With his Friday “reassignments” of Army Lt. Cols. Alexander and Yevgeny Vindman, as well as his “recalling” European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland, Donald Trump proved that his impeachment acquittal unleashed him to climb new heights of vindictiveness, and probably lawlessness, too.
Alexander Vindman and Sondland, of course, were impeachment witnesses who confirmed Trump’s corrupt arms-for-political-dirt extortion of Ukraine, and they were fired, even if Trump toadies are trying to get the media not to use that world. (NSC ethics lawyer Yevgeny Vindman had nothing to do with impeachment; he was fired purely for spite.) CNN is reporting that the Vindmans and Sondland were already planning to leave their posts by the end of the month, and Trump knew it. He chose to fire them anyway, preferring noisy humiliation to a quiet departure.
Remember when Republican senators feigned outrage because House impeachment manager Adam Schiff referenced reports that Trump was warning that anyone who crossed him would find his or her “head on a pike”? Good times.
The New York Times reported Saturday that a few politically vulnerable Republican senators—including perpetually “concerned” Susan Collins of Maine, along with North Carolina’s Thom Tillis and Arizona’s Martha McSally, all up for reelection in November—tried to get Trump to let Sondland step down rather than be fired. Apparently, they expressed no concern about the Vindmans, who were even more obviously vulnerable than Sondland. It makes sense, though. Sondland is a huge GOP donor who’s already contributed to Tillis’s reelection; the Vindmans are merely immigrants and career public servants.
On Monday, CNN’s John Harwood called the Republican senators’ expressions of concern “comically ineffectual” given their near-unanimous vote to acquit Trump last week. That’s a great way to put it, since you can’t swear on national television (unless you’re Trump, of course).
And what about the lone Republican who kept that Senate vote from being partisan, Utah’s Mitt Romney? We know Trump’s been trashing him on his Twitter feed since just after the vote. For my money, though, the most insidious insult to Romney came from Conservative Political Action Conference chair Matt Schlapp. Schlapp, former political director in George W. Bush’s White House turned Trump lapdog, had already disinvited Romney from the annual Knuckle-Draggers Ball. But on Sunday night he added an ominous warning: “This year I would actually be afraid for his physical safety, people are so mad at him,” he added.
Let me state what should be obvious: If you are genuinely afraid that your party’s 2012 presidential nominee will not be physically safe at a gathering you’re sponsoring, you should be weeding out anyone you believe might harm him, not keeping Romney away. And if you don’t genuinely believe that, saying you do constitutes a threat, not a warning. It was only four years ago that Trump boycotted CPAC because the American Conservative Union (ACU), the group that puts on the affair, failed to endorse him in the crowded primary. But Trump whipped the ACU into shape. Schlapp is the same guy who invited alt-right hero Milo Yiannopoulos to CPAC in 2017, until his board revolted. He represents the transformation of the GOP into a party of thugs.
I should say here: Romney deserves credit for his lone stand against Trump, but he also helped elevate Trump to Republican respectability back in 2012, by pathetically courting and welcoming his endorsement, when Trump was politically relevant only because of his racist promotion of the birther conspiracy theory about President Obama. Sondland, too, is hard to fully cast as a hero here: He got his ambassadorship by donating $1 million to Trump’s campaign. He was for Trump’s Ukraine corruption before he was against it, famously reassuring Trump that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass,” and flip-flopping on whether there was actually a quid pro quo: dirt on the Biden family in exchange for congressionally approved military aid (there was).
Still, as Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes wrote in this tweetstorm, sure, some of Trump’s targets are imperfect heroes, whether to the left or right, but they are all victims of his lawlessness.
If we can’t expect anything from Republicans (save perhaps one), what can and should we expect from Democrats as Trump retaliates? To his credit, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer has requested that all 74 federal agency inspectors general investigate retaliation against whistle-blowers, including but not only Vindman.
“Although LTC Vindman lived up to his oath to protect and defend our Constitution by bravely stepping forward to tell the truth, he has been viciously attacked by the President and forced to endure threats to his and his family’s safety,” Schumer wrote in his letter to the watchdogs. “These attacks are part of a dangerous, growing pattern of retaliation against those who report wrongdoing only to find themselves targeted by the President and subject to his wrath and vindictiveness.”
Jeff Hauser, who runs the anti-corruption Revolving Door Project, has been a persuasive critic of the Democrats’ narrow Ukraine impeachment focus. He says the party’s leaders still need a multifront operation to thwart, or at least eventually punish, Trump and Co.’s rolling lawlessness. At minimum, regarding the Vindmans’ dismissal, he thinks the House Armed Services Committee should hold “hearings with retired generals to create drama around impartial people attacking Trump’s misconduct.” More broadly, he thinks the House should be “subpoenaing records now that could be the basis for prosecutions in 2021, across all departments—creating a paper trail that makes people nervous that there might be post-Trump consequences.”
Post-Trump consequences in 2021—if we get past Trump in 2020, that is.