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Alexander Vindman, Key Witness To Trump Impeachment, Shares His 'American Story'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross.

You might remember our guest, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, from the 2019 impeachment hearings involving then-President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine. Vindman was on the staff of the National Security Council when he listened to the president's now-famous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. After hearing it, Vindman reported to officials in the Security Council his concern about Trump seeking an investigation of Joe Biden's son from the Ukrainian president after Zelenskyy had asked for promised U.S. military assistance. That landed Vindman in the middle of the impeachment inquiry and in front of Congress, where he testified twice - once behind closed doors and once publicly.

Vindman has family roots in Ukraine. When he was just 3 years old, his father brought him and his two brothers to the United States from the Soviet Union. All three sons would pursue military careers. When Vindman testified before Congress, he referred to his history and to his father in his opening statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER VINDMAN: I also recognize that my simple act of appearing here today, just like the courage of my colleagues who have also truthfully testified before this committee, would not be tolerated in many places around the world. In Russia, my act of expressing concern to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions, and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life. I'm grateful to my father for my father's brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for mine and my family's safety.

Dad, I'm sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol. Talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 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. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.

DAVIES: That's Alexander Vindman in his testimony before Congress. Vindman wasn't exactly fine after he told the truth. After Trump was acquitted in the Senate, Vindman was fired from the National Security Council and his promised promotion to full colonel was effectively blocked, leading to his retirement from the Army. Alexander Vindman has written a new memoir. It's called "Here, Right Matters: An American Story." Alexander Vindman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

VINDMAN: Thank you, Dave. I'm so looking forward to this conversation.

DAVIES: You know, it was interesting that you addressed your dad in your opening testimony. You said you'll be OK for telling the truth. What did your father think of your reporting what you saw and heard and telling your story to Congress?

VINDMAN: I recognized early on what my dad's fears were. They were fears over what would happen to me personally, what could happen to the family. Those fears were rooted in 47 years of living under the Soviet regime. And those fears went everything from the end of a career to potentially the loss of life. So I think when my dad counseled me not to go up against the president of the United States, he was channeling that.

There were some thoughts about whether, you know, it was because he was a Trump supporter. Yes, earlier on, when he didn't really understand the full implications of what Trump had done, as a Trump supporter, he may have had some thoughts about, like, well, this couldn't be. This can't be right. But certainly, as he learned the facts, it was - those weren't his fears. His fears were going up against power, going up against the most powerful man in the world. And that's where his counsel was coming from, a place of love and concern for his children.

DAVIES: You know, we'll talk in a bit about what happened once you testified publicly and how Trump's supporters attacked you. As those attacks mounted, did it change your father's thinking at all?

VINDMAN: You know, when I first spoke to him in those closing days of September and all there was was a whistleblower complaint, he couldn't really quite understand, you know, what the president had done wrong. And I wasn't at liberty to really go into details because documents were still classified. Most of this was not in the public sphere. But as soon as facts began to come to light, including the president's corruption and undermining the very foundation of our democracy, which is free and fair elections and ultimately the peaceful transfer of power, my dad recognized, you know, what he was seeing. He could easily detect the hallmarks of authoritarianism. And frankly, he took a more critical eye. He stopped listening to Fox News. He started listening to other news media sources. And it was almost like a light was shined on this matter. And my dad was a microcosm, I think, of a subset of American - the population that really took a keen interest in the impeachment and understood how corrupt it was.

DAVIES: So you were the National Security Council director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Russia, which meant that you were intimately involved with implementing U.S. policy on Ukraine. Before we talk about the phone call, just give us the context in a nutshell. What was going on with Ukraine policy at the time which caused such concern to you?

VINDMAN: Sure. So preceding the July 25 phone call, there were months and months of what I would like to - what I refer to as stray voltage into policy. So these are non-governmental actors, the president's personal representatives, drawing Ukraine into domestic politics. That first came to the public's attention with the removal of Ambassador Yovanovitch, and ultimately, it became - and I was working these issues on a day-to-day basis. But there was a hold on security assistance. I monitored this all the way through, recognizing increasingly closer links to the president.

DAVIES: Just to clarify that one point, this security assistance - this is money for defensive weapons that were approved by Congress that the White House mysteriously had placed on hold, right?

