Within hours of each other, U.S. President Donald Trump and the White House removed two of the most crucial witnesses against the president in the investigation that led to his impeachment for abuse of power.
Late Friday, news emerged that Trump had ordered the recall of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union — “effective immediately,” the ambassador noted in a statement. Hours earlier, the White House escorted out Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine policy officer on the National Security Counsel — along with his twin brother Yevgeny, who was not an impeachment witness.
The succession of personnel moves came amid a promise of “payback” by White House officials against those who testified or played a role in the impeachment of the president. Trump has spent the two days since his acquittal by the Senate railing against his perceived enemies. He slammed Sens. Mitt Romney and Joe Manchin earlier Friday for their votes to convict him, and he retweeted calls by his allies to exact revenge on his opponents, including the Democratic lawmakers who led the drive against him.
Several of the top witnesses in the impeachment inquiry — including former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and former top U.S. envoy to Ukraine Bill Taylor — departed the State Department in recent days. Others, including former State Department hand Michael McKinley, former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker and Vindman’s NSC supervisor Tim Morrison, left during the course of the House investigation that ultimately resulted in Trump’s impeachment on charges that he abused his power and obstructed a congressional inquiry. The Senate acquitted Trump of both charges Wednesday, which was followed quickly by a vow from the White House to exact retribution on those who crossed the president.
A handful of the House’s 17 witnesses remain in their posts.
Vindman’s removal from a detail at the NSC came hours after the president told reporters he was “not happy” with the aide. One of Vindman’s lawyers, David Pressman, said his ouster was clear political retribution for his role in the impeachment inquiry. “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,” Pressman said in a statement shared with reporters.
“The truth has cost LTC Alexander Vindman his job, his career, and his privacy,” Pressman said.
Vindman’s attorney indicated that the Iraq War veteran’s twin brother Yevgeny, who serves as a senior lawyer on the NSC, was also removed from his post and exited the White House alongside his brother.
Pressman said Yevgeny Vindman’s ouster came with “no explanation” and that he is “deeply disappointed that he will not be able to continue his service at the White House.”
An Army spokeswoman said in a statement that the two men had been transferred: “We can confirm that both Lt. Cols. Vindman have been reassigned to the Department of the Army, out of respect for their privacy, we will not be providing any further information at this time.