by Alexander S. Vindman (Harper, 256 pp., $26.99)
If Alexander Vindman is not yet quite a household name, he should be. Vindman, of course, is the National Security Council (NSC) aide who sat in on President Donald Trump’s infamous “perfect” call in 2019 with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, and then reported it to his superiors, setting in motion a chain of events that eventually led to Trump’s first impeachment. In his new memoir, Here, Right Matters: An American Story, Vindman has an extraordinary story to tell, and he tells it exceedingly well.
Vindman arrived in the United States from Soviet Ukraine as an infant with his father, who came with nothing but a few hundred dollars and three children in tow. Growing up in Brooklyn, Vindman was a desultory student. In college, he enrolled in ROTC, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and took a commission in the U.S. Army upon graduation. As an officer his leadership talents emerged: After service in South Korea at the Demilitarized Zone, Vindman was sent to Iraq, where he was wounded by a roadside bomb and earned a Purple Heart.
Leadership and language skills earned Vindman a slot as a defense attaché in Moscow, followed by a stint at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he was the senior area specialist for Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucuses. In 2018, he was selected to serve on the NSC as a Russia-Ukraine expert.
At the NSC, by his own telling, Vindman was focused on his portfolio almost to the exclusion of all else. He was thus slow to grasp that a conspiracy was afoot involving Rudolph Giuliani (acting as Trump’s personal lawyer), Gordon Sondland (the hotelier-turned-ambassador to the European Union), White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and a cast of motley characters including President Trump himself. But he found himself confronting one puzzling development after the next, including the mysterious dismissal of the esteemed U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and—most troubling of all—the inexplicable hold placed on U.S. military assistance to Ukraine.
Vindman naively hoped that an Oval Office briefing could set Trump straight about the “realities of the situation” and would “dispel the destructive fantasies being spun by Giuliani and others.” Wisely gauging that a scandal was brewing, Vindman’s superiors—including National Security Advisor John Bolton—scotched such a meeting. It was only Trump’s blatant attempt to leverage military assistance for his own re-election campaign, in the notorious telephone call of July 25, 2019, that made everything clear.
Vindman reported what he had heard during that phone call to the NSC ethics official, who just happened to be his identical twin brother, Eugene. His complaint went up the chain to John Eisenberg, the senior attorney at the NSC, but a cover-up commenced, which Vindman recounts in riveting detail, naming names along the way.
Eisenberg, in Vindman’s account, was “all about saving his own skin.” To act on Vindman’s report would have put him at odds with Trump. Eisenberg summoned his deputy, Michael Ellis. In front of Vindman, the two of them began discussing how to store the transcript of the presidential conversation on a server normally reserved for ultra-sensitive classified information, where it would essentially be buried. The server, Vindman notes, was “explicitly not to be used for concealing violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error, or preventing embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency.” Eisenberg instructed Vindman not to discuss with anyone else what the President had said on the call.
As for Vindman’s direct superior, Tim Morrison—today a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute—he also had directly listened to the presidential call and was quick to dismiss its significance with a smirk. Vindman’s judgment: Morrison “is a purely political animal, transactional and defensive…. He would shut down anything he saw as rocking his own boat.”
And then came blowback. “This may seem strange in retrospect,” writes Vindman,
[but] I was by no means living in anticipation of some retaliation against me personally for having reported through the proper channels what the president said on that call. I’d reported what I knew and then gotten back to work. I believed there was a process. I believed that the process would work to rectify the situation.
Here was his naiveté at work again. On August 12, 2019, an unnamed CIA whistleblower filed a complaint against President Trump based upon what he had learned about the call. As word of the conversation’s substance reached Congress and the public, the pressure in the NSC ratcheted up. Vindman found himself frozen out of overseas visits; excluded from important telephone calls; subjected to a whispering campaign; accused of being a chronic leaker with poor judgment; removed from the White House; and, ultimately, effectively drummed out of military service.
The sociology of this retaliatory effort against Vindman holds a lesson for understanding the Trump administration, and not only the Trump administration. The officials denigrating Vindman were not loyal Trumpists; they were just unprincipled operators and saw Vindman, as he writes bitingly, “as a political obstacle to the smooth progress of their own careers.”
In the most affecting portion of his memoir, Vindman recounts his fierce quarrel with his own father about whether to testify before Congress. His father, a Trump supporter, had embraced the anti-liberal prejudices common to the Soviet émigré community. But his father had another concern, which led him to oppose his son’s testifying at all costs:
My father had lived in this country for forty years, yet there was no doubt in his mind that, when push came to shove, the highest levels of the U.S. government were bound to resemble the Soviet system he’d fled—that even here, any challenge to authority, and divergence from quid pro quo and backroom corruption, would be met only by reprisal, character assassination, the end of a career, and maybe even worse. Despite his success in it, he’d abandoned the Soviet system, leaving everything behind, not for financial advantage but because America is supposed to be fundamentally different. But he didn’t trust that difference to hold up in a crisis.
In his congressional testimony, Vindman directly addressed his father, offering his story as “proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family.” He went on to say that he was not afraid to tell the truth, despite the risks, because “here, right matters.” These electric words became the title of Vindman’s memoir.
Will right continue to matter in America? To keep it so is the great struggle in which we are engaged, and to which Alexander Vindman has made a singular contribution, memorialized in a highly readable book.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
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