VINDMAN: These are appropriated funds that the executive branch was legally obligated to spend in the way they were directed.

DAVIES: Let's talk about the phone call. Just describe the setting - where you were when you heard the call, who else was there.

VINDMAN: Sure. So it's a room that I had been in, you know, dozens of times at that point. I was on staff for a year. I'd held countless meetings and participated in countless meetings in that room. It's a, you know, room in the basement of the West Wing. There were half a dozen officials or so in the room and then some parties that were on other lines. The president took it from his residence, like he did most things that early in the morning. And it turns out that, you know, Secretary Pompeo was online. John Bolton was not on the line. I think he was savvy enough to (laughter) not be on that phone call, even though he made it a point to participate in general.

DAVIES: Right. He's the national security adviser at the time. Now, you had prepared talking points for the president for this because of your role. What can you tell us about them?

VINDMAN: Sure. So one of the responsibilities of the director is to set up these phone calls and prepare the president of the United States to execute these phone calls. This was a relatively perfunctory congratulatory call. The president had executed a similar phone call just months before when President Zelenskyy won his election. And the gist of it was to congratulate President Zelenskyy on his new political party, the Servant of the People party, winning a unprecedented majority in the Ukrainian parliament, called the Rada, and in addition to that, you know, reinforce the fact that we expect progress on reforms, anti-corruption agenda, and we look forward to cooperating in certain areas. And that was really the crux of what the phone call should have been.

DAVIES: So you listen to the president. And you noticed right away something about his kind of tone and mood. What was it?

VINDMAN: Yeah, absolutely. In the first phone call I had listened to, he was ebullient. He likes winners. He likes to be surrounded by winners. He was congratulatory, as you would imagine. And he was, you know, in good spirits. And this was 180 degrees opposite. He was reluctant. He was monotone. He was low energy. And you could tell that this was not going to be the typical kind of congratulatory phone call where you're offering encouragement to the person that you're speaking to. And that was even before, you know, anything substantive transpired in the phone call.

DAVIES: So you have the president on there. He sounds kind of low energy, a little grumpy, I gather, from your description. President Zelenskyy is a former comedian. And it's interesting because others are relying on the translation. You are fluent in Ukrainian. What did - what was your sense of what Zelenskyy was trying to do in this call?

VINDMAN: Well, so Zelenskyy was being charismatic, engaging, complimentary, the way you would imagine a comedian looking to engage with kind of an audience and looking for different inroads to bring the president around. The whole idea for Zelenskyy was to try to get a meeting at the White House. And he was also clearly prepared for that phone call. Some of the things that he said, including offering up the word Burisma, indicated that there was some coordination behind the scenes and that he knew what he had to deliver for the president. And...

DAVIES: That's the company that Hunter Biden had been on the board of before - right? - the gas company.

VINDMAN: That's correct. And I think, you know, Zelenskyy - he was criticized for it. He'll probably get additional criticism. But frankly, he did what he needed to do to protect his country that was facing, really, existential crisis, continues to face an existential crisis with regard to Russia and Russian aggression. And he was doing it in the most high - what I consider to be kind of a high-minded manner. If there is something to this matter, the Ukrainians would investigate it. They would do it transparently. They would do it honestly, you know, transfer to us what we have. So there's a proper process for this that he was trying to fall back on, but the president, you know, had no idea what the process was. And all he was doing is putting the squeeze on - you know, in response to Zelenskyy's ask for additional Javelins, anti-tank systems required to resist a future Russian attack, that's when the president came in with, I need you to do us a favor, though. So the whole thing was geared towards squeezing out a demand for an investigation.

DAVIES: And so what was your immediate reaction when you heard this, I need you to do us a favor?

VINDMAN: I just continued to take notes. I mean, I don't think I necessarily did it for posterity. I always take a large number of notes. But maybe I - there was in the back of my mind to make sure everything is accurate, make sure I have a good kind of record of what was said. And listen through the rest of the phone call, we kind of mulled over the press release that had drafted ahead of time that had to be completely revised because most of the issues were not addressed. And then I just went straight to the proper officials at the National Security Council, the senior legal officials, assistants to the president, the highest-ranked officers in the White House and reported to them what I had heard.

