President Donald Trump wants a Lt. Col. Oliver North. What he’s got is Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.
North was a Marine officer detailed to the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan who was convicted of obstructing a congressional inquiry into the Iran-Contra scandal. Vindman is an Army officer detailed to the National Security Council who just testified about his efforts to document Trump’s pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden.
Trump’s the kind of man who sees nothing wrong with holding up US aid to corner a foreign government to help him against his political rival. Facing the testimony of an immigrant in uniform who isn’t waiting until he leaves the White House to tell his fact-based, nonpartisan truth, it’s entirely predictable that the first thing Trump did was attack him.
Trump cast Vindman as a “never Trumper,” despite also claiming that he never met the man. It’s directly in line with the idea he’s repeatedly pushed that a “deep state” of entrenched bureaucrats is out to get him. On cue, pundits who defend Trump’s responsiveness to the whims of Vladimir Putin immediately questioned Vindman, who sought refuge in the US as a very young child, along with many other Jews fleeing the Soviet Union. Where do his loyalties lie, they openly asked.
Vindman made that clear on Tuesday. While the whistleblower and the anonymous New York Times op-ed writer are keeping their identities hidden, Vindman — still a White House employee — showed up to testify in person.
He arrived on Capitol Hill in a dress uniform displaying a Purple Heart and declared himself an American patriot in his opening statement. Vindman making the choice to testify about his concerns that Trump was inappropriately pressuring Ukraine and his efforts to fix omissions in the July 25 call transcript that proves the point.
The vile attacks on his patriotism were dismissed even by Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill.
But Trump has a well documented history of either lashing out at or rejecting military men who tried to stand up to him. The main foil of Trump’s time in office has been Sen. John McCain, the POW turned US senator, who often criticized Trump’s foreign policy and who wasn’t afraid to crush Republican hopes of repealing Obamacare with a dramatic thumbs down in the Senate chamber.
Those policy differences drove them apart, but Trump is unique among American politicians for being unafraid to mock another man’s war service, particularly McCain’s. Apparently unashamed of his own Vietnam record, Trump made fun of McCain for being captured and tortured. Trump did it when McCain was vibrant and his opponent, when he was sick, and after he died.
But all of that is ancient history at this point.
But there is something underneath the attack dog mentality Trump turned on Vindman. As with his prior attacks on the “deep state,” he demonstrated his complete disregard for the idea of public service and misunderstanding of the concept of loyalty.
In Trump’s worldview, where he has saved the country from his predecessors and where all victories are his and there are no defeats, there’s no room for loyalty to anyone or anything else.
But in the military, where soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines pledge allegiance to the flag and show up for work regardless of who is President, it’s meant to be the opposite.
Even North’s malfeasance was perpetrated toward the goal, however flawed, of arming Contras. (His conviction was eventually vacated by an appeals court.) The goal of Trump’s pressure on Ukraine is his own political future.
The two worldviews — loyalty to country versus loyalty to Trump — have not worked well in close quarters.
Trump sprinkled his Cabinet with career military officers early in his administration and referred glowingly to “my generals.” But Trump often equates the country with himself. All of “my generals” are now gone.
The most loyal of these and so Trump’s idyllic military man is retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. But he was also the most short-lived in Trump’s administration after he lied to the FBI. Flynn was forced out of his role as national security adviser in February 2017, less than a month into Trump’s term.
The quietest soldier was Flynn’s replacement, H.R. McMaster, who stayed in the White House for more than a year but kept a low profile that hid tensions between him and Trump, who thought the general was condescending, according to CNN’s reporting just before McMaster’s departure in 2018.
Among Trump’s first official acts as President was signing a special dispensation for Marine Gen. James Mattis to become defense secretary, normally a position reserved for civilians. Trump’s tensions with Mattis were more public, particularly with regard to the importance of alliances like NATO and US involvement in Syria and Afghanistan.
Mattis left his position with a bluntly worded resignation letter.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” he wrote. But he’s pointedly declined to openly criticize Trump since, except in a joking way during a recent white-tie comedy roast.
Trump got along better, for a time, with John Kelly, the general who was his first secretary of Homeland Security and then his second chief of staff. But their relationship soured when Kelly tried to impose order in the West Wing.
Kelly said this week, as Trump faces impeachment, that he left office warning Trump he needed clearheaded advice and suggested he shouldn’t surround himself with sycophants.
“I said, whatever you do — and we were still in the process of trying to find someone to take my place — I said whatever you do, don’t hire a ‘yes man,’ someone who won’t tell you the truth — don’t do that,” Kelly said. “Because if you do, I believe you will be impeached.”
Trump denied Kelly ever said any such thing. And White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said, “I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great President.”
Clearly not. But those who are apparently deemed equipped to handle Trump’s genius by virtue of their loyalty have let him walk into an impeachment investigation, just like Kelly said they would.