Politics

The Authoritarian Smear Campaign Against Alexander Vindman

Trump’s defenders say anyone who stands up to the president is a traitor. They’re dead wrong.

Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from chest up.
Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman arrives at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday in Washington.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Supporters of President Donald Trump are attacking Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council officer who testified this week about Trump’s extortion of Ukraine. These supporters, including former elected officials, are insinuating that Vindman—who was born in Ukraine but immigrated to the United States as a child and earned a Purple Heart in Iraq—is working against our country. The smears are vile, but they’re only half the story. They expose a deeper pathology: the authoritarian mindset of Trump’s surrogates. In this cultish worldview, Trump’s personal interests are identical to the interests of the United States, and anyone who interferes with Trump is anti-American.

Sean Duffy, a former Republican congressman who retired last month, spelled out the case against Vindman in a CNN interview on Tuesday. “He is a former Ukrainian. He wants to make sure that taxpayer money goes in military aid to the Ukraine,” said Duffy. “I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy.” Duffy warned that Vindman “speaks Ukrainian” and “has an affinity” for Ukraine. As to Vindman’s patriotism, Duffy shrugged, “I can’t judge whether he puts America first.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham pointed out that Vindman had been consulted by Ukrainian officials—not always “in English,” she noted—about Trump’s extortion. She argued that Vindman was “advising Ukraine” and working “against the president’s interest.” Trump’s lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, joined the outcry, accusing Vindman of “advising two gov[ernment]s.”

These attacks—like previous Republican attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the judge in the Trump University fraud case, and on four congresswomen of color who were told by Trump to “go back” to the countries from which their families emigrated—are based largely on Vindman’s ethnicity. They’re groundless, bigoted, and hypocritical. Unlike his critics, Vindman took shrapnel for the United States.

The attacks are also insincere. Giuliani, in his tweet against Vindman, wrote that Americans should listen instead to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has defended Trump. You can’t argue that Vindman is unreliable because he spoke to Ukrainians, and then turn around and argue that Zelensky is reliable because he’s the president of Ukraine.

The twisted idea that anti-Trumpism is anti-Americanism permeates Ingraham’s innuendo (that Vindman betrayed our country by working “against the president’s interest”) and Giuliani’s attacks on Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovitch faithfully represented the U.S. policy of supporting Ukraine in its anti-corruption efforts and in its defense against Russian aggression. She opposed Giuliani’s campaign to undermine that policy on behalf of Trump’s personal agenda. So Giuliani got Trump to fire her. He told the Ukrainian press that she was ousted “because she was part of the efforts against the President.”

Duffy, in his CNN interview, laid out the case for absolute loyalty to Trump. He argued that the president, unlike his subordinates, has a mandate from the people. “The president is elected by 60-plus million people to actually implement the policy, and that’s exactly what he did” in Ukraine, said the former congressman. Second, unlike aides who focus on a particular issue or country, Trump sees the bigger picture. His “broader perspective,” Duffy explained, is about “putting our country and our taxpayers first.”

Duffy rejected the idea that a president has to honor long-standing principles. The notion that “there’s some set foreign policy that exists from administration to administration” isn’t true, he asserted. When a fellow CNN guest pointed out that the United States has long stood with Ukraine against Russian incursions, Duffy retorted, “The policy changes with the new president. … That’s the president’s prerogative.” As to what Congress thinks about Ukraine, Duffy scoffed: “The president sets the foreign policy. The Congress doesn’t set foreign policy.”

This whole mentality is warped and wrong. To begin with, Trump doesn’t have a mandate to squeeze Ukraine or help Russia. A Pew survey taken in 2015, shortly before he announced his candidacy, found that 60 percent of Americans supported sanctions against Russia to counter its assaults on Ukraine. A plurality supported U.S. training of Ukrainian troops. In a Gallup poll taken earlier this year, most Americans called Russia’s military power a critical threat, and more than 90 percent called it an important threat. By a ratio of 3 to 1, Americans said they view Russia unfavorably.

Second, the president has to respect acts of Congress. Last year, Congress passed two bills authorizing nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine. Trump signed both bills. Under federal law, the White House Office of Management and Budget has no authority to delay this aid based on a policy disagreement. But that’s what Trump did. At his direction, OMB blocked the money, sat on it well past the legal time limit, and failed to give Congress a legally required notice of delay.

Third, the president is publicly, though not legally, accountable to a document called the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” The latest edition, revised and signed by Trump in December 2017, warns that Russia “aims to weaken U.S. influence,” “divide us from our allies and partners,” and “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” The document directly addresses eastern Europe. “With its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states,” it says. “The United States and Europe will work together to counter Russian subversion and aggression.” The State Department’s position, updated on Oct. 10, is even more specific: “U.S. policy is centered on supporting Ukraine in the face of continued Russian aggression.”

Trump and Giuliani, in their attempts to squeeze Ukraine, have worked against this policy. Their subversion was detailed last week in testimony from Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Taylor explained how an “irregular” network, led by Giuliani and operating “outside of official State Department channels,” countered and undercut “the official foreign policy of the United States.” Taylor noted that Trump had signed documents affirming America’s unwavering support for Ukraine and offering to meet with Zelensky. But backstage, Trump and Giuliani were sabotaging that policy.

Anyone who thinks that Trump’s personal interests in Ukraine were identical to America’s national interests, or that Giuliani’s meddling in Ukraine was driven by patriotism, should read Giuliani’s confessions to the contrary. “This isn’t foreign policy,” the former mayor told the New York Times in May. His goal in Ukraine, he explained, was to get information that would be “helpful to my client.” The information might also “turn out to be helpful to my government,” he added, but that wasn’t his primary concern. On Wednesday, Giuliani emphasized that he wasn’t working for the government. “All of the information I obtained,” he tweeted, “came from interviews conducted as private defense counsel to POTUS.”

The authoritarian defense of Trump isn’t just morally wrong. It’s factually wrong. Official U.S foreign policy is distinct from the president’s whims, and Trump and Giuliani subverted that policy. That’s what Vindman told Congress on Tuesday. And that’s why authoritarians like Duffy and Ingraham are attacking Vindman’s patriotism.

One staple of the attacks on Vindman is particularly telling. It’s a Times report that “Ukrainian officials sought advice from him.” Ingraham and Giuliani interpret that line as proof of Vindman’s treachery. They omit the rest of the sentence, which explains what the Ukrainians sought advice about: “how to deal with Mr. Giuliani.” The Ukrainians didn’t consult Vindman about how to manipulate American policy. They consulted him about the Americans who were betraying that policy. The authoritarians just don’t know the difference.

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