PoliticsForeign Policy


Alexander Vindman On Trump, Biden and Russia

Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman talked with Chance Seales about everything from working in the Trump White House to the service of whistleblowers.
Posted at 7:47 PM, Aug 12, 2021

Chance Seales: With us now is retired Army Colonel Alexander Vindman. He's the author of the new book "Here, Right Matters: An American Story." Alex, thank you for being here. You know the world knows you, primarily because of something you witnessed in the basement of the White House on July 25, 2019. President Trump pressuring Ukraine's president to investigate the Bidens. And you write this: "My reaction was visceral. My head snapped up. I looked quickly around the table. Were others tracking this?" What shocked you so much? He is well-known to be transactional.

Alexander Vindman: He is known to be transactional but up until that moment, I thought that I, maybe in a way could convince myself that these shenanigans, this kind of corruption of our electoral process and free and fair elections was by toadies and kind of, proxies. You can see I'm not being the least bit kind to these folks because of the damage they've done to our institutions, but that they were trying to ingratiate themselves with the president. At that moment I dispelled any remaining notions that the president was above it or that the office of the president was above this kind of corruption and I realized that the president was the driving force.

Chance: Not everyone had the same reaction you had that day. Did you ever ask yourself “am I overreacting?” 

Vindman: No, definitely not. I mean, I understood immediately the gravity of the moment. Having really covered this portfolio for the U.S. government at the highest level, understanding all of the events that they were unfolding over the preceding months, oftentimes people just see it as a snapshot, a single phone call. It wasn’t. This was a culmination of a whole bunch of harmful events to our national security. I immediately recognized what was going on. The president was pressuring a foreign leader to provide dirt on a political opponent. I knew immediately there’s all sorts of implications to this. One, this was not going to be a reliable, clean, clear investigation. Nor did the president really actually need that to happen. All he needed was the announcement, like we heard about trying to steal the 2020 election, where he was just looking for somebody to say the results are in doubt, and that was enough for him to go off and running with these claims of interference and all sorts of other stuff.

Chance: Sitting there in that moment you write, your mind finally connected to say, “Oh, $400 million that had been put on hold in the past,” and then you hear the president say, “I have something to ask of you, though,” or something along those lines and you go, “Oh my gosh. So it is all connected.” Some people try to silence you. People inside the National Security Council where you work, you detail for the first time how they try to discredit and undermine you in some cases. Are some of those same people still in positions of power or importance today?

Vindman: Not currently, but they’re still regarded as credible individuals, potentially, within the conservative establishment. Because of the transition of administrations, almost all of the individuals were political appointees that were shuffled out with the standard transition of power between a Republican and a Democratic administration. So they’re no longer in position but they’re still considered credible agents in the Republican establishment, which is unfortunately a shame because they’re not – in a lot of ways – particularly good actors.

Chance: Any name in particular you would not like to see enter the government roles again?

Vindman: I think you could read the book for that one. I certainly didn’t see eye to eye with Tim Morrison, my immediate supervisor. There was an office mate, kind of detail, that the lengths that the individual would go to, that Joanne would go to to kind of both elevate himself and do some dirty work for the administration. This is the White House. There’s a whole cohort of folks in the military, serving in uniform,  that are still in positions with the party. I guess I differentiate between purely political actors and then department and agency that has ... that in certain ways fell short of their obligations to live up to the values and in my case, kind of protect me when I had no voice or had nobody to protect me.

Chance: You didn’t have some big, giant protector there – some henchman in office – but you did speak up about what you heard. In the moments after you actually told your identical twin brother, a top national security council ethics official – the top one – “if what I just heard becomes public the president will be impeached.” Were there ever other conversations President Trump had – either internally, or with world leaders – because you listened in on some of them, or heard about them, that you think could have, or should have gotten him impeached?

Vindman: Nothing, you know, certainly in my case it was absolutely blatant. I think there was wrongdoing on several different occasions where the president was duplicitous, saying one thing in private to another world leader and publicly saying another thing or lying to Republican officials that had expected the president to behave, to live up to statements that he made to them. I mean, I’m sorry that I’m being a bit ambiguous but a lot of this is still classified. I can’t really comment on it but the bottom line is yes, the president was constantly deceitful and I think a lot of that has yet to be disclosed.

Chance: Do you think it ever will be? Is it going to be like Bob Woodward doing it or former officials doing it?

Vindman: You know, this is one of the things I have been very adamant about in almost all of my public speaking over the past week. That there is a shortfall in accountability. There was a lot of wishful thinking about the country moving forward, moving on with the Biden administration and things being able to return to some sort of normalcy. In a lot of ways they have, but the damage that has been done to the good operations of our government – and the corrupt activities of the previous administration – have not been uncovered and I would urge this administration to do more than just believe that we’re going to return back to normalcy because until we harden and understand fully, exactly what happened and harden our government, we’re vulnerable. Right now, you know we had a failed effort to have a bipartisan January 6 commission. We have not really had a full accounting of what transgressions that occurred within the departments and agencies and there’s just not enough going on in this space and I don’t think we can come together and kind of heal until we address these open wounds. 

Chance: You know President Trump called you very insubordinate. You talk about in your book – that you and your twin brother – that you guys were hellraisers I’d call it. You guys were rabble rousers. Just very physical. Always very rambunctious. You see someone in uniform and you kind of have certain ideas about regiment and things of that sort. Do you still consider yourself a rabble rouser?

Vindman: I’m definitely quite disciplined and focused nowadays but I do have my moments. According to my daughter, I’m responsible for fun, my wife is responsible for safety. In the book I kind of tell how I regress with my twin brother when we’re walking the halls of the White House and like we glance around to make sure there’s nobody there and I punch him – or something like that – in the shoulder. So I have a very, kind of light and playful side that doesn’t necessarily come across when I speak publicly because these are very serious issues and I try to treat them with the reverence and the seriousness that they deserve, but in my private life around my family, they know I’m a bit of a jokester.

Chance: President Trump hated you. QAnon hated you. You’re sitting in these testimonies, behind the scenes and lawmakers are screaming at each other. Then you have to go public. Many people don’t realize you’ve actually been through tougher. An IED attack while you were serving in Iraq could have easily killed you and it was actually hidden by this sort of out of place bike and you talk about the presence of the abnormal and being aware of that. I just wonder – so much of our world feels abnormal right now – how do you distinguish between what is just different and what’s dangerous.

Vindman: It’s something I learned early on in my combat tour – the presence of the abnormal, absence of the normal – and certainly something that I lookout for. It was something that came in very handy in combat theater, in my time in Moscow, kind of understanding where the pitfalls are, where the Russians might try to trip me up because I was a representative of the U.S. government military attache and that’s what they would try to do to basically discredit me. It served me well going into the White House, that I was able to pay attention to these things. In terms of a kind of broader application, there is a major erosion of the normal nowadays and part of my mission – part of my kind of declaration with myself – is to try to serve the interest of accountability and advocate for public servants so we can return to a level of normalcy. There’s a lot more that could be done on uniting us because there is a lot that unites all Americans. Whether it’s the immigrant background, it’s our love of country, it’s the fact that we a lot of times share similar values, but there’s also the other side of the coin about addressing the issues head on, shortcomings and not setting the bar lower for public servants.

Chance: I really love how you open up in the book, which is a vulnerable thing to do given the recent experience you've had. You have this wonderful family. When you were young, your grandma, babushka, she took care of you. You have a wonderful immediate family now, but also your dad. You learned something really important from him. He grew up as a refugee because of the Nazi invasion. His dad was killed. He rose to senior level Soviet administrator, became disillusioned. There was persecution of Jews. He went to New York City and moved around there and this was his lesson: Don't just start over, keep starting over. You say, "As I write this I'm still trying to learn that lesson." You're off the NST. You're out of the Army. What is your plan? 

Vindman: I'm in a way still trying to figure that out. What I do have is a strong work ethic. I have a strong education background. I have a wealth of experience in my field. I have a very strong network of friends and supports and I've applied myself into a couple of different things. First of all, education has always been important to me so I'm pursuing a doctorate in international affairs from Johns Hopkins School of International Studies. I'm teaching and lecturing. I'm affiliated with a couple prominent academic institutions, including UPenn Perry World House. I'm a military fellow at a law fair institute, a D.C. think tank. So those are some areas I'm exploring doing some consulting work. Frankly, I like the idea that I'm my own boss. I can pick whichever set of activities I think could be most beneficial to me, to help me grow as a person. I'm really enjoying that and I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do long term and exploring all these different things. Like I said, I get to talk to you. I get to talk to Gov. Schwarzenegger. I've had some pretty amazing experiences as a result of what could have knocked me down and really held me back, but I think it's part of my dad's story of starting over and resiliency and recovering. That's kind of allowed me to – if not quite land on my feet – at least have some confidence that things will be where they need to be eventually. I'm very fortunate. I think a lot of whistleblowers are not as well postured and they have to deal with the negative consequences. I think we should just kind of elevate and recognize the kind of service that whistleblowers offer and the cost that they incur.  

Chance: So you think the bumper sticker will say "Alexander Vindman: candidate for House or candidate for Senate?"

Vindman: I don't know. I know that I try to not be disingenuous and, you know, indicate that I have any aspirations to run, but I also don't want to be disingenuous and say I won't do it. The reason for that is because I've been really fortunate to engage with some really terrific, honorable public servants – Rep. Andy Kim from New Jersey, a former NSC staffer. He has no idea I'm mentioning him by the way. I talked to him and got a chance to just kind of understand his reasons for service and it's just a beautiful story about wanting to do more. I know I want to do more also. I just don't know if it's going to be in elected office or in some other ways but my biggest threshold is getting my wife to buyoff on this idea. She has zero interest in this.

Chance: Michelle Obama wasn't interested either, you know.

