent, Lt. Col. Vindman continues his service to our country as a decorated, active duty member of our military.”
Alexander Vindman will report to the Pentagon until a previously scheduled assignment at the Army War College begins in July, while Yevgeny Vindman, who goes by Eugene, will join the office of the Army general counsel.
“Throughout this process, the Army leadership has been supportive of both Alex and Eugene in terms of their detail to the National Security Council and throughout the impeachment process,” said Michael Volkov, who represented Colonel Vindman when he testified in the impeachment inquiry. “The Army has been supportive and would never participate in the president’s desire for retaliation.”
Mr. Sondland and Colonel Vindman were key witnesses in the House impeachment hearings. Mr. Sondland, who was deeply involved in the effort to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Mr. Trump’s Democratic rivals, testified that “we followed the president’s orders” and that “everyone was in the loop.” Colonel Vindman, who was on Mr. Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, testified that it was “improper for the president” to coerce a foreign country to investigate political opponents.
Democrats and some Republicans denounced Mr. Trump’s actions against impeachment witnesses, noting that other officials who testified have also been transferred more quietly, including Jennifer Williams, who was serving as an aide to Vice President Mike Pence but was recently sent back to the Defense Department.
“By firing Lt. Col. Vindman and Ambassador Sondland like this, the Trump administration signaled it won’t tolerate people who tell the truth,” Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, said on Saturday. “The fact that Lt. Col. Vindman’s brother was also removed from the N.S.C., as well as the transfer of Ms. Williams from Vice President Pence’s staff, are signals that the president places blind loyalty above all else, including testimony under oath.”
Danny Hakim and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York.
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