Army Not Investigating Vindman

Tweets aren't policy, unless they are.

People were rightly outraged when President Trump removed LTC Sandy Vindman from his post on the National Security Council staff for having the temerity to testify truthfully in the impeachment hearings. And even more so when he suggested that the military should go after Vindman.

Thus far, the Army is holding fast. WaPo:

The top civilian official in the U.S. Army said the service isn’t investigating Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, days after President Trump told reporters that the military may look into disciplining the former National Security Council official and key impeachment inquiry witness.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Friday there is no investigation into Vindman, who had been detailed to the White House National Security Council as Ukraine director and was due to return to the Army for a new assignment when Trump dismissed him early from the post last week. The president also removed his twin brother from his job as a lawyer for the NSC.

McCarthy, in response to a question during an event at the National Press Club in Washington, noted that Vindman was currently in a “bridging” assignment at the Department of the Army headquarters and would be heading to a senior service college for study this summer.

“There’s no investigation,” McCarthy said.

[…]

On Tuesday, when asked about Alexander Vindman’s dismissal from the White House, Trump said that “the military can handle him.” Asked what that meant, Trump replied, “If you look at what happened, they’re going to certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that.”

[…]

David Pressman, a lawyer for Vindman, rejected the notion that Vindman did anything wrong, noting in a statement last week that his client spoke publicly only once, pursuant to a subpoena from the U.S. Congress, and served in his post honorably.

“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,” Pressman said. “LTC Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”

“The truth has cost LTC Alexander Vindman his job, his career, and his privacy. He did what any member of our military is charged with doing every day: he followed orders, he obeyed his oath, and he served his country, even when doing so was fraught with danger and personal peril,” Pressman added.

It’s doubtless true that Vindman’s life has changed forever, including a loss of his privacy, because of the fame his testimony brought and the acrimony sent his way by the President. And that’s shameful.

But, thus far, there’s no reason to think his career is in jeopardy. He is going to go to a war college this summer, as was the plan all along. There’s an excellent chance, therefore, that he’ll be promoted to full colonel. And that’s as far as his career as a Foreign Affairs Officer was ever likely to go. Indeed, retirement at his current rank of lieutenant colonel was far more likely.

I had started to blog this story late yesterday afternoon but the first story I found on it was Spencer Ackerman‘s Daily Beast report “Army Isn’t Investigating Lt. Col. Vindman, Despite Trump’s Tweets“—dated two (now three) days earlier. So, I naturally assumed McCarthy’s speech was old news and not worth blogging. But, no, the speech was in fact at a luncheon yesterday.

Ackerman had just gotten unofficial confirmation two days before. But his report is more ominous.

A former senior Army officer who would not speak for the record cautioned that just because Vindman is not under investigation does not mean his career is safe. In the military’s “up or out” culture, being denied a promotion to colonel by the next Army promotions board will spell the end of Vindman’s service. And the ex-officer specified that the inherent subjectivity of the officer board will make it impossible to determine precisely if it was the ire of the president that prevents Vindman from ever having birds pinned on his shoulders.

“There’s so much bias that can seep into these promotion boards that all it takes is someone to have an issue with his testimony to tank his promotion possibility,” the retired officer said.

First off, being passed over for colonel on the first look wouldn’t end Vindman’s career. Not only can he serve 27 years before mandatory retirement even if he’s not promoted, many officers get selected for colonel on their third look.* And, while I don’t know where Vindman is on his career trajectory, it’s quite possible that he’s not even up for his first look yet.

Regardless, presuming Vindman doesn’t simply retire, going to a senior service college would mean he’s in for at least another two years—the year in-residence at school and a payback tour after. Attendance at a war college is a strong indicator that an officer is expected to be selected for colonel but not a guarantee.

Additionally, just because Vindman isn’t under investigation now doesn’t mean the Army’s decision will hold. Just months ago, the Navy sought against Trump’s wishes to strip accused war criminal Eddie Gallagher of his affiliation with the Navy SEALs. Trump persisted, prompting the departure of Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer

Yes. But those are actually the opposite case: the Navy was trying to punish wrongdoers over the objection of the President and was of course not going to get away with that. (Trump was wrong to intervene as he did and he did so for the wrong reasons; but he absolutely had the authority as commander-in-chief to do so and the Navy was obligated to follow his legal orders.) Here, the Army is not punishing Vindman for doing what his oath obligated him to do. An order to punish him, even from the commander-in-chief, would be unlawful and would have to be disobeyed. My guess is Trump will not issue it.

Several in national-security circles have been disturbed that no military or civilian leaders within the Defense Department have spoken up for Vindman, a decorated Iraq war veteran whose testimony subjected him to an onslaught of denunciation from Trump’s allies.

