LTC Vindman Could be Court-Martialed for Testifying to Congress
Defying the Commander-in-Chief's order will almost certainly ruin a good man's career.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman came to sudden prominence this week when he testified to Congress about President Trump’s improper phone call to his Ukrainian counterpart. He is, to say the least, unlikely to be rewarded for this act of patriotic duty.
Meghann Myers reporting for Military Times [which, in this instance, I must emphasize is a privately-held arm of the Gannett company, not an official government publication]:
When Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman appeared before members of Congress on Tuesday to discuss what he knew about President Trump’s conversations with Ukraine’s president, he was violating an order from his commander in chief not to cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry.
He is likely protected from legal ramifications from showing up to testify, a former Army judge advocate told Military Times on Thursday. But it remains to be seen whether what he told legislators could get him charged with a crime ― and, of course, how his choice to rebel against his White House chain-of-command will affect his career.
“It’s not far-fetched,” Sean Timmons, a managing partner at Tully Rinckey, said. “It’s a murky issue.”
It comes down to whether Trump’s order was lawful, he said. If Trump was trying to prevent Vindman from sharing sensitive information, it could be. If he was trying to prevent testimony, period, it’s not.
The Military Whistleblower Protection Act prohibits government officials from interfering with a member of the military in communicating with Congress or an inspector general. Adding to the complexity is that the president gets to determine what is and isn’t classified.
“If the president were to order the lieutenant colonel not to testify, that would not be a lawful order,” Timmons said. “However, it gets tricky, because you have to obey orders unless it is manifestly unlawful. It’s not clear if such an order would be manifestly unlawful if the president is using his executive authority to prohibit the communication of information that the executive branch determines to be classified, sensitive, top secret, not to be disclosed to anyone without prior authorization.”
In any case, Vindman’s testimony would need to be limited to avoid disclosing anything out of order, Timmons said.
While the notion of charging an officer for complying with a Congressional subpoena would have seemed far-fetched in different times, so would the smearing of a combat-wounded veteran as an enemy agent by the Republican Party and their backers at Fox News. It’s a new reality.
More likely, though, Vindman will simply see a promising career—one doesn’t get selected for the NSC staff as a terminal assignment—come to a premature end. Not officially, of course:
“Lt. Col. Vindman, who has served this country honorably for 20-plus years, is fully supported by the Army like every soldier, having earned a Purple Heart after being wounded in Iraq in 2004,” Army spokesman Matt Leonard told Military Times on Thursday. “As his career assignments reflect, Lt. Col. Vindman has a long history of selfless service to his country, including combat. Lt. Col. Vindman is afforded all protections anyone would be provided in his circumstances.”
A spokesman for the National Security Council, Vindman’s official command, declined to comment on whether he might face an Article 15 investigation.
But the reality is likely quite different:
Beyond any possible legal fallout, Timmons added, it’s more likely that Vindman has torpedoed his career by testifying before Congress.
“…the reality is, whistleblowers often face retaliation through subterfuge,” he said.
Because it’s unlikely Vindman will remain a member of the NSC staff, his service record will have a big gash in it from being moved mid-assignment, Timmons said.
His rater, who signs off on his officer evaluation report, is also likely a senior civilian official, who could give him a less-than-stellar review that might affect his competitiveness for promotion to full colonel. And then, of course, if he’s not promoted, he’ll eventually be forced to retire.
He was reportedly commissioned in January 1999. Unless he gets promoted to full colonel, he’ll be forced into retirement at the 27-year mark, probably January 2026. But, if he’s passed over twice, he may well simply retire.
Then again, January 2026 is a long time from now. Donald Trump won’t be Commander-in-Chief at that point, even if he serves two full terms. There’s certainly a possibility of rehabilitation.
UPDATE (3 November): See my follow-up, “LTC Vindman Update.”