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Seeking Accountability for Witness Intimidation and Obstruction of Justice

Overview

In an effort to deter him from testifying before Congress during impeachment proceedings, and then to punish him for doing so, allies of former President Donald Trump and members of his White House staff waged a coordinated campaign of unlawful intimidation and retaliation against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (ret.), then a Director of the National Security Council (NSC). Lt. Col. Vindman’s fidelity to his oath of office, and the rule of law, were attacked in a manner calculated to prevent him from performing his official duties and testifying as a witness in a constitutional proceeding, and to silence others who might report wrongdoing.

Lt. Col. Vindman dedicated his professional life to serving our country. After serving multiple tours abroad, and being wounded in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was assigned to the NSC. In July 2019, as part of his duties as the Director for Eastern European, Caucasus, and Russian Affairs at the NSC, Lt. Col. Vindman listened to a phone call during which President Trump attempted to coerce the President of Ukraine to publicly undertake an investigation into then-former Vice President (now President) Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter, in exchange for the release of critical security assistance funds. Lt. Col. Vindman was concerned that the demand was both potentially illegal, and put our national security at risk, and reported those concerns through private, official channels. He was later twice subpoenaed by Congress to provide sworn testimony. 

As a result, Lt. Col. Vindman became the target of an unlawful conspiracy by President Trump and his close aides and allies, including key figures in the media, to intimidate and retaliate against him for his testimony by falsely portraying him as disloyal to the United States and ruining his career in the military. Neither the former president nor his conspirators have been held accountable for their blatant attempts to obstruct the impeachment proceedings. 

As far back as Reconstruction, Congress recognized that conspiracies to prevent federal officials from performing their duties, and witnesses from testifying, threaten the very ability of our democracy to function. That is why the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 made it unlawful to engage in such conspiracies.  

Lt. Col. Vindman has filed a lawsuit in federal court under this statute, alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(1) and (2), which prohibit conspiracies to prevent someone from holding or discharging the duties of federal office, or to retaliate against them for doing so, as well as conspiracies to deter witnesses from testifying or to retaliate against them for doing so.

Read Lt. Col. Vindman’s complaint here.

Alexander Vindman: Why I’m seeking accountability from Trump allies in court

Public servants who do their duty, tell the truth and uphold their oaths of office shouldn’t be subjected to intimidation and retaliation.

In July 2019, my life took a dramatic and unexpected turn when I listened to a phone call during which the president of the United States made inappropriate and possibly unlawful demands of a foreign leader. I did my duty by reporting my concerns within the National Security Council, where I served as a director. When later subpoenaed by Congress, I testified truthfully about what I heard. As a result, my career and personal life were forever turned upside down.

No regrets for telling the truth

I don’t regret telling the truth either in private or during the public impeachment hearings. I did what I was trained and obligated to do as a longtime member of the U.S. Army and a federal official. But I wish it hadn’t ended my career and upended my life. I especially wish that it hadn’t taken such a toll on my family. Public servants who do their duty, tell the truth and uphold their oaths of office shouldn’t be subjected to intimidation and retaliation. I’ve been disheartened to see so little accountability for what I experienced and other abuses of power that took place during that time. I worry about what that means for future whistleblowers, regardless of issue or party, who also want to do the right thing.

That’s why I filed a lawsuit Wednesday against several of the close associates and allies of former President Trump who participated in a concerted effort to falsely attack my loyalty to the United States and punish me for testifying, including by abruptly removing me and my twin brother from the White House and temporarily blocking my promotion within the Army. I’m suing Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son; Rudy Giuliani, the president’s former personal attorney; Julia Hahn, former special assistant to the president; and Daniel Scavino Jr., a Trump communications official, for intimidation and retaliation. I wish I had done so sooner, both for my sake and for the other public servants who have been similarly tested.

Sharp-elbowed politics is not against the law, nor should it be. It has always been fair game to criticize public figures. But what happened to me was something different. I was attacked in a way calculated to inflict maximum personal and professional damage likely in order to prevent me from testifying or to punish me for doing so. In this country, that violates the law.

We can’t have a functional government or healthy democracy if witnesses can’t testify, and if federal officials can’t do their jobs, without fear of payback. Congress recognized this in 1871 when it passed a federal law intended to prohibit conspiracies to intimidate and retaliate against witnesses and federal officials carrying out their duties. Indeed, our democracy frays each time a president and his enablers are allowed to consider themselves above the law and immune from accountability.

My lawsuit isn’t meant to relitigate Trump’s conduct with respect to Ukraine or the merits of his impeachment. But the impeachment process is the primary tool our Constitution provides for holding our chief executive accountable outside of elections, and Trump tried to obstruct that process. While the impeachment proceedings are over and done with, the broader harm to our democracy has not been redressed, and the lasting threat to other government officials who want to do the right thing remains today.

Taking a stand again for what is right

I filed this lawsuit because I believe in the active role all citizens must play in upholding our democracy. I came to the United States as a child when my family fled autocratic oppression in the Soviet Union. I know democracy is fragile, and I’ve committed more than two decades of my professional life to its defense. America aspires to be a country governed by the rule of law – where the law applies equally to everyone and protects everyone, from the most powerful to the least. My case is a test of that proposition. I know the hill I’m about to climb might be steep, but I think it’s worthwhile.

Only now are we starting to gain a fuller picture of some of the abuses that occurred during the Trump administration. And only now are we starting to see the beginnings of a serious effort at accountability. Yet Trump and his allies continue to resist these efforts, having been emboldened by years without consequences. So I’ve decided again to take a stand on behalf of what is right. Failing to do so might invite more abuses of power and a deeper slide into authoritarianism.

As witnesses subpoenaed by the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection refuse to cooperate, some intimidated into silence, the need for accountability grows more urgent every day. I hope this lawsuit will shed more light on the abuses that are chipping away at our democracy, and eventually bring a measure of justice to those who are responsible. That’s why I’m trusting our legal system – and depending on it – to bring this accountability to bear and help restore some faith in our democratic institutions.

Published Feb. 2, 2022. This op-ed originally appears in USA Today.

Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is the former director of European Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council, a senior adviser to VoteVets and author of “Here, Right Matters.”

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