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Alexander Vindman Discusses Testifying On The Central Phone Call In Trump Impeachment

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Remember that phone call? July 25, 2019, the president of Ukraine speaking with the then-president of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DONALD TRUMP: It was beautiful. It was just a perfect conversation.

ALEXANDER VINDMAN: I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate, and I reported my concerns to Mr. Eisenberg.

KELLY: That is Alexander Vindman, one of the White House staffers who had listened in on the call. Vindman, born in Ukraine, emigrated to the U.S. as a child. He had risen to a post on the staff of the National Security Council. And his report about the July 25 call helped set the impeachment inquiry in motion. His testimony, in full dress uniform, active-duty officer in the U.S. Army testifying against his commander in chief, was one of the most electrifying moments of the impeachment hearings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VINDMAN: 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.

KELLY: Well, those of us who lived through 2019, 2020 know how this ends. Within 48 hours of his not guilty verdict, Trump fired Vindman. He was marched out of the White House. Alexander Vindman writes about the experience in his new memoir "Here, Right Matters."

Colonel Vindman, welcome.

VINDMAN: Thank you, Mary Louise. I'm so looking forward to having this conversation with you.

KELLY: Well, I want to start with the call. So as you listened along - and we should note, you were in a different room in the White House.

VINDMAN: Right.

KELLY: You were not sitting right next to the president, but you were listening along in real time. Was there a particular line, a particular word, a particular exchange that made alarm bells suddenly start going off in your head?

VINDMAN: As soon as the president joined the line, you could hear in his tone that this was going to be a very painful conversation. Zelensky was a comedian. He tries to be charming. He tries to engage with his audience. And on the other line, you had this monotone, you know, what the president would himself describe listening to this phone call as low energy, very labored conversation that progressed from one low point to another, with the president asking - you know, basically suggesting that the U.S. does more than any other country for Ukraine and that Ukraine is not doing enough and then asking for a favor.

KELLY: Yeah.

VINDMAN: And that was the favor - him asking for the Ukrainians to conduct an investigation into Joe Biden against U.S. interests so I guess you would have dirt for an upcoming election.

KELLY: Was there ever any doubt in your mind that you would report what you had heard on that call? I mean, you must have known you would be putting your job, your career, potentially at risk.

VINDMAN: No doubts whatsoever. I knew what my duty was instantly, and it was basically to try to inform my senior leadership in the National Security Council, to get them to counsel the president that this was wrong - absolutely - but potentially criminal and that this was harmful to U.S. national security interests.

KELLY: When it did all become public, you were called to testify. And I want people to know a little bit more of your background to understand quite how big a deal that was. I mentioned you were born in Ukraine. Your family came here to the U.S. on Christmas Day, 1979. You were 4 years old. You grew up as an American in Brooklyn. But it feels important for people to know that, to understand all the family history that you were carrying with you when you were called to testify under oath in public against the president of the United States about a phone call with the president of Ukraine. Part of that family history is your dad, of course, who begged you not to testify. I mean, how did the conversation unfold? I said he begged you not to testify.

VINDMAN: Yeah.

KELLY: Is that a fair verb to use?

VINDMAN: Yeah. My dad doesn't beg, but he said, don't do this. Don't go against the president. He had this image in his mind about me reconciling with the president, marching into the president's office and saying, how do we work this out and, you know, extracting myself from danger in that way.

KELLY: It sounds like you felt it as well. In the book, you write that as you were being questioned, you were drawing on combat training, on SERE - survive, evade, resist, escape. It was that bad?

VINDMAN: I'm very, very fortunate that I had accumulated a set of skills over the course of a long career. And part of my skills that I was trained for my duty in Russia became extremely important in understanding, thinking through very carefully and resisting kind of the narrative and the pressure that was being applied to me not just in the questioning in front of Congress, but in general. The kind of things that the White House was doing - scouring my emails to see what kind of dirt they could find, ostracizing me and isolating me within the White House, ultimately, you know, threatening me and applying pressure to my family situation because they put my family in danger - all these things came in handy at every point, maybe, in this very challenging affair.

KELLY: I remember watching live the day that Trump fired you and you and your brother were marched out of the White House with the cameras rolling. What was that day like for you, for your family?

VINDMAN: I think there was a sense of relief. I knew that it was coming. I'd cleared out my desk. I closed out all my business, made sure that all my affairs were settled and I had passed off all the national security-related work that I was - I had to do to colleagues that were going to continue on after me. And I also, frankly, for that matter, let the White House know that whatever happens at the end of February, I was going to leave. That obviously didn't - it didn't play out that way. Two days after the president was acquitted, the president and his proxies wanted to send a message that anybody that challenges the president, challenges the president's corruption, would be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly. So they removed me and my twin brother for good measure, something out of, like, some sort of authoritarian playbook where you don't just punish, you know, whoever the opponent is, you punish their family.

KELLY: So you and I are speaking summer of 2021, just over two years since that July 25, 2019 call. And since then, yeah, you lost your job at the White House. You have retired from service because you believe the Army failed to defend you, and you couldn't see a path forward to military service. So I want to go back to those words at your testimony, when you told your dad, do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth. Are you fine?

VINDMAN: I am fine, but that's because I worked extremely hard to try to get to be fine. Nothing has been easy. The easy thing to do would be to just - to not do my duty, to sit back, to not have made the complaint. I would have pinned on colonel. I would have been a colonel now for some time. I would have finished the war college, and I would have been able to have a very, very prosperous, fruitful career.

But I know I couldn't live with myself if I had done that. I would have a career, but our country would potentially be on the road to ruin. In this case, my personal life was in ruins. I'm still putting the pieces back together, I think, rather successfully. But I've - I could live with myself. I could look in the mirror. I could look my daughter in the eye, and I could rebuild my life, open the next chapter. And I think if that's the footnote in history, I could live with that.

KELLY: Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. His memoir "Here, Right Matters: An American Story" is out today. Alexander Vindman, thank you.

VINDMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOHN'S "SIGNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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