DAVIES: I mean, you wanted to report this, and you first went to the chief ethics officer for the National Security Council. And that was whom?

VINDMAN: Well, the chief ethics officer was my twin brother, which, you know, how wonderful is it to work in the same building and the same offices as your twin brother. But we have conversations on a daily basis. Multiple times a day, we commuted in and out. And I wanted him to be aware of this as I took it, you know, to his leadership so that I had a witness, somebody else that was there to corroborate my report.

DAVIES: So the two of you went together, these two identical twins, to John Eisenberg, who was the senior attorney for the National Security Council, right?

VINDMAN: Right. And John Eisenberg was fairly well filled in on what was going on based on my previous concerns. And my intent was simply to get him to counsel the president, who he interacted with on a regular basis, that this was illegal, that this would smack of corruption and to get the president, like he had - like had happened so many times in the administration, to reverse course on an ill-advised tweet or pronouncement. He would change his mind constantly, which is not really well known. Publicly, he refuses to change his position, but behind the scenes, he'll change his mind depending on the way the wind blew. And that's kind of what I had going in my mind, that, you know, we could get the president to reverse course on this and get what had been the entirety of the interagency - the entirety of the U.S. government the consensus to have a strong relationship with Ukraine back on track.

DAVIES: All right. Well, we'll see where that takes you as we continue. We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Alexander Vindman. He's a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. His new book about his experiences in the 2019 impeachment case is "Here, Right Matters: An American Story." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Alexander Vindman. He's a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. You may remember him from the 2019 impeachment hearings involving matters with Ukraine. His new memoir about the experience is called "Here, Right Matters: An American Story."

Let's talk a bit about your background. You were born in Ukraine, then in the Soviet Union, to a Jewish family. Just tell us a little bit about your family history, particularly your grandparents.

VINDMAN: Sure. So I was born in 1975. My father's generation lived through World War II. His father perished in the war. So did my mother's father - my biological mother's father. She passed away when I was about 3 years old or so. So - and our roots in Ukraine go back decades and decades, at least to the middle of the 19th century.

DAVIES: Back in the Soviet Union, what did your father do? He had a successful career, didn't he?

VINDMAN: He did have a very successful career. He was a civil engineer responsible for some of the largest projects in the capital city, Kyiv - stadiums, massive housing complexes, roads, tunnels and dams, all sorts of stuff. And he was one of the seniormost officials in the kind of the engineering bureau, a member of the Communist Party, for his - most of his adult life, until he broke with the party.

DAVIES: This was the time when there were opportunities for Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Your dad, despite his success and privilege in the Soviet society, decided to do it. Do you have a feeling for why?

VINDMAN: I certainly do. I mean, one of - a key driver would've been the fact that my mother was dying of cancer and my father had, you know, not too long before that heard about the treatment for this particular kind of cancer in the United States. And then more importantly is his disillusionment with the communist system, its corruption and the fact that there was a high degree of anti-Semitism that was institutionalized and that we would not have the same kind of opportunity that he had. And all of these things came together to get him to start something completely different.

DAVIES: You describe serving in Korea and building your skills as a leader, learning in training exercises and war games how to think creatively with your battlefield assets and growing as a commander. Then the Iraq invasion happens. You are deployed to Iraq and were there at Fallujah when you were injured. You went on and studied a lot more military tactics.

The chapter that includes your combat experience is titled "The Moral Compass." And you say essentially that the courage that you had years later in 2019 to stand up and do the right thing in the National Security Council when it wasn't easy and it certainly involved risk - that you got some of that from your experience in battle, that sense of right and wrong, the moral compass. Help us understand that. What's the connection here?

VINDMAN: So I think there's a clear recognition about how high the stakes are. I mean, our country has been at war for two decades, and many people sacrificed their lives for this country. I mean, I'm not even getting into the political aspect of it. Whether it was right or wrong, people died serving this nation. And that is the ultimate sacrifice. There's obviously a beautiful quote, by the last measure of devotion, from Lincoln's speech. And I - you know, that's just such an amazing line that resonates with me, probably resonates with a lot of service members, people that have served in combat.

It seemed like a small, small price to pay to continue to do your duty when you're not in a combat zone, when the stakes, in certain regards, are much lower from the personal level. You know, I was not going to get killed. My risks were to my career, maybe my livelihood, maybe, you know, some harassment and things of that nature. But in the big scheme of things, I thought it was a small price to pay. And, you know, how far are you willing to go to defend your nation? I served 20 years in uniform. I was not going to let myself bend and be weak-kneed on this occasion when I saw our democracy under threat.

DAVIES: So after the July 25 phone call, when you were so disturbed at what you saw and you and your brother Eugene, who was the ethics officer for the National Security Council, went to John Eisenberg, the senior attorney for the National Security Council, with something that certainly seemed like explosive information, how did he handle it?

VINDMAN: Well, John is a pretty savvy individual, cautious and basically took down my report, asked a few questions on whether I thought, you know, this was criminal behavior. I said I didn't have the kind of the training to determine that, but I was deeply concerned by it. And frankly, we left it there for some time. He would periodically check on me, kind of, like, managing, making sure I didn't go off the reservation. But that's where things stayed or seemed to stay for me, minus the couple of folks I had to engage with just to make sure that they were tracking the substance of the phone call, the same thing that any director would do for any normal phone call to kind of read folks in on the relevant points, kind of not all the details, but the relevant points. And days later, I was told not to talk to anybody else about it - about this phone call.

DAVIES: Yeah. What did that tell you?

VINDMAN: It told me that - well, it was more than just don't talk to anybody else. It was - I - we received an inquiry from the inspector general from the CIA about this matter. Somebody expressed some concerns about it. And then the IG, the CIA IG, went back to John Eisenberg. A little bit of a flaw that, you know, that a IG from a department innate - or agency took a concern about the White House back to the White House. So that didn't - in hindsight, that didn't help me as, you know, a potential whistleblower because now I was going to be scrutinized even more carefully. But I knew that, you know, there was an awareness - there seemed to be an awareness about my participation and how that resulted in kind of a fact that they would hope would not become, you know - not public, but would be held in a very, very close circle, in an ever-increasing circle of folks that understood that there was a corrupt phone call, and they were looking to minimize that.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Alexander Vindman. He's a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. His memoir about his experience in the events that led to President Trump's first impeachment is called "Here, Right Matters: An American Story." We'll talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "ISN'T THIS MY SOUND AROUND ME")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Alexander Vindman, who retired from the U.S. Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2020 following his experience in the events that led to President Trump's first impeachment. He reported his concerns about Trump's July 2019 phone call with the president of Ukraine to his superiors in the National Security Council and later testified before Congress in impeachment hearings. His new memoir is called "Here, Right Matters: An American Story."

You know, you write in the book that when you heard what the president said on that phone call, you said - I guess to your brother - if this becomes public, the president is going to be impeached. But at the time, you didn't think it would and didn't necessarily hope that it would, right? What did you hope would happen?

VINDMAN: Well, I was hoping that the process would work out. I mean, the process is - there is no real clear process to address corruption or wrongdoing. If I were in the Department of Defense, I would be able to go to the chain of command or to the inspector general, and then there would be an investigation. There is no inspector general in the White House. There is a legal shop (ph) that was established for somewhat of a similar function after Iran-Contra and the Tower report said that there needed to be some oversight and some, you know, legal reviews of actions to prevent kind of Oliver North-type, you know, cowboy behavior. But that didn't work properly in this case. I didn't really recognize it at the time. I thought - like I said earlier, I thought that it would be sufficient to report it and let this - the counsel from the counselors guide the president back to what they're doing, what was the right policy.

DAVIES: The council meaning - the National Security Council, you mean?

VINDMAN: Right.

DAVIES: So you knew this testimony was coming. And what's interesting was that your name was not public. I mean, people in the know knew you were. And you would be, I believe, the first person to give Congress a firsthand account of the phone call, right? Nobody - there was the transcript. But you were the one who had actually heard it, so this was pretty interesting stuff. You were first going to testify behind closed doors, but I guess the procedure was that your opening statement would be released after you testified. And your lawyers - you had gotten some legal help - decided to leak it ahead of time to The New York Times. What was the idea there?

