Trump Ousts Impeachment Witnesses Sondland and Vindman
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a copy of USA Today newspaper with a banner headline that reads “Acquitted” as he arrives to annual National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg)

Trump Ousts Impeachment Witnesses Sondland and Vindman

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump moved swiftly on Friday to exact retribution on those he blames for his impeachment, purging his administration of two witnesses who testified against him in the House inquiry just two days after his acquittal by the Senate.

Gordon Sondland announced he’d been ousted as U.S. ambassador to the European Union just hours after the White House dismissed Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council. Both offered damaging details about Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine.

In his first comment on the matter, Trump on Saturday lashed out at Vindman on Twitter, terming the decorated military veteran “very insubordinate.”

Vindman was escorted from the White House in the afternoon, along with his twin brother, Yevgeny a senior lawyer and ethics official on the NSC, Alexander Vindman’s lawyer said. The lawyer, David Pressman, said Alexander Vindman “was asked to leave for telling the truth.”

“The truth has cost Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman his job, his career, and his privacy,” Pressman said in a statement.

Hours later, Sondland announced that he, too, was no longer a member of the Trump administration.

“I was advised today that the president intends to recall me effective immediately as United States ambassador to the European Union,” he said in a statement.

The removal of Sondland and the Vindmans -- two days after Trump’s acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial -- suggests Trump is feeling emboldened to retaliate against people whom he thinks betrayed him.

Sondland ultimately decided to leave his post, but departed amid intense pressure from officials at the White House and in the upper echelons of the State Department intent on purging people seen as disloyal, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Trump appeared to telegraph the moves earlier Friday. Asked at the White House whether he wanted Alexander Vindman to leave, Trump said: “Well, I’m not happy with him.”

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Thursday on Fox News that Trump believes he was treated “horribly” during impeachment and “maybe people should pay for that.”

Reaction to the abrupt departures came swiftly from Capitol Hill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that Vindman’s firing “was a clear and brazen act of retaliation that showcases the president’s fear of the truth. The president’s vindictiveness is precisely what led Republican senators to be accomplices to his cover-up.”

“The administration’s dismissal of Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, his brother and U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is clear political retaliation, the likes of which is seen only in authoritarian countries around the world,” Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement.

Trump has repeatedly slammed his critics since his acquittal on Wednesday. He accused Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the only Republican who voted to convict, of using “religion as a crutch” in justifying his vote. Romney, a devout Mormon, cited his “promise before God to apply impartial justice” as he explained on the Senate floor why he decided Trump was guilty.

The president tweeted on Friday that he was “very surprised & disappointed” with Senator Joe Manchin’s vote to convict. The White House hoped that Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, would vote for acquittal.

“No President has done more for the great people of West Virginia than me,” Trump wrote. “I was told by many that Manchin was just a puppet for Schumer & Pelosi. That’s all he is!”

Sondland, a hotelier from Portland, Oregon, who contributed $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee before being nominated to the prestigious post in Brussels, offered some of the most damning testimony of the impeachment saga.

He confirmed there had been a “quid pro quo” regarding Trump demands that Ukraine investigate his political enemies and that top aides, including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, knew exactly what was going on.

Vindman, a decorated officer who testified in his Army dress uniform, raised the alarm over the president’s July 25 telephone call with Ukraine’s new leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Before his testimony to House Democrats, the only account of that call came from an anonymous whistle-blower whose identity has remained largely hidden, and a partial transcript released by the White House.

At the State Department, diplomats fear that Trump could unleash his anger at the foreign policy establishment he’s long equated with what some of his advisers and supporters call the “Deep State.”

“Active-duty officers are scared of word getting out and then facing retribution, not just from the president but also from political ambassadors,” said Lewis Lukens, the former deputy envoy in London who was removed last year by Trump’s choice to lead the embassy there, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson.

“The president’s acquittal will reinforce in his mind that he can get rid of career people, not just at State, who he thinks are blocking or slow-rolling his agenda,” Lukens added.

Sondland insinuated himself into Ukraine policy, although that country is not part of the EU, and played a key role in conveying the demands to Ukraine for political investigations in exchange for military aid.

He testified that Rudy Giuliani -- the president’s lawyer -- had demanded a quid pro quo from Ukraine by holding up a White House meeting unless the country’s leader announced investigations against Trump’s political enemies.

“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said in his opening statement.

After his explosive testimony, in which he often seemed almost jovial, he returned to Brussels, but numerous people at the State Department say he was sidelined and no longer had a hand in important policy matters -- like Ukraine.

“I am grateful to President Trump for having given me the opportunity to serve, to Secretary Pompeo for his consistent support, and to the exceptional and dedicated professionals at the U.S. Mission to the European Union,” Sondland added in his statement.

Calls to Sondland went unanswered on Friday night.

The White House was preparing to portray Vindman’s departure as part of a broader downsizing of the NSC staff, not retribution, according to people familiar with the matter. NSC spokesman John Ullyot said he couldn’t comment on personnel matters.

Some other officials are being targeted for removal from the NSC would be reassigned because they’re perceived as being disloyal to the president, three people familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity, owing to the sensitivity of personnel moves.

Senior staff were informed on Thursday that some aides would be leaving the White House, the people added. The moves have been in the works since at least last week and could come as soon as Friday.

Vindman, a Ukraine expert and the director of European Affairs on the NSC, became a target of Trump’s ire because he raised concerns to the top lawyer at the National Security Council over what he viewed as Trump’s inappropriate demand that Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic rival, during the call with Zelenskiy.

Vindman testified that Trump exerted “inappropriate” pressure on Zelenskiy. Vindman said he felt a responsibility to come forward.

Promise From Pentagon

Vindman said the Trump-Zelenskiy call so alarmed him that he reported it through the administration’s legal channels.

After his appearance, Vindman was assailed on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr., who called him “a low level partisan bureaucrat and nothing more.”

Vindman’s rotation at the NSC was supposed to end this summer. His next rotation would likely be at the Pentagon. In November, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that Vindman wouldn’t face any retaliation from the Pentagon over his testimony.

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