A lot of rhetoric is being thrown around, both in print media and on TV, about Lt. Col. Alex Vindman’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee about President Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine. He has been lauded by Democrats and the press (excuse the redundancy), and most of the commentary and reporting ignores any analysis of his allegations about the call.
In Vindman’s testimony, I see more appeals to emotion than to analysis and reason. For example, he talks about how he served in combat as an infantryman, holds a Purple Heart for wounds, and was an immigrant as a child. I therefore venture this analysis of his prepared statement and whether Vindman “has done nothing more or less than his duty,” as some have suggested, as well as the significance of his highly touted “personal knowledge” of that call.
Because committee Chairman Adam Schiff has kept Vindman’s oral testimony secret, I focus on Vindman’s prepared statement, which is public. I will also address only his testimony about the July 25 call between President Trump and Ukraine President Zelensky.
All About Vindman’s Opinions, Not the Facts
First, as discussed below, Vindman’s testimony about the July 25 call between the two presidents does not add any new facts. So, what does he say? He offers his opinions about the wisdom of the call. That’s it. His testimony about the substance of that call consists of five sentences at the end of his prepared testimony. Those five sentences basically comprise two opinions.
Here is what he said: “I was concerned by the call.  I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.  I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security. Following the call, I again reported my concerns to NSC’s lead counsel.”
The two portions preceded by my bracketed numbers are Vindman’s opinions. Let’s analyze what he said. It is important to remember that he was not speaking off-the-cuff or just responding to questions. This was a carefully prepared opening statement that had been closely vetted by lawyers and others.
Regarding his first opinion, he says, “I did not think it was proper…” That is pure opinion, not fact. Moreover, if it is improper to ask a foreign government to investigate a U.S. citizen, that would no doubt come as a big surprise to many in government.
Vindman’s statement is, in short, an unfounded and unsupported opinion. And the notion that the president could not properly ask a foreign country to investigate a U.S. citizen who may have engaged in illegal activity is nonsense; Joe Biden does not get a pass from investigation just because he is candidate for the nomination of his party.
There is nothing improper or illegal about an investigation into potentially illegal actions, much less anything that rises to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor. The notion that it does is so much tommyrot.
So, absent personal knowledge of a high crime or misdemeanor, Vindman’s first personal opinion is immaterial. I think most voters not swirling around in the vortex of Trump hatred care more about the opinions of the president and the secretary of State than those of a mid-level officer, at least on this topic.
Vindman’s second opinion is that if Ukraine investigated the Bidens as President Trump suggested, it would lose the support of Democrats in Congress. That may well be, but in addition to being a personal opinion, it is a pure political concern. It is properly the concern of the presidents of the United States and of Ukraine.
If he disagrees with the president’s approach and harbors a fear that Ukraine will lose Democrat votes if it investigates the Bidens, Vindman’s proper role is to give his best advice and then shut up. His proper role is not to volunteer to go before a congressional committee and complain about why he disagrees with the president.
It’s Not This Guy’s Duty to Second-Guess the President
So, with the understanding that Vindeman’s relevant statements were opinion, not fact, was he merely doing his duty as his officer’s oath demands? Many have relied on the argument that he is not an anti-Trump activist because he was subpoenaed and therefore had no choice but to testify. Thus, his supporters have argued that he did not decide to become involved but was merely a pawn in the political theater, just a honorable soldier doing his duty.
That would be a better argument if Vindman had been subpoenaed involuntarily and then had to give honest answers to factual questions. But that is not what happened. He said he was “appearing today voluntarily pursuant to a subpoena.” Appearing “voluntarily pursuant to a subpoena” is what people do when they are trying to cover their rear end. That is a statement by someone who is willing or affirmatively wants to testify but thinks he needs a subpoena commanding his presence to be able to claim that he had to testify.
Lawyers deal with that every day. The “just doing his duty” argument also is flawed because even if his duty required him to testify about facts (itself a debatable proposition) it did not require him to offer his personal opinions critiquing his commander-in-chief.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, being subpoenaed does not obligate any witness to make an opening statement. That is something they do if they want to. Vindman wanted to; it was a purely voluntary act. That desire to offer his personal opinions to impeach the president’s decisions does indeed support the argument that this officer is an active member of the “resistance.”
We All Have the Same Firsthand Knowledge Now
Second, many have touted Vindman’s “firsthand knowledge” of what was said on the July 25 call, in order to distinguish that “firsthand knowledge” from the allegations by the “whistleblower,” whose “second- or third-hand knowledge” was the catalyst for the present impeachment circus. The anti-Trump media initially ran with that story line and others have fallen into the same trap.
It is correct that Vindman has “firsthand knowledge” of the call. However, his personal knowledge of that call is not important. Why not? Because the president released the transcript and we know what was said.
In fact, Vindman’s prepared statement indicates he believes that the released transcript is accurate. He said: “As the transcript is in the public record, we are all aware of what was said.” If Vindman had contended that the transcript was not accurate, then his recollection might be material. But that is not what he claimed.
Although some left-leaning media outlets now claim the transcript has omissions and is not accurate, Vindman did not make that claim or dispute the accuracy of the transcript. If he later changes course and claims, contrary to his prepared statement, that the transcript is not accurate, then such a shift would raise obvious credibility issues. But that discussion is for another day, if it happens.
I will close with one final observation: Vindman’s public volunteering of his personal opinions contrary to those of his commander-in-chief violates the fundamental rule that military officers should be publicly apolitical, in order to keep the armed forces out of political disputes. I respectfully submit that honoring that fundamental separation is more in line with an officer’s duty than what Vindman did in this case.
The fact that he elected to testify in uniform, thus attempting to add the imprimatur of the U.S. military to boost his credibility, makes it worse.