Vindman: Yeah. Rachel is the troll slayer. So, you know, she's a formidable force here.

Chance: She sounds tough. On a more serious side, one of the drawbacks here is the expertise in eastern Europe, specifically Russia, some of that was taken out of the United States government – which is really needed right now. What would you advise President Biden do differently at this point, with respect to Russia? 

Vindman: I’ve been very fortunate to write and be published in the New York Times or Foreign Affairs. I would caution the president, frankly, against any wishful thinking on being able to reset a relationship with Russia. I know that that’s not the case – the president doesn’t have any aspirations to reset – he has a very capable staff but there still is some wishful thinking that there’s a way to kind of set this relationship on a more benign path. I don’t think so. I think we’re facing a lot greater challenges with Russia because Russia has been allowed to act with impunity just like Donald Trump was able to act with impunity because there were no consequences from the first impeachment and he then tried to steal an election, 2020. 

Putin, in a lot of the same ways, has been offered this idea that he could attack the United States and there are no consequences. And there’s a mismatch between the belief that Russia can get away with attacking the United States and U.S. interests and the reality that they’re going to quickly face with the Biden administration that’s not going to let them get away with it. That means there’s an increased risk of some sort of – it doens’t have to be a military confrontation – but more of acute relationship forming. We need to be prepared to pass through that stage as the Russians learn that there will be consequences for attacking U.S. interests.

I know that Biden will be tested. I know that Russians will continue to look for vulnerabilities to exploit, including in different terms of domestic U.S. politics and I think a firm line with Putin and Russia, who I think is our greatest adversary based on the fact that they’re willing to upend the international system to achieve their objectives, I think that’s where we should be applying focus.

Chance: Donald Trump may run for president again in 2024. Will you actively campaign against him? 

Vindman: Absolutely. I mean I’m already speaking against it but I really, frankly, don’t think he’s remotely a viable candidate because he’s already taken a small piece of the pie. He was trounced in the general election where he lost by seven million votes and he’s basically continued to section off different portions of his constituency with January 6 being a major break with a lot of folks and people dying of COVID because he promoted that COVID’s not real. 

So, it’s less that - It’s more Trumpism and you have Trump figures that are, in a lot of ways, much more savvy and sophisticated that are going to ride his coattails into office and these are folks that could really harm our system so I’m open to helping and hopefully this doesn’t mean I get a bunch of calls but I’m hoping to get folks that are running against Trumpist candidates, elevate their profile, whatever the case may because those folks fail to live up to their obligations, fail to live up to their oaths and they need to be held accountable. 

Chance: Who would that be – who you would campaign on behalf of whose against Trumpism or if you ran yourself? Are you saying just Democrats - are you a Democrat? Or would you be like an old-school Republican?  

Vindman: You know, it’s interesting, I’ve not been asked this question many times. Historically, I’ve been apolitical. I didn’t even really know this, but I guess at one point I registered as an Independent. I would say in a lot of ways, I’d probably fall - because I grew up in New York City – on the left of center on social policies and social justice issues and right of center – maybe even a little bit hawkish – on the national security, defense side but even there there’s crossover because I understand defense budgets can’t keep growing exponentially at the cost of other important spending requirements. I think I fall into almost like a classic, ideal kind of moderate somewhere where moderates are still trying to fight – even though they represent the vast majority of the United States – are not so vocal. You have the left and the right kind of being the most vocal voices. I could be convinced, frankly, with persuasive arguments, on a lot of things that kind of fall around the moderate sphere. 

Chance: You sound like a Joe Lieberman.  

Vindman: I don’t know, am I? 

Chance: The epilogue here for all of us, because you’ve lived your life for your whole life. We’ve only watched the last 18 months or so. What is the lesson here for people watching? Is integrity worth the personal and professional cost in the end? 

Vindman: I think so. For me, I’ve certainly mulled over this idea of whether I’d do something different and whether it was worth the consequences. Absolutely. There’s no doubt in my mind that if I had stayed quiet I would have been able to continue on a military career, continue to serve but on the other hand, the president’s overreach, the president’s abuse of power, the president’s corruption would have never come to the light of day. If I had just stayed quiet, the president wouldn’t have been impeached. And I think that’s really a small price to pay to serve my country, to live up to my oath to support and defend the constitution of the United States – it's a small price to pay. And I can live with my actions, I mean I have faith that I’ll land on my feet and I can look my daughter in the eye and know that I did the right thing. I think all in total, I’m in a pretty good place. Still trying to figure out what I wanna do but I’m in a pretty good place.  

Chance: Alexander Vindman, you’re telling us the more colorful history of where you came from and the places you could be going. It seems like the future is wide open at this point. I hope everybody reads your book, “Here, Right Matters: An American Story.” We appreciate it. 

Vindman: Just one last message. I pivoted off of this “Here, Right Matters” line ... but we should also remember that “right” matters only if we make it matter and our complacency is a huge danger to this country and I encourage us all to make right matter.  

Chance: Alexander Vindman, thanks.