During the first impeachment trial of former United States President Donald Trump, National Security Council member Alexander Vindman was a central witness. He listened in on that now-infamous phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — the one where Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
Vindman reported his concerns up the chain of command. Then, he found himself testifying before Congress and addressing his father in his opening remarks.
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"Dad," Vindman began, "I'm sitting here today in the US Capitol, talking to our elected professionals. Talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union, come here to the United States of America, in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth," he said.
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Retired Army Lt. Col. Vindman's new book is titled: “Here, Right Matters: An American Story."
He recently spoke with The World's host Marco Werman about what it's been like since he testified and the profound role that family has played in his professional career choices.
Marco Werman: You write in your book that your father did not want you to testify. In fact, it was kind of a point of tension between you two. Why did he not want you to testify and why, ultimately, did you?
Alexander Vindman: My family dynamic involves points of tension with our dad, kind of disagreeing with him on politics and certain things of that nature — a common thread between immigrants from failed communist regimes where the pendulum swings them to an unhealthy brand of conservatism. But when he spoke to me about the dangers involved in challenging the president, it was from his decades of experience and a deep understanding of power and how power works and harkening back to his time in the Soviet Union, where the consequences would be much more severe.
Family is central to you and your story. So, let's back up to the beginning. You were born in Ukraine in 1975. Your father took you, your two brothers and your grandmother in 1979 to the US. At a certain point, your older brother, Len, joins the US military, as did your brother, Eugene. You also decided to take that path. What drew you to the military?
I think, for us, our older brother set the template. We were highly energetic kids, kind of running around with more energy than we knew what to do with. And by watching our older brother starting ROTC and then enlist, we tried to kind of emulate him. And when he was going for runs or climbing ropes and all that kind of stuff, we did the same thing and very quickly settled on going into university and ROTC, some service to repay this country. And, you know, it sounds kind of a little bit hokey, but we did actually think about it in those terms.
Fast-forward to 2019. Fiona Hill, Trump's Russia specialist, hires you to serve on the NSC. So, now you're working for the White House. Then, on July 25, 2019, the so-called perfect phone call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the former TV comedian who'd just become president of Ukraine. Tell us where you were in the White House at the time and the part you played in that call?
It was the White House Situation Room. We were focused on an intercom, listening to a phone call that I was extremely apprehensive about. And as soon as the president came online, not only was it not going to advance US national security interests, but when the president went into his quid pro quo, when he said, "I'd like you to do us a favor, though," he was attacking both US national security and putting us in a position where Ukraine would be more vulnerable, easier for Russia to draw into its orbit, and therefore, Russia would pose a much more potent adversary to the US with Ukraine, and at the same time attacking the US domestically by undermining free and fair elections — the very foundation of how our system works.
Taking that lesson from your deployment to Iraq, in 2004, "Be alert to both the absence of normal as well as the presence of the abnormal," did you sense either of those prior to that phone call? How much of that call was a surprise to you?
I had a very good idea of what was happening behind the scenes. I was stubborn in thinking that these were maybe folks looking to ingratiate themselves with the president, people looking to do the president's bidding, but without the president's knowledge and forethought. I thought that might have been the case. And of course, once the president had vocalized this, it became abundantly clear to me something that I couldn't kind have just set aside, based on the fact I'm an Army officer, and the commander-in-chief was the one that was failing to live up to his oath to the Constitution and threatening our democracy. I couldn't deny that anymore. And I didn't think the president was above the law. This is a country of laws. And I did what I thought was right, which is reporting him.
After you testified in the impeachment hearing, many Trump supporters and certain corners of the media started a smear campaign against you. You were called a traitor. You were even accused of being a Ukrainian spy. How personal did it get it?
I mean, for them, there was no kind of limit. What's interesting is that it was the president's press office that generated those attack points. And then, of course, those have been reverberating for the years since. But their personal attacks don't have an impact on me, frankly, I have, in fact, felt a lot of support from my colleagues and peers, Americans that reached out and passed letters of support or emails. And then you have these kind of anonymous tweets or something of that nature that are attacking me. It's easy to kind of separate what really matters — putting it into perspective — the rest of it is background noise.
Well, those forces that smeared you after your testimony are still very much alive in the US. And many feel the undermining of American democracy continues after the Trump years. You're in the academic sphere these days. Thinking about all of this, what occurs to you about the way forward to preserving the values that this country represented, like to your father, when he brought you and the rest of your family here back in 1979?
You know, it's interesting. There have been probably brief moments where my confidence has wavered, but largely it's remained unshaken. And that's probably because of perspective on where my family has come from. But at the same time, we're missing something that could help bring us together — and that's accountability. That's accountability of public officials that failed to live up to their responsibilities and that's accountability of media personalities that see profit in attacking the United States. Accountability is one of the passages we need to pass through in order to get back to unity and keep this country strong.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.