An Army officer was stripped of his responsibilities and given the lowest evaluation rating by the White House because he raised concerns over President Donald Trump's 2019 call with Ukraine and the mistreatment of staff, the Pentagon's independent watchdog said Wednesday.
Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, whose twin brother testified during Trump's impeachment over the call, told superiors while assigned to the National Security Council that the president may have broken the law by pressing newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to dig up political dirt on Joe Biden, his political rival.
Vindman, who was an ethics officer for the council, also reported to supervisors that top National Security Council officials inappropriately ordered staff to book dinner reservations, schedule haircuts and retrieve luggage, and had been sexist toward others, according to the inspector general.
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The whistleblowing led the White House to bar Vindman from meetings and from advising the council in the months after Trump's call, and he was "abruptly and unceremoniously walked out of the White House by NSC Security" two days after the president's acquittal by the Senate in February 2020.
"The reduction of the complainant's duties at the NSC to such a degree that no focus area was left untouched was swift and appears stark," the IG found in its publicly released report.
Two months later, the White House legal advisers who served as Vindman's supervisors described him as "unsatisfactory" and "unqualified" in his April 2020 Army officer evaluation report, despite high ratings both before and after the assignment.
Their previous evaluation had said Vindman excelled and was the most qualified at his work on Africa and ethics issues on the NSC. One of the supervisors had written he was a "top 1% military attorney and officer and the best LTC with whom I have ever worked." An evaluation following his ill-fated White House assignment also found that he excelled.
"We concluded, based on a preponderance of the evidence, that these actions would not have occurred or been withheld absent the complainant's protected communications," the IG said about the fallout after Vindman's whistleblowing.
Vindman's identical twin brother Alexander, an Army lieutenant colonel who also served on the NSC at the time, played a brief but key and more highly visible role in Trump's first impeachment over the call asking Zelenskyy to provide him a favor in return for U.S. support. When the president made the call and request, his administration had been withholding $400 million in aid that Ukraine needed to protect itself against Russia, which later invaded and continues to wage a bloody war inside the boundaries of its neighbor.
Alexander Vindman was the NSC's top Ukraine expert and was listening in on the July 2019 call. He testified that November to a House panel during the chamber's proceedings in the first Trump impeachment. Yevgeny Vindman sat directly behind his brother during the hearings.
"It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent," Alexander Vindman testified to the House.
The brothers met immediately after Trump's call in July 2019, and both had similar concerns. Yevgeny Vindman reported his concerns to his superiors John Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel, and Michael Ellis, a senior associate White House counsel. Yevgeny Vindman said he believed Trump may have broken several laws, including the Federal Bribery Statute, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and federal election laws, according to the IG.
Yevgeny Vindman also reported to his supervisors that Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, and the former NSC chief of staff, Alex Gray, mistreated and misused council staff members by having them perform personal tasks. Both men have left the White House, and Gray is now running in a special U.S. Senate race in Oklahoma to replace Sen. Jim Inhofe.
"This included having an NSC staff member make dinner arrangements that required coordination with Mr. O'Brien's wife and scheduling haircut appointments for Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Gray," according to the IG. Vindman "also reported that Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Gray had an NSC staff member retrieve their personal baggage after a trip and obtain their lunch."
The IG said Vindman also told Eisenberg and Ellis of reports from a council adviser that O'Brien and Gray made sexist comments about female staffers' looks and that "six female staff members were not invited to meetings to which their male counterparts were invited." Neither O'Brien nor Gray consented to an interview with the IG for its investigation.
Eisenberg and Ellis were responsible for Vindman's sharp reduction in responsibility during the impeachment, and they also doled out the poor Army evaluation ratings. "Despite our extensive efforts, we were unable to interview any of the former White House administration officials as part of our investigation," the IG reported.
Trump publicly lashed out at Alexander Vindman on several occasions during the impeachment, claiming he was a "never Trumper," without evidence.
"When you look at Vindman's -- the person he reports to -- said horrible things: avoided the chain of command, leaked, did a lot of bad things," Trump said on Feb. 6, 2020. "And so we sent him on his way to a much different location and the military can handle him any way they want."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.
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