Politics

A Purple Heart, Combat Badge and Ranger Tab: Vindman Sends a Message

WASHINGTON — The uniform made an entrance at the top of the morning.

Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient and an Iraq war veteran, strode into the hearing room with chest and shoulders trimmed with his Combat Infantry Badge, his Ranger tab and other recognitions of military service.

He stood there fidgeting next to the witness table, forced to linger on his feet while he waited for the morning’s other witness, Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, to arrive. His hands came to rest at his belt and appeared to be shaking slightly.

But what he wore was the star visual.

Colonel Vindman, who still works at the White House as the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, testified in the House impeachment inquiry in his Army dress uniform, the ultimate witness power move. Oliver L. North, the lieutenant colonel at the center of the Reagan-era Iran-contra scandal more than three decades ago, would have a varied and checkered career. Yet the most indelible image of him remains the Marine uniform he wore in his televised hearings.

“It’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” Colonel Vindman said, correcting Representative Devin Nunes of California, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, who at one point in the morning had addressed him as “Mr. Vindman.”

This was, depending on your point of view, either a deft pulling of rank or a petty show of arrogance. But there was no missing the subtext beneath so much of Colonel Vindman’s testimony: He was, he said, a patriot, loyal to no partisan interest and driven by no animus to the president.

He was not a “Never Trumper,” as President Trump himself had suggested, using what has become the president’s catchall dismissal in this zero-sum capital that he has loomed over for nearly three years. In today’s Washington, you’re either with the president, or your ability to serve the country may be suspect.

“I’m not sure I know an official definition of a Never Trumper,” Ms. Williams said during what has become a recurring feature of these hearings, the part where a committee member — in this case Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut — is obliged to ask the witness to assess their level of Never Trumpiness.

“I’d call myself Never Partisan,” Colonel Vindman replied to Mr. Himes.

So enough about the president, at least for a bit. This was about Colonel Vindman’s transcendent allegiance, one placed methodically into doubt in the run-up to the hearing.

“The uniform I wear today is that of the United States Army,” Colonel Vindman said in his opening statement. “We do not serve any particular political party; we serve the nation. I am humbled to come before you today as one of many who serve in the most distinguished and able military in the world.”

He described an immigrant’s story: how next month would mark the 40-year anniversary of his family’s arrival to the United States from Ukraine; how Colonel Vindman and his two brothers were instilled with a sense of duty and service to their adopted country; how all three were inspired to enlist in the armed forces.

“Our collective military service is a special part of our family’s story in America,” he said.

Over four and a half hours of inquiry and testimony, Colonel Vindman kept invoking his adopted land, both as a statement of his patriotism and as a shield.

But he was hit with all manner of aspersions about his national devotion, his judgment, even his right to wear his uniform in this setting. Steve Castor, the counsel for the Republicans on the committee, seemed to suggest that the witness held a dual loyalty when he asked Colonel Vindman whether he had considered accepting job offers to serve in his birth country as defense minister of Ukraine.

“I’m an American,” Colonel Vindman said. “I immediately dismissed these offers, did not entertain them.”

As he testified, a tweet from the official White House account pointed out that Tim Morrison, Colonel Vindman’s former boss on the National Security Council, said he had concerns about his judgment. (Mr. Morrison had raised those concerns in a closed-door deposition on Oct. 31, but did not elaborate.) When Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, raised questions about Colonel Vindman’s job performance, the witness read aloud from a stellar review from another former boss, Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s former director for Europe and Russia.

Later, when Mr. Jordan pelted the Army officer with questions about why he would report his concerns about a call Mr. Trump had with the president of Ukraine to a White House lawyer and not to his supervisor, Colonel Vindman peered up like he was watching a cloud pass.

“Representative Jordan,” he said in a flat, even tone, “I did my job.”

On a few occasions, Colonel Vindman conveyed thanks to his father for having the courage to immigrate to the United States as a refugee from Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. To express concerns in the Soviet Union in public testimony “would surely cost me my life,” he said.

This was no small point to make, given that Colonel Vindman has faced threats since he came forward.

“Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected professionals, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago,” Colonel Vindman said in his opening statement, addressing his father, who was not in the room. “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

Late in the hearing, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, revisited that earlier statement. He asked whether Colonel Vindman’s father was concerned about his son coming forward and subjecting himself to this most severe spotlight.

Yes, his father was “deeply worried,” Colonel Vindman said. “Because in his context it was the ultimate risk.”

But this hearing room was a different context, or at least an ideal Colonel Vindman has spent his professional life fighting for. So no, he said, he was not worried about testifying.

“Because this is America,” he said, as a spontaneous burst of applause rose from the gallery.

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