Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman on Thursday sharply criticized President and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump for holding a "soft spot" for authoritarian leaders and for attacking career civil servants during his first appearance as a Perry World House visiting fellow.
A year to the day after Vindman’s testimony under oath exposed how Trump attempted to use foreign policy leverage for personal electoral gain, Vindman provided insight on his role as a Trump administration National Security Council official and his experiences as a major witness in 2019's impeachment proceedings.
During a conversation with New Yorker staff writer Susan Glasser as part of a Perry World House virtual event, Vindman called for a bipartisan truth and reconciliation commission to investigate Trump’s actions in office.
Vindman also confirmed he cast his ballot for former Vice President Joe Biden and said he fears retribution against himself if Trump wins reelection.
At the virtual event, titled “For the People: Public Service in 21st Century America,” Vindman also called out Jim Mattis and John Kelly, who both served in high-ranking cabinet roles under Trump, for not speaking out when in the administration.
“There's little doubt that both Kelly and Mattis, generals who had an outstanding and celebrated career, highly honorable individuals, stumbled when they had the opportunity to make a difference,” Vindman said.
Vindman said the attitudes of the two retired generals were common among government officials who sought to preserve their job status.
The conversation with Vindman came one day after former Department of Homeland Security official Miles Taylor came forward as ‘Anonymous,’ the Trump administration official who wrote a scathing New York Times op-ed and subsequent book detailing a resistance against the president in his own bureaucracy.
Vindman distanced himself from anonymous sourcing and leaking, instead saying that his military background led him to follow the proper chain of command. He cited the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment as proof that the system can work without the need to leak.
“We have this tradition in the military of making on-the-spot corrections. I was going to work in that system,” Vindman said. “I was not going to go down the road of leaking. I was going to use the proper channels.”
Vindman testified against Trump last November, telling the House that the president’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “improper” and concerning.
At the time, Vindman was the White House’s top Ukraine expert. Trump fired Vindman from his post in the administration’s National Security Council in February, shortly after the Senate voted to acquit the president.
Despite the fact that Trump was acquitted on largely partisan lines in the Senate, Vindman said the impeachment process served to reinforce his belief in government. And Vindman credited the House investigation into White House policy as succeeding in forcing the administration to resume security assistance to Ukraine.
“The president was caught and he couldn’t get away with it, so he had to change course,” Vindman said. “Ultimately things turned out okay, through that policy outcome.”
In the months since leaving government, Vindman has transformed from a little-known national security official to an outspoken critic of Trump. Trump, in turn, has leveled blows against Vindman in what the former National Security official says is typical of his reaction to public servants.
“The president just simply does not understand the notion of service,” Vindman said. “That whole concept is foreign to him.”
Speaking days before Election Day, Vindman said he voted for former Penn professor Biden and encouraged all Americans to cast a ballot. From a personal standpoint, he added that he fears that Trump will target anyone who has spoken out against him if given a second term.
“There is zero doubt in my mind that everybody that has crossed the president will be targeted,” Vindman said. “The president is going to want to settle the score and he is going to want to say ‘if you were disloyal to me, this is what happens.’”
But even amid fears of retribution, a weakened and disheartened civil service, and the president’s norm-shattering presidency, Vindman said he was optimistic about the future of America’s institutions.
“We have a government with strong institutions, despite the president’s attacks on these institutions,” Vindman said. "We still have very capable people trying to fulfill the same roles that I have been doing before becoming a public figure.