That concern has now been overtaken by events. The Secretary of the Army—a Trump appointee—has done so.

It’s true that other senior leaders have kept their mouths shut. While Ackermann quotes several people—who, ironically, refuse to be quoted by name—excoriating them for “careerism” for remaining silent—I think that’s the best course of action.

Vindman is a bit player. He is, sadly, just one among many dedicated career professionals who have come under fire from their President for doing their jobs faithfully. But I see no value—and, in fact, see the possibility of further institutional damage—for senior uniformed officers or even senior political appointees to publicly excoriate the President over childish tweets in this instance.

___________________
*Under DOPMA, the law that governed officer career management since 1982, officers in the field grades go up with their commissioning year cohort before boards at the same time. In the Army, roughly 10 percent are selected to major/lieutenant colonel/colonel one year early—“below the zone.” Most are selected “in-zone,” the year they are “due.” And another handful are selected the following board, “above-the-zone.” The Air Force used the below-zone most aggressively and the Army less so. The Navy and Marine Corps essentially didn’t use it. Following the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, this process has changed somewhat. The Marine Corps and Air Force have both changed to a rank-ordered cohort and officially done away with the below-zone. I have not seen indication that the Army has followed suit, but it’s possible.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DrDaveT says:

    An order to punish him, even from the commander-in-chief, would be unlawful and would have to be disobeyed. My guess is Trump will not issue it.

    I’m curious to know why you guess that. Certainly Trump would not hesitate just because it was unlawful, or because it was bad management, or because his people, the best people, were advising him not to. Is there some other motive that might restrain him?

    As an aside, DOPMA has proven to be a real barrier to reconstituting the engineering, management, and technical expertise the military used to have. It’s simply not possible to learn to be a competent program manager or test engineer when you get rotated into a new position every 3 years, regardless of what you are doing. It’s better now that those people aren’t competing for promotion against combat line officers, but it’s still bad.

    ETA: Kicking people out at 30 years, just at the age when they would be important executives in private industry, doesn’t help either.

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    If Trump is re-elected the military will not be able to resist his corruption. They’re hanging on, so far, but the rot will spread. Trump will find his uniformed Lindsey Grahams.

    16
  3. steve says:

    Did you read McMAster’s Dereliction Of Duty? This system where everyone keeps quiet and just goes along with the POTUS was clearly designed with the idea that POTUS would basically be a decent person. Their duty should be towards the Constitution, their country and their fellow soldiers and not just oriented towards protecting POTUS.

    Steve

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Once Hitler became Chancellor it was only a year or two before the Wehrmacht swore loyalty to Hitler, by name. The US military is doing better, but the military to some extent self select conservative and the sycophants like Graham will find their way to Trump. What will happen if Trump has a second term to corrupt everything he touches is truly frightening.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Yes, it’s a system ripe for reform. But I get up-or-out, too: If there are a limited number of slots, having them clogged with lieutenant colonels and colonels who will never be generals blocks the path of junior officers to move up.

    We do allow for officers to go to 40 years and beyond. But, with rare exceptions, that’s only if they make general/flag rank.

    @DrDaveT: @Michael Reynolds: @gVOR08: @steve: I do worry about a re-elected Trump. But, in this particular case, I think the brass best served by keeping their head down while quietly doing their jobs. If Trump insists on trying to court-martial or otherwise punish Vindman, then they have no choice but to resist. Right now, letting Trump rant and hoping he just forgets about it is the right move.

    8
  6. JKB says:

    It is not as if LTC Vindman offered any testimony of wrongdoing. He spoke about how the elected President was not following the policy prescriptions that he, a lieutenant colonel, had decided on. Even now, the US is not a banana republic where lieutenant colonels rule. So all Vindman did was show himself to be someone you wouldn’t want on your staff. Not a good look for a career as a staffer.

    Vindman’s notoriety also brought forth comment from past superiors and fellow officers that exposed his nature. These facts may have receded, but are now in the fore. And will be topics of discussion when his name is on the selection board list. Even more so if documentation is buried in his personnel file since now it will be dug out.

    And let’s not overlook, that although delegated to the service chief long ago for those below flag rank, the nomination for appointment or promotion of a commissioned officers rests with the President. And still require Senate confirmation. Such delegation can be recovered should the President choose.

    And let’s not overlook the Congressional testimony under oath of LTC Vindman’s career employee boss that was less than complementary regarding his tendency to go outside the chain of command, undermine superiors, etc.

