February 7, 2020
Today Trump began to retaliate against those who testified unflatteringly about his behavior in the Ukraine Scandal. First up was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was dismissed from his post on the National Security Council, where he was an expert on Russia and Ukraine. Vindman was on the infamous July 25 call and alerted the chief lawyer to the NSC, John Eisenberg, to its problematic content immediately afterward. He testified before the House Intelligence Committee under subpoena, telling it that Eisenberg told him not to talk about the call, and that Eisenberg put the transcript of the call onto a high security server, where national security secrets are held. Vindman also told investigators that the readout that Trump provided the public did not contain key parts of the conversation: Trump had explicitly mentioned both Burisma and the Bidens.
Trump also ordered the ouster of Vindman’s twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny (Eugene) Vindman, an Army officer on the NSC staff. Later in the day, he also recalled Gordon Sondland, a hotel chain founder whom Trump had appointed Ambassador to the European Union after Sondland donated a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. Sondland had enthusiastically advanced Trump’s goal of getting Ukraine leaders to announce an investigation into the Bidens from his post at the E.U. (Ukraine is not in the E.U.). But he, too, looped Trump into the scheme in testimony before the House. Trump loyalists apparently asked Sondland to resign as soon as the Senate impeachment trial was over, but Sondland refused, saying they must fire him amid what was clearly a purge of those who had testified. So they did.
These moves are within Trump’s rights. The Vindmans are both Army officers; they are simply being reassigned. And ambassadors serve at the will of the president. But these firings—including of Vindman’s brother, who had nothing to do with congressional testimony—look like the sort of revenge a dictator would take on those willing to question him. While some people close to the White House at first tried to suggest that Alexander Vindman’s firing was part of general cuts at NSC, the fact that he was escorted off the White House grounds proved it was personal. Don Jr, also helpfully tweeted his thanks to Democratic impeachment leader Adam Schiff for making it easier to figure out whom to fire.
Three things strike me about these retaliations. First of all, they are a clear warning to others that crossing Trump will bring retribution. You are loyal to Trump—not to America—or you are in trouble. New York Republican Representative Lee Zeldin tweeted that “Vindman should not be inside the National Security Council any longer. It’s not about retaliation. It’s because he cannot be trusted, he disagrees with the President’s policies, & his term there is coming to an end regardless.” Foreign policy specialist Kate Brannen responded: “Name the policy with which he disagrees.” Vindman was advancing U.S. policies precisely, as was U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, and special envoy William Taylor, who replaced her, and Russia specialist Fiona Hill. It was the president and his people who were pursuing their own private goals. Had Vindman broken his oath to America and looked the other way when Trump broke the law, he and his brother would still be at the NSC.
The purging of all but Trump loyalists from key positions also means that we are losing our experts, especially experts on Russia. We have lost Yovanovitch and Taylor, Hill and now Lt. Col. Vindman, all people with decades of experience in dealing with Russia. They are being replaced on the NSC by people like Kashyap Patel, a former staffer for Devin Nunes (R-CA), who communicated with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and insisted that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that attacked us in 2016. This is a lie, remember; it’s Russian propaganda, denied by our intelligence services and the Republican Senate’s own investigation.
Even more troubling to me is the immediate effort to assassinate Vindman’s character. His words to his father, an immigrant from the USSR, telling him not to worry about his son’s testimony against the president because in America it is fine to tell the truth, played very well to viewers. “This is America,” Vindman told his father. “Here, right matters.” Retaliating against him, especially when he was due to leave the NSC soon anyway, was petty, at best, and it will disgust reasonable Americans. Trump is desperate to win reelection (not least because the Department of Justice currently maintains that a sitting president cannot be indicted). So, immediately, Trump surrogates began to flood the media with attacks on Vindman. Trollbots stated tweeting about “Alexander Vindman” and their vile commentary started trending on Twitter.
This instant assault on Vindman encapsulates the Republican plan to stay in power: flood voters with disinformation. Vindman is a decorated soldier who got an impressive education, has dedicated his life to this country, has been wounded in its service, and testified in response to a congressional subpoena… all things we should honor. But by flooding media with other information-- he was about to leave anyway; he was disloyal; the NSC was downsizing—they can shift the narrative around the president’s behavior, turning what is pettiness at best into something fuzzy enough that it’s hard for a voter who is not paying extremely close attention to make a clear judgment about it.
This, we know, is exactly what the Trump campaign and Russian operatives did in the 2016 election. They flooded social media, especially, with subtle information that shifted people’s understanding of the candidates and blurred the narrative.
Because media outlets, Facebook especially, has collected so much personal information on each of us, they could help the Trump campaign “micro-target” voters. People often make the mistake of thinking that advertising to us is the product that the media sells, but it’s actually the opposite. WE are the product. By learning how we behave, an entity like Facebook or the Fox News Channel or CBS (which pioneered the system back in the 1930s) can divide us into packages that they can sell to an advertiser with certainty that a certain number of us will buy a certain product. It worked thirty years ago for canned soup and appliances. Today’s algorithms are far more sophisticated—remember all those games to see which dog you are most like and which is your favorite Beatle?-- and now that same system is being used for political advertising. Then operatives and bots amplify the message until we are all overwhelmed, and arguing with each other whether or not it’s really true that a candidate was a deadbeat dad, or yelled at an employee. The narrative blurs, and we stop caring.
Control the narrative and you control the nation.
The most effective disinformation is that which makes us believe that no one is telling the truth and that nothing matters. But it does. In America, right now, we are being asked to choose between two versions of government. On the one hand we have those who think that a few, wealthy, well-connected individuals—mostly white men—should govern the rest of us, and that their wisdom and abilities are so strong that challenging them means you are unAmerican. On the other hand, we have those who believe that we should all be equal before the law, and that society moves forward most efficiently when we all have a voice in hashing out national policies based on fact-based argument and adherence to democratic principles.
When disinformation starts to make the candidates and their policies blur, keep Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s distinction in mind: “This is America. Here, right matters.”
Brannen and Zeldin: