LTC Vindman Update

Revisiting a recent post.

My Friday morning post “LTC Vindman Could be Court-Martialed for Testifying to Congress” garnered a lot of discussion on Twitter, some of it thoughtful, over the weekend.

Outside the context of the blog, which I view as a running conversation with the regular readership, many saw it as clickbait or, strangely, an argument that he should be court-martialed.

The piece was built around a report by Meghann Meyers, the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times, titled “How the Army officer who testified against Trump could end up in a court-martial” and based on her interview with attorney Sean Timmons. It was speculative and quoted other sources saying that the outcome was unlikely—a conclusion that I also reached in my post.

After the Twitter back-and-forth and re-reading Meyers’ story, however, I disagree with Timmon’s assertion that a court-martial is “not far-fetched.”

While the lede asserts that “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,” the story doesn’t actually support that. Rather, several paragraphs in, we’re told, “The White House’s impeachment inquiry policy is laid out in an Oct. 8 letter from its senior counsel, Pat Cipollone, calling the investigation invalid and unconstitutional.” A policy letter from the White House senior counsel is not an order from the commander-in-chief.

Even if it were an order—or if there were a more direct order from Trump—Timmons’ rationale for court-martial is strained. Still, I disagree with Jim Golby, himself an Army lieutenant colonel and a bonafide expert on civil-military relations, that such an order would be “incontrovertibly an illegal order” if based on the premise that the information was classified and not releasable to Congress. “Josh,” an Army JAG who I’ve followed on Twitter for years agrees that it’s “a tough gray area.”

Still, as noted in the original post and my various back-and-forths on Twitter, I agree with Golby that ordering an officer not to testify to Congress in an impeachment inquiry for the actual purpose of covering the President’s ass (my words, not his) rather than protecting truly sensitive national security information is illegal. The question is whether Vindman could be charged under that circumstance. I continue to believe that he could but almost certainly won’t.

Golby believes the very question is overly provocative and he’s perhaps right. I saw it more as an intellectual exercise about the lengths a commander-in-chief who manifestly doesn’t feel constrained by the historical norms of the office might go. But there’s no evidence that he’s even contemplating this particular action.

I still believe that the far more likely course of action is that Vindman gets removed from his post at the National Security Council and gets an Officer Evaluation Report that’s sufficiently subpar as to be a career-ender. But even that’s speculative; we’ll know when we know.

Relatedly, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former NSC staffer whose insights I value contacted me privately to challenge my assertion in the post that Vindman had a “promising career—one doesn’t get selected for the NSC staff as a terminal assignment.”

It turns out that, while all manner of Washington assignments are career-enhancing, this particular one is often a career-killer. Because the job is to reach back down to one’s agency and tell them to execute the White House’s bidding, junior officers are frequently put in a position where they’ll ruffle the feathers of much-more-senior officers. Some survive and thrive in that position but many do not.

UPDATE (1056): My colleague Jill Goldenziel, an NYU-trained lawyer and Harvard PhD, observes, “We teach our students to critically think and push back and work with the interagency and when I see and hear about how SOME (by no means all) senior officers behave sometimes I fear we are teaching them to commit career suicide.”

While we don’t emphasize the consequences as much as the ethics, they’re well understood. As I note in my response, “I first started having that conversation as a first-year cadet way back in 1984. It was always presented in the context of choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. That doing the right thing could and probably would end your career was taken almost as a given.”

Vindman didn’t undertake reporting what he believed to be the misconduct of his commander-in-chief lightly. He knew damned well that it would likely have negative consequences. His conscience and professional code required that he do the right thing anyway.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Thanx for the elaborations James.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    Good to get the military perspective on this. Thanks

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  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    Very interesting details. Thanks.

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  4. JKB says:

    Vindman didn’t undertake reporting what he believed to be the misconduct of his commander-in-chief lightly. He knew damned well that it would likely have negative consequences. His conscience and professional code required that he do the right thing anyway.

    That’s a nice patina, but more likely, knowing he’s done, Vindman is purchasing a sinecure for his post-Army career. Vindman has a history of disparaging the US to foreign military members, and as a partisan for Obama. He is a serious symptom of the bad Staff Infection among the career staffers who are suppose to be non-partisan professional advisors

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  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Asa usual, you’re a liar. In this case a slanderer.

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  6. mattbernius says:

    It remains striking how much @JKB (and his fellow travelers) studiously avoid attacking what we know of the substance of the testimony and instead focuses on trying to attack potential motivations. Heck he downstairs even find anything to really attack within James’s analysis above.

    I cannot help but wonder why that continues to be the case.

    I look forward to when we invariably hit “yes it’s all true and there was nothing worng with it.”