    The latter is enough to justify a terminal assignment, yet Vindman is getting a choice appointment to the War College due to his favored status among the bipartisan foreign policy establishment who oppose the elected President

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @JKB: This argument that Ukraine is a policy dispute is so false, and so tedious. Trump is, god help us, President of the United States. If he wanted a policy change on Ukraine all he had to do was call in the right people and tell them what the new policy is. He didn’t. What he did do was try to run a side hustle through Giuliani and others attempting to extort help for Trump’s reelection. And he did this while officially backing the policy Vindman and others were trying to execute.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @JKB: Aside from @gVOR08‘s correct asssement of the first part of your comment, this is just absurd:

    And let’s not overlook the Congressional testimony under oath of LTC Vindman’s career employee boss that was less than complementary regarding his tendency to go outside the chain of command, undermine superiors, etc.

    The man has advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the United States Army. One does not do that without a history of following lawful orders.

    The latter is enough to justify a terminal assignment, yet Vindman is getting a choice appointment to the War College due to his favored status among the bipartisan foreign policy establishment who oppose the elected President

    You really have no clue as to how military assignments work. But I assure you they are not made by a “foreign policy establishment.”

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  9. Mikey says:

    @JKB:

    He spoke about how the elected President was not following the policy prescriptions that he, a lieutenant colonel, had decided on.

    I got as far as this dribbling of fatuous bullshit and just stopped reading. I mean, if your description of what happened is this ludicrously and verifiably effluent, why bother wading any further into the cesspool?

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  10. Kathy says:

    Dennison swore to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But then, only to the best of his ability, which is not that much of a commitment.

    Military officers swear to do this, too, and not just to the best of their abilty.

    In other words, they’re showing El Cheeto up, and that cannot be tolerated.

    However, the military’s oath contains this bit: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” What happens, I wonder, when the man whose orders they swore to obey, is also the domestic enemy their oath refers?

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    At 11:57 you tell some lies.

    17 minutes later, your lies are exposed.

    And again five minutes later.

    Story of your life, @JKB. But it never occurs to you to think hmmm, every time I make a comment, it’s shredded instantly. Maybe, just maybe, I’m getting bad information and filling my head with horse shit, which leads to everyone who reads my comments knowing that I am either a liar or a cretin. So maybe I should, you know, not fill my head with horse shit.

    But nope. You compulsively perform your act of submission to the orange ape you worship and if everyone knows you’re a liar or a cretin, that’s OK. Garbage In, Garbage Out, bottom high in the air.

    17
  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    An order to punish him, even from the commander-in-chief, would be unlawful and would have to be disobeyed. My guess is Trump will not issue it.

    Oh ye of little faith.

    @JKB: He spoke about how the elected President was not following the policy prescriptions that he, a lieutenant colonel, had decided on.

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA …

    Don’t give up your day job tho.

    3
  13. Gustopher says:

    James Joyner:

    An order to punish him, even from the commander-in-chief, would be unlawful and would have to be disobeyed. My guess is Trump will not issue it.

    There is a pattern of Trump using the Justice Department to go after his enemies and protect his allies. If the military is resisting this level of corruption, good for them, but let’s not pretend that Trump won’t issue the order or make his goals known.

    For instance, the Justice Department just spent two years trying to find a reason to indict Andrew McCabe for starting an investigation. And there is the revision of the sentencing memo for Roger Stone that says the sentencing guidelines are too harsh. And a whole lot of additional examples that I’m too lazy to look up.

    6
  14. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @gVOR08: Yeah, that’s among many reasons to dread a second term for Agent Orange. The German army’s allegiance to Hitler really dates from after the “Knight of the Long Knives” (June, 1934), when the SS eliminated the leadership of the SA, thereby eliminating the threat of a social revolution that could have threatened the army’s position in Germany.

    3
  15. Mu Yixiao says:

    Note to self: Wait until after second cup of coffee before reading OTB.

    Saw the headline this morning and honestly thought it said “Army Not Invading Vietnam”.

    (To be fair, that’s not a headline that would be out of place here.)

    1
  16. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But I get up-or-out, too: If there are a limited number of slots, having them clogged with lieutenant colonels and colonels who will never be generals blocks the path of junior officers to move up.

    There’s a buried assumption there that the purpose of officers is to be promoted, rather than to do a job.

    Let’s recast that:

    “If there are a limited number skilled positions, having them clogged with competent professionals who are not going to be promoted to senior executive positions blocks the path of junior professionals.”

    The idea that having experienced and skilled professionals doing vital jobs is “clogging” the system would be bizarre in any other industry. Why do people doing the job they have been trained for need to be promoted out of that job? Why do other people have to rotate through those positions, rather than rotating to where they are needed and useful? Most importantly, why can you not promote someone without moving them out of the job they were doing?

    2
  17. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @DrDaveT: The National Guard works similar to this and frankly, its terrible. As soon as you allow people to get comfortable and entrenched over years…good ole boyism ensues. Many young Guardsmen and women end up leaving or joining the Reserves because someone has to die or retire for then to get a leadership opportunity. You would not want your Fulltime Professional military to operate like the Guard.

    Military Promotions are not a reward for past performance, they are (supposed to be) a vote of confidence by the Service that you have the ability for a wider scope of responsibility. In the officer corps, you are expected to have some technical proficiency as a junior officer but mid-level and beyond it’s all about leadership, management, and organization. Junior officers solve today’s problems, Mid-level and Senior officers are looking to position the unit to be successful tomorrow by anticipating future problems. The enlisted force are the technical experts not officers. The DOD is in the process of relooking promotions from the perspective you offered…and there will be a few changes but nothing that significantly upends up or out. If you want to get promoted and keep doing the same job forever…join the National Guard or the Reserves.

    The goal of the Regular force is to be prepared for War. Combat operations requires an Officer corps that is conditioned to take on different challenges , improvise, and excel. Up or out has flaws but does allow people with these characteristics to bubble to the top. It also allows for you to develop a wide bench to mitigate the inevitable attrition combat brings.

    1
  18. DrDaveT says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    The enlisted force are the technical experts not officers.

    Which is why all of the program managers for highly-technical major acquisition programs are… O5 or higher?

    I agree completely that training for command positions in combat needs to be (as you say) “conditioned to take on different challenges , improvise, and excel”. What does that have to do with being in charge of developing a new missile, or providing sustainment logistics to USMC aircraft, or testing prototype Army autonomous ground vehicles?

    Don’t even get me started about software…

  19. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    The idea that having experienced and skilled professionals doing vital jobs is “clogging” the system would be bizarre in any other industry. Why do people doing the job they have been trained for need to be promoted out of that job? Why do other people have to rotate through those positions, rather than rotating to where they are needed and useful?

    The military is unlike any other career for a variety of reasons but a key one is that the career exists only within the one firm. If you’re at Amazon or Microsoft or Google and you’re not satisfied with your prospects for advancement, you can take a job at hundreds of other firms. Or start your own! If you’re an Air Force officer and mediocrities are clogging the lanes ahead of you, you simply can’t get promoted. Congress limits how many majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels, and general officers the Air Force can have.

    @DrDaveT:

    I agree completely that training for command positions in combat needs to be (as you say) “conditioned to take on different challenges , improvise, and excel”. What does that have to do with being in charge of developing a new missile, or providing sustainment logistics to USMC aircraft, or testing prototype Army autonomous ground vehicles?

    Don’t even get me started about software…

    I honestly don’t understand that part of the enterprise well enough to comment. My limited understanding is that those fields tend to draw people from other specialties who transition to, say, acquisitions around the 10-year mark.

    But, almost by design, those fields tend to be highly infused with civil servants and contractors precisely because they can stay for years or even decades without being rotated out.

    I’m persuadable that we’d be better off with uniformed officers filling more of those billets and who stay in the same office for 10, 15 years. Certainly, that they can continue to serve in uniform well into their 50s and 60s rather than getting forced out at 49 or 52. But it’s also quite possible that we’re better off shedding most of that capacity in the uniformed services and simply hiring civilians. It’s not obvious why we need warriors in those billets.

  20. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @DrDaveT: One small clarification point as I have worked in a highly technical acquisition program. The program manager is not the “beeps and squeaks” guy. His or Her charge as the PM is to manage cost, schedule, and performance of the contracts and vendors that deliver the widget(s). The typical program manager relies on a mixed team of contract and government civilian technical experts. There may be several junior Officers that are engineers on this team. The deal they make with their service is that they likely will never make O5 in exchange for specializing in a technical skill.

    Acquisitions is not a typical military specialty and is not a good model to make broader points about the military. There are very few Enlisted and a only handful of Military officers. There are a few exceptions but not many. Military acquisitions is primarily dominated by civil service and contractors hired by the govt for technical expertise.

  21. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @James Joyner:

    Acquisitions is a no shit specialty. The dyed in the wool Acquisitions officers go from Program to Program to develop depth and breadth of knowledge. The officers that transition in…are normally operational subject matter experts. They provide the bridge between the engineers and the troops that will be employ the widget in the field. Engineers have lots of “good” ideas…they have no idea of the combat operational environment so your operational SME is that guy/gal that throws the red flag on ideas/improvements that degrade the combat utility of the widget. Gov’t acquisitions has an incredible lead time to get from design to delivery….the operational expert is their to make sure the widget isn’t irrelevant by the time its deployed to the field. Alot of these Ops SMEs go on to get the certifications to become Program Managers in their own right and stay in the career field until they retire. A great PM is worth their weight in gold.