WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump wasted little time Friday opening a campaign of retribution against those he blames for his impeachment, firing two of the most prominent witnesses in the House inquiry against him barely 48 hours after being acquitted by the Senate.
Emboldened by his victory and determined to strike back, Trump ordered Gordon Sondland, the founder of a hotel chain who donated $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee, recalled from his post as the ambassador to the European Union on the same day that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Iraq War veteran on the National Security Council staff, was marched out of the White House by security guards.
The ousters of Sondland and Vindman — along with Vindman’s brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, an Army officer who also worked on the NSC staff — may only presage a broader effort to even accounts with the president’s perceived enemies. In the two days since his acquittal in the Senate, Trump has railed about those who stood against him, calling them “evil,” “corrupt” and “crooked,” while his press secretary declared that those who hurt the president “should pay for” it.
Even as he began purging administration officials who testified in the House impeachment inquiry, Trump assailed a Democratic senator who he had hoped would side with him during the trial but did not and called on the House to “expunge” his impeachment because he deems it illegitimate.
The flurry of actions and outbursts drew quick condemnation from Democrats, who said the president was demonstrating that he feels unleashed, and complicated the politics of impeachment for moderate Republicans who stood by him while arguing that he had learned his lessons and would be more restrained in the future.
“There is no question in the mind of any American why this man’s job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House,” David Pressman, Vindman’s lawyer, said in a statement. “Lt. Col. Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”
Vindman spoke publicly only once, after being ordered to under subpoena, Pressman added. “And for that, the most powerful man in the world — buoyed by the silent, the pliable and the complicit — has decided to exact revenge.”
Sondland took a more measured approach, confirming that he had been dismissed without offering any protest.
“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 hours after Vindman’s dismissal. “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 and Vindman were two of the most crucial witnesses in the House impeachment hearings. Sondland, who was deeply involved in the effort to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Trump’s Democratic rivals, testified that “we followed the president’s orders” and that “everyone was in the loop.” Vindman testified that he brought concerns about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president to NSC officials.
The White House made no effort to portray the ousters as anything other than a response to the impeachment battle now that it has ended. Trump foreshadowed Vindman’s fate hours ahead of time. “Well, I’m not happy with him,” the president said. “You think I’m supposed to be happy with him? I’m not.”
The president continued to assail lawmakers who voted for conviction, targeting Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who bitterly disappointed Trump by sticking with his party. “I was told by many that Manchin was just a puppet for Schumer & Pelosi,” Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “That’s all he is!”
Even as Trump flew to North Carolina to highlight his economic record, he called on the House to “expunge” his impeachment, an idea with no precedent or basis in the Constitution. “They should because it was a hoax,” he told reporters. “It was a total political hoax.” And he accused Pelosi of committing a crime by ripping up a copy of his State of the Union address. “She broke the law,” he asserted.
The president’s critics had warned that he would feel unbound if acquitted, and some said that the dismissal of Sondland and the Vindman brothers proved their point, quickly calling it “the Friday night massacre,” as Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., put it.
“These are the actions of a man who believes he is above the law,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead House impeachment manager. Schumer said the White House was running from the truth. “This action is not a sign of strength,” he said. “It only shows President Trump’s weakness.” Pelosi said, “This goes too far.” At the Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, former Vice President Joe Biden asked the audience to stand in support of Vindman.
The White House would not discuss the decision. “We do not comment on personnel matters,” said John Ullyot, a spokesman for the NSC.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, celebrated the dismissals, offering mock thanks to Schiff for investigating his father. “Were it not for his crack investigation skills, @realDonaldTrump might have had a tougher time unearthing who all needed to be fired,” he tweeted.
“The president had every right to make the moves that he did today,” Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said in an interview. “Moving Lt. Col. Vindman, for example, is a good move based on the fact that there is a lack of trust. He disagrees with the president’s policies.” As for Sondland, “the president can recall an ambassador at any time with or without cause, and in the case of Gordon Sondland, the guy was a hot mess, anyway.”
Other impeachment witnesses have left with less drama in recent weeks. Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled from her post last spring because she was seen as an obstacle to the president’s plans, retired last month from the Foreign Service. William Taylor, who replaced her in an acting capacity, was essentially brought back early as well. And Jennifer Williams, a career official detailed to Vice President Mike Pence’s office, quietly left recently to return to the Defense Department.
Several had already left the government, like Fiona Hill, the Europe policy chief at the NSC, and Kurt Volker, the special envoy for Ukraine, who resigned days before testifying. But others, so far, remain at their posts, including George Kent at the State Department, Laura Cooper at the Defense Department and David Holmes at the embassy in Ukraine.
Sondland began discussions with senior officials about leaving his post shortly after he testified in November, according to two people briefed on the matter. He believed that remaining as ambassador would be untenable given his role in impeachment and hoped to exit gracefully, they said.
A decision on when to step down was put off until after impeachment, but Friday, State Department officials told Sondland that they wanted him to resign, the people said. Sondland relayed to them that he would not step down amid what was clearly a purge of impeachment witnesses and that he would have to be fired, the people said. In response, State Department officials recalled him.
Vindman’s brother seemed to be collateral damage. Yevgeny Vindman, who goes by Eugene, worked as a lawyer for the NSC and had no role in the impeachment hearings other than showing up to sit behind his brother when he appeared in November. He was given no explanation for his dismissal “despite over two decades of loyal service to this country,” said Pressman, the lawyer. “He deeply regrets that he will not be able to continue his service at the White House.”
Both Vindmans, whose tours at the White House were scheduled to last until July, will retain their Army ranks and return to military service. Alexander Vindman, who had been expecting the move and had begun removing personal items, was told he would go to the Pentagon before moving to the National War College in July as originally planned. Yevgeny Vindman was more surprised and was told he would report to the office of the Army general counsel.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said service members who return to the military would be welcomed back. “We protect all of our persons, service members, from retribution or anything like that,” he told reporters.
Trump, on the other hand, has made clear his personal antipathy for both Vindmans. “Lt. Col. Vindman and his twin brother, right?” the president said Thursday during a rambling hourlong venting session at the White House, his voice dripping with disdain. “We had some people that — really amazing.”
On Friday morning, the president retweeted a message from a supporter advocating Alexander Vindman’s dismissal: “Vindman’s behavior is a scandal. He should be removed from the @RealDonaldTrump White House ASAP to protect our foreign policy from his machinations.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who voted to acquit the president but expressed hope that he would learn a lesson from the impeachment, said that witnesses should not be punished. “I obviously am not in favor of any kind of retribution against anyone who came forward with evidence,” she said in Maine, according to the Portland Press Herald.
Vindman has been subjected to virulent attacks on his patriotism on Fox News and social media. The president called him a “Never Trumper,” a term the colonel rejected. Fox aired a segment suggesting his service in the White House might amount to “espionage.” And Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., attacked him on Twitter. “How patriotic is it to bad-mouth and ridicule our great nation in front of Russia, America’s greatest enemy?”
With impeachment over, Trump is debating additional personnel changes. Some advisers are encouraging him to part ways with his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who was involved in freezing security aid to Ukraine, which paved the way for impeachment.
Other advisers are telling Trump that he should wait to make major changes until after the election in November. Some advisers hope that Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., will join the White House as a senior adviser. Meadows traveled with Trump to North Carolina on Friday.
Trump denied that Mulvaney would be pushed out in favor of Meadows. “I have a great relationship with Mick,” the president told reporters Friday. “I have a great relationship with Mark. And it’s false.”