VINDMAN: Well, I think there was a very cold calculation about not having my voice corrupted by either side, certainly not having kind of - if this were to remain behind closed doors - if you recall, there were, you know, congressmen coming out and saying, this is what was said - to not have my - not have somebody else speak on my behalf but for my statement to speak for itself.

DAVIES: It would have just been competing spin from people who had an agenda, rather than your own words. There's this fascinating moment in the book where it's an evening, and The New York Times has the story up with your statement in it. And you were busy going to your daughter's Girl Scout Halloween party when this - tell us about that evening.

VINDMAN: Our phones blew up, and turned out that every single - basically, every single major news outlet had picked up the story. And, you know, I guess we quickly uncovered that the White House had already marshalled its forces very quickly and sent out talking points, and they were picked up by the news media. Laura Ingraham was on there questioning my loyalties, my motivation and all sorts of other stuff.

DAVIES: You know, let's just take a moment about the attacks by Fox News and others. I mean, one line of attack was - he's from the Ukraine. He has a tie. His loyalty is in question. They also brought up the fact that when you were sent to, I believe, it was the new President Zelenskyy's inauguration. And you had some conversations with him, and one of the things you advised him was, you know, be careful about getting involved in American domestic politics. This all comes up on Fox News.

I'm going to take the liberty of playing - because - something from "The Daily Show." Trevor Noah - there were - a lot of the evening late-night TV hosts were talking about you. And what we'll hear is a piece here where Trevor Noah talks about the fact that your question - credibility was questioned. Then we'll hear from some Fox News personalities, including Laura Ingraham. And then he comes back. Let's just listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

TREVOR NOAH: So if you're a Trump defender, how are you going to argue that this guy is untrustworthy? Oh, instead of focusing on the more-than-two decades he served America, you could focus on where he's really from.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He is from the Soviet Union. He emigrated here and has an affinity to the Ukrainian people.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president's interest. Isn't that kind of an interesting angle on this story?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I find that astounding. And, you know, some people might call that espionage.

NOAH: No, your eyes aren't deceiving you. The new angle on Fox is that America can't trust this Purple Heart recipient because he moved here from Ukraine. Now, mind you, he was 3 years old when he came to the U.S.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: So he didn't move here; he was moved here by his parents, right? Because now they're making it seem like he was, like, a double agent for Ukraine. Like, what kind of baby spy-thriller were you guys watching, huh? This little toddler was just out in these streets? Is that what you think?

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

NOAH: You think a 3-year-old is a Russian spy? You think his plan in Russia and, like, all in Ukraine, he was like, I will join U.S. military, earn trust, and then when time is right, I will make up story about quid pro quo for mother Russia?

DAVIES: That's Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show" talking about our guest, Alexander Vindman. I mean, it's funny stuff. This was not fun - was it? - at the time.

VINDMAN: Well, I'll tell you, I'm - you know, if Trevor is listening to this thing, thank you, because my 8-year-old, fortunately she was too young to really understand the kind of - the personal attacks against me, the character assassinations, but she loved baby spy, and she memorized baby spy. And, you know, to this day, every now and then, she'll bust out with a baby-spy routine. So, you know, that was a bit of a bright side that, you know, my daughter could see Daddy on TV, and I get, you know, cool-dad points or something like that. But no, definitely not. You know, with regards to my career, that was - in a lot of ways, that was also a key moment in whether I'd be able to continue on doing what I had been doing - really, pretty awesome career, frankly, to that point.

And I thought that, you know, the organization that I had supported and served for decades was going to maybe, you know, in a tactful way, in a nonprovocative and apolitical way, in a way that wouldn't harm the institution, still back me. But there was nothing. There was dead air.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Alexander Vindman, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. His memoir about his experience in the events that led up to President Trump's first impeachment is "Here, Right Matters: An American Story." We'll continue our conversation in just one moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLD BLOOD'S "UNDERSTANDING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Alexandra Vindman, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. His new memoir about his experiences in the events that led up to the first impeachment of President Trump is "Here, Right Matters: An American Story."

When you came into the office the day after you testified to Congress in public, what was the reaction?

VINDMAN: I didn't, frankly, know what to expect. My twin brother, you know, he was right there rousing me out of bed. I was almost thinking about calling in a sick day. But he said, no, we're going to go in. You did everything right. You were great. So he pulled me - he dragged me out of bed, and we came in and grabbed a cup of coffee and quickly - and maybe some folks called it showboating, but basically, we put ourselves in a position where we could be filmed, and the whole idea was to show that we weren't - you know, that wasn't intimidated, that we weren't intimidated. And it was a message that - you know, that even though we're in the lion's den in certain regards, we will continue to do the right thing.

Walking into the building itself, you know, there were colleagues, the nonpoliticals coming out of departments and agencies, that were coming over and saying, you did great. And I really appreciated that support from those folks.

DAVIES: You wrote about how once it was clear that you were going to do this, that you were being iced out by others in the National Security Council - left out of meetings, not taken on trips that would have been - you certainly would have attended being the senior role that you had. You thought you'd get fired, I suppose, once the president was acquitted.

VINDMAN: I mean, I thought the axe might fall well before I did. I thought maybe I would have been out of there after the public testimony. I guess the president received counsel to not fire me at that moment because that could have affected the Senate trial. But for the months between when I reported that phone call, even before I testified, I was the target of retaliation. I was isolated and ostracized by the political class in the White House, you know, seen as not a reliable, you know, political actor that would, you know, be willing to do dirty work for the president. And as a result, I just didn't - you know, I was pulled off trips. I was still, in a lot of ways, as effective with the professional counterparts, those deputy assistant secretaries I mentioned earlier. They're all professionals, and, you know, I could still do things there. But working up through the White House was an increasing challenge all the way through my departure.

DAVIES: So describe your dismissal. What actually happened when it occurred?

VINDMAN: Well, so the Senate trial concluded on Wednesday. I thought there was an excellent chance I would be out of there on Thursday, but firing day is on Friday. So I should have known - firing day is on Friday at the White House. And I was just waiting for somebody to let me know. I was still in the midst of planning a very, very important meeting at the assistant secretary level to try to continue to advance U.S. national security with regard to Ukraine and Belarus. And I was literally typing out the last set of instructions. I had already handed off everything I needed to to another colleague of mine, and I was ready to go. Nothing in my hands. Everything was already out. I knew it was going to happen. And just, you know, finished up the day sometime around 3 o'clock, you know?

DAVIES: Yeah, just what exactly - who showed up? What happened?

VINDMAN: The head of human resources, she came in with some of the security officers and said the White House has determined that my services are no longer necessary. The line that my twin brother had kind of drafted out when people were dismissed was being, you know, kind of barked out at me, and then I was just asked to step away from my computer and escorted out.

DAVIES: When you were out of the National Security Council, you were still in the Army, and in fact, you were in line for a promotion to full colonel, which - you know, that has implications in salary and pension and - there are interesting things you could have done in the Army. What happened?

VINDMAN: Well, under normal circumstances, frankly, if I - in a parallel dimension, if I had not reported this, I would have gone on to war college. I would have - completing war college - I would have completed it this past month, actually. And I would have went off to a high-value assignment, just like my career trajectory had placed me in, you know, at almost every point, doing something of critical importance to U.S. national security. But those doors had been closed. They had been closed by the character assassinations driven by the White House through proxies, including Fox News. There was an attack memo that was released by the White House that offered talking points, the same ones that you heard on Fox News and other right-wing media that - the same ones that were parroted by Republican officials in the House and the Senate.

And I took the temperature of the Department of Defense. I'd been taking it since my name became public. And at every point, looking for a lifeline to see - if there - if I would end up - you know, if I could salvage my career. I was told, basically, you know, you'd flown too close to the sun; you had - you know, you're no longer going to be able to serve in that part of the world. You're not going to get another high-value assignment. You know, you could ride out being a colonel, but you're not going to do anything - you know, anything that you would find rewarding. So that wasn't enough for me, maybe, even because I waited till the very, very last minute to submit my retirement, and I was looking for something along the way. And nothing ever came. And I submitted my retirement and moved on like I guess my father and my ancestors before me, restarting again and looking for new opportunities.

