President Donald Trump’s administration has ousted the two witnesses who provided the most damaging testimony during his impeachment investigation: Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and Ambassador Gordon Sondland.
- Mr Sondland said he had been recalled from his position as ambassador to the European Union
- Lieutenant Colonel Vindman said in his testimony he “couldn’t believe” what he was hearing in regards to Mr Trump’s call with Ukraine’s President
- Mr Trump has denied reports that he planned to replace acting aide Mick Mulvaney, who was a central figure in the impeachment inquiry
Two days after Mr Trump was acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate on charges of trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman — the top Ukraine expert at the White House’s National Security Council — was escorted out of the building, according to his lawyer.
“Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth,” said his lawyer, David Pressman.
Hours later, Mr Sondland said he had been fired from his post as US ambassador to the European Union.
The two men served as star witnesses during the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives’ impeachment investigation last year.
Michael Volkov, who represented Lieutenant Colonel Vindman when he testified, said his twin brother Yevgeny Vindman was escorted off the White House grounds at the same time.
“There is no question in the mind of any American why this man’s job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House. LTC Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth,” Mr Pressman said, using shorthand for Vindman’s military rank.
Lieutenant Colonel Vindman testified that Mr Trump made an improper demand of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July phone call that became the centrepiece of the probe of the Republican President.
The Lieutenant Colonel told a Democratic-run committee “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing” in the phone call.
Mr Trump asked Mr Zelensky to launch investigations into both Democratic rival Joe Biden and a widely debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
In that appearance, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman also downplayed concerns that he would suffer payback for speaking out.
“I will be fine for telling the truth,” he said.
Mr Trump said he was still upset with Democrats and government officials involved in the impeachment investigation, even after he was acquitted.
“I’m not happy with him. You think I’m supposed to be happy with him?” he said of Lieutenant Colonel Vindman on Friday.
A spokesman for the NSC declined to comment.
Mr Sondland, a wealthy Republican donor and Oregon hotelier, testified that he was following Mr Trump’s orders when he pushed Ukrainian officials to carry out investigations sought by the President.
He said in a statement that he was advised that Mr Trump “intends to recall me effective immediately” from his job.
“I am grateful to President Trump for having given me the opportunity to serve, to Secretary Pompeo for his consistent support, and to the exceptional and dedicated professionals at the US Mission to the European Union,” he said, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The White House and State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Mr Sondland’s removal.
“This is as clear a case of retribution as I’ve seen during my 27 years in the Senate,” Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein said.
Vindman’s twin brother also ousted
Yevgeny Vindman, also an Army lieutenant colonel, worked for the NSC as a lawyer.
An Army spokesperson said both brothers had been reassigned to the Army, but declined to provide further information “out of respect for their privacy”.
Representative Eliot Engel, Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the decision to remove Alexander Vindman was “shameful”.
“This president believes the only loyalty that matters is loyalty to him personally,” Mr Engel said in a written statement.
A source familiar with the situation told Reuters that Lieutenant Colonel Vindman would be reassigned to the Defence Department.
Lieutenant Colonel Vindman’s two-year stint at the White House was due to end in July.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that the Pentagon protects all service members from retribution.
Mr Trump, who became only the third US president to be impeached, has said he is still bitter as he turns his attention to seeking a second four-year term in the November 3 presidential election.
Trump labels Vindman and Williams ‘Never Trumpers’
Another senior White House aide who testified over impeachment, Jennifer Williams, left this week for a post at the US military’s Central Command, according to Bloomberg News.
Mr Trump has cast both Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and Ms Williams as “Never Trumpers” who oppose him.
Mr Trump denied reports that he was weighing a permanent chief of staff to replace acting aide Mick Mulvaney, who was a central figure in the impeachment inquiry.
“That was a false report. I have a great relationship with Mick,” Mr Trump said.
Democrats say Mr Trump pushed for the Ukraine investigations to undermine Mr Biden, a candidate to win the Democratic nomination for November’s election.
Mr Trump said he wanted to help Ukraine fight corruption.
Mr Biden’s presidential campaign suffered a serious setback when he came in fourth place at the Democrats’ first state nominating contest in Iowa this week.
Senate Republicans have been investigating Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father, Joe, was US vice-president.
Senators Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson have asked for the younger Biden’s travel records while under official Secret Service protection, among other official records.
Democratic politicians say the Treasury Department has provided Congress with some financial records involving Hunter Biden.
Mr Trump had urged Ukraine to investigate both Bidens, though there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either one.