Sometimes, actions by those from whom we expect good judgment and circumspection surprise us. In fact, they can be so unpredicted that they leave us adrift. Such was the testimony of the Lt Col Vindeman who made a spectacle of himself on November 19th, placing his opinion above the assessment of seasoned lawyers, diplomats, political and military leaders.
First, the medal-bedecked Lt Col allowed himself to be extolled on national television as a military hero. While he is an officer, patriot and immigrant, watching Congress paint him a stormer of Normandy was discomfiting. Wearing military dress uniform in a highly charged political environment left many watching uneasy – for good reason.
Vindeman served honorably and earned a purple heart; by his own admission, he was back at work the same day his convoy hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). His service was entirely honorable. That said, truth behind truth is unsettling. More than 4,480 US service members died in Iraq, 2,372 more in Afghanistan. More than 32,220 were seriously wounded in Iraq, 20,320 in Afghanistan. Those are the indisputable heroes.
George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley did not allow others to call them heroes, although they were. Congress was strangely fawning; dress uniform in this political setting was strangely awkward. Enough said.
Second, words count. Vindeman testified: “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen…” The presidential transcript is clear. No “demand” was made by President Trump of President Zelinsky. Ukrainian President Zelinsky attested no “demand” was made of him, none inferred, implied or interpreted to have occurred.
So, who is this non-lawyer to treat a private conversation – which contained no “demand” – with such contempt that he introduced false terms into wider discussion? By all appearances, he breached a president’s confidence, possibly terms of his own security clearance, and shared his misinterpretation with others. Pursuant to his testimony, he spoke outside the White House despite direction from a National Security Council attorney not to do so.
What comes to mind is the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), filled with warnings against assuming political authority, such as Article 88 which says: “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President …” while “on duty … shall be punished as a court martial may direct.” Not likely. Still, a remarkable breach of protocol on an opinion that turned out to be wrong.
Next note the Lt Col is one of roughly 200 National Security Council (NSC) staff. No others felt compelled to put on a military uniform and go political, bringing extraordinary attention on himself – misquoting a private presidential conversation with a foreign leader.
According to the Lt Col, “it was improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent, especially from a foreign power where there’s at best dubious belief that this would be a completely impartial investigation.” Let’s unpack that.
Who – one may ask – is this non-lawyer, no background in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, US statutes and regulations barring sale of influence, 2016 election misdeeds or actions by either Biden, to reach a legal judgment that the request for cooperation under the US-Ukraine “Mutual Legal Cooperation in Criminal Matters” was “improper?” Was that his job?
Who was this self-assured actor to assess, on behalf of the President, Justice, State and Defense Departments and intelligence community, that requested support in addressing public corruption – during a previous Ukrainian Government – would not be “impartial?”
One wonders if the NSC staffer believes a one-sided impeachment probe, devoid of key witnesses and conducted secretively by the US House, is more “impartial?”
Advancing political insights, he offers: “It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play.” What if that request were legally justified by information not known to the officer? Did his military job include assessing politics surrounding a legal request by a president? Not by half.
Next, we learn he was engaging in conversations with the Ukrainian Government about a job offer. While he demurred and reported the offers, they kept coming. Very odd. The question is not about his loyalty; it is about his judgment. On such judgment, do we pin an impeachment?
Under what circumstances should an NSC staffer, cleared and in military uniform, be guiding any foreign government, let alone talking about a job with a foreign government? While the Lt Col is a patriot, his judgment is questionable. Even peers thought so.
In the end, what comes from these hearings remains to be seen. If impeachment of a president rests on the spurious judgment of witnesses like this imperious, self-possessed officer – we are all out to sea.
Hope exists that key material witnesses, such as the Biden father-son combination and whistleblower, will soon be called. Hope exists that Democratic members will clean things up, think critically, and end this political circus. If not, I am afraid we are in for a long swim.