DAVIES: You know, there's one other element of this, which is, you know, it's clear the Army wasn't going to give you a high-profile and meaningful assignment. So that's one thing. On the other hand, you were on this promotions list. And as you tell the story, the White House was determined that you would not receive that promotion. The problem is, you know, there is a list, and there is a procedure. And if I read this right, in order to keep you from getting your promotion, the administration, including the Defense Department, was willing to hold up this list, which included hundreds of other officers also due for promotions. Nobody would get them until you got out of the way. Is this right?

VINDMAN: That's exactly right. And you know, it's hundreds in the case of those that are already on the list and that are, you know - that are going to move forward and continue to prosper. But it's even a larger number of folks that just were waiting for a response to find out if they needed to retire or to move on. So there were many hundreds of folks that were - whose name - who were waiting to understand their future. And I was, in a way, an obstacle to that. Many of those folks are my friends.

DAVIES: So when you retired, it removed the problem, and the promotions went forward.

VINDMAN: Yeah. Well, I submitted my retirement on a Wednesday, and on - by Friday, I had my retirement orders. In the military, you start your retirement process a year out. It takes months to produce these orders. In my case, they produced them in two days - unheard of. And then on that second day, on that Friday, they sent out the list. It's called prepositioning it. So like, this - on a subsequent week, beginning of that week, it would actually be announced. And it just unfolded that quickly. Right after I submitted my retirement, they approved it. And then me being - no longer being an obstacle, it moved forward.

DAVIES: We should also note that you learned that there was a point where - while all this was going on, that there was a six-point memo accusing you of misconduct. And the Defense Department looked into this and exonerated you. What was in the memo?

VINDMAN: (Laughter) It was all sorts of - I, frankly, never had eyes on the memo. But I do recall some of the points being, you know, a toxic work environment, harassment, you know, some - I don't even remember all the other stuff. But at one point, it became so tenuous for, I guess, the department leadership, for Secretary Esper and Secretary of the Army McCarthy, that they were called into the White House chief of staff's office, and - Mark Meadows at the time - and were berated for keeping my name on a list when the White House wanted it off. So I (laughter) - that was, in a lot of ways, one of kind of the last data points that I really needed to determine whether I could continue on.

And I mentioned that I dropped my paperwork on the 8th of July. That was the very, very last day I could do it without incurring an obligation to stay in the military longer in a world where I had no clue whether I was in good standing - or I had pretty good idea that I wasn't in good standing, actually - but in a world where Trump still seemed like a viable second-term president, and where I would have to live with a president that was vindictive. So all of these things came together, and, you know, my path was clear.

DAVIES: So before all this happened, you know, you're a lieutenant colonel, and you're a regional expert. You're involved in high-level policy decisions, and looks like you're going on to great things. As a result of all this, you're fired from the National Security Council. You're forced out of the Army, which had been your home for 20 years. You know, we began by playing that excerpt from your testimony in Congress at which you said to your dad, Dad, don't worry. I'll be fine for telling the truth. Are you fine?

VINDMAN: I am fine. It's been a long road. In a lot of ways, I'm still in the middle of trying to figure out what I want to do. But I could live with my actions. I've written this book, a book that's supposed to be a hopeful, kind of an affirmative view of doing the right thing, not because there are inherent rewards. There are never inherent rewards for just simply doing the right thing. Actually, there are inherent rewards from doing the wrong thing because usually that's what the payoff is, and that's why people do it. But for the right thing, it's being able to live with it. And, I mean, I had a chance to communicate this to the American public, that, you know, you could be fine for doing the right thing, and this is how you could be fine. These are the steps that were instrumental in my life to allowing me to navigate this. And I'm working on a doctorate at Johns Hopkins. I'm working at a think tank. I get to have conversations with people like yourself.

So I mean, we'll see. It's too early to say. But I think if I want to live in a world where here, right matters, I need to make it matter. And I'm doing everything I can to make it matter and encourage other people to do the same.

DAVIES: Well, Alexander Vindman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

VINDMAN: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Alexander Vindman is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. His memoir about his experience in the events that led to President Trump's first impeachment is called "Here, Right Matters: An American Story." Coming up, John Powers reviews "Bullet Train," the new thriller from popular Japanese writer Kotaro Isaka. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED KATZ'S "OLD PAINT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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