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    @mattbernius:
    Cult Leader is perfect, therefore all criticism is evil. That’s the little hamster wheel @JKB runs around on.

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  8. Mikey says:

    @JKB: Blah, blah, blah. Smear the messenger, excuse the blatant abuses of power by the disaster of a President to whom you are so cultishly devoted.

    If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you don’t have the facts, argue the law. If you have neither, smear the people who do. You and the rest of the Trumpist lickspittles quite clearly have neither.

    Party-over-country treason enablers, the disgusting lot of you.

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  9. Teve says:

    @Michael Reynolds: somebody said Democrats love America like a wife loves her husband, Republicans love America like a toddler loves Mommy.

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  10. dazedandconfused says:

    Officers swear to defend the Constitution, not swear total obedience to the current CIC, which is why it’s technically OK to refuse to obey an illegal order. For that reason I would rule a court martial out. A kinder, gentler drumming-out will be his fate.

    Means a big raise, if he plays his cards even half-right though. He should not be pitied.

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  11. DrDaveT says:

    A policy letter from the White House senior counsel is not an order from the commander-in-chief.

    Thanks for making that point, James.

    Every President wears several hats, and has different powers and responsibilities that go with each. It has been clear from Day 1 that Trump simply doesn’t get this — he cannot distinguish in his mind his personae as President of the US, head of the Executive Branch, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, CEO of his personal businesses, head of his family, employer of White House political staff, client of his personal counsel, etc. His only model of chain-of-command is the mafia model: personal fealty and deference to those known to be in favor.

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  12. CSK says:

    Trump says he has more information about Vindman that will be coming out “very soon.” The implication is, of course, that it will be damaging to Vindman.

    It seems to me I’ve heard the same song from Trump many, many times before about many, many different people. Only there’s never any follow-up.

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  13. An Interested Party says:

    somebody said Democrats love America like a wife loves her husband, Republicans love America like a toddler loves Mommy.

    More like Republicans love America like a husband who claims to love his wife but who constantly commits spousal abuse…

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  14. Jim Brown 32 says:

    In order for this to have any legs, Trump would have to show that he directly ordered Vindman not to testify OR that he ordered him through the chain of command. For an NSC level O5…that could be 4 people starting with the National Security Advisor. Trump does operate through a chain. He runs a flat organization where subordinates rise and fall in importance based on personal fealty.

    His position, quite frankly, doesn’t look like a trampoline position for future General Officers…more than likely the worst he cost himself is a good look at Full Colonel. More than likely, the position is a reward retirement job for a solid LTC who has and interest and affinity for the region. The National Security Advisor is not high on the list of political appointees to work for a fast track future General. Maybe if the officer were a direct aide…this guy sounds like he did actual work.

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  15. CSK says:
  16. CSK says:

    @CSK: Sorry about this; the link is correct, but it goes to a different article. The piece is by Mark Bowden.

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  17. mattbernius says:

    JJ wrote:

    As I note in my response, “I first started having that conversation as a first-year cadet way back in 1984. It was always presented in the context of choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. That doing the right thing could and probably would end your career was taken almost as a given.”

    Vindman didn’t undertake reporting what he believed to be the misconduct of his commander-in-chief lightly. He knew damned well that it would likely have negative consequences. His conscience and professional code required that he do the right thing anyway.

    I saw this when you posted the quote to Twitter this morning James and I am happy to see you added this here.

    I think this ultimate sets out the fundamental stakes of this. It’s clear that everything in ones interpretation of this boils down to whether one believes that PoTUS was engaged in misconduct.

    What I find particularly damning is, at least at this moment, the President’s defenders refuse to address the conduct – for whatever reason. Likewise they also refuse to ask why conservative people of good character see this conduct as wrong.

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  18. Jax says:

    @mattbernius: That would require waaaaay too much introspection. Very similar to team sports, only it’s Team Trump, with a twist of Reality Tv and getting voted off the island like it’s Lord of the Flies. If you’re not Team Trump, you are a Loser, regardless of your politics.

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  19. de stijl says:

    I stumbled upon some early Talkings Heads ephemera on youtube.

    Talking Heads CBS Studios Demos 1975.

    So cool!

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  20. de stijl says:

    I apologize. Meant my last comment to be on the open forum. Sorry.

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  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Just finished the article in the magazine this month. Very interesting. Not much in the way of new revelations or anything, but heightening the differences and yuuuuuuuge paradigm shift from the past is interesting. And disconcerting. And yet Trump is as likely to win as to lose still at the moment.

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  22. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I know. There are a couple of more pieces about Trump in The Atlantic today. Good stuff. I check there every morning.

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  23. john430 says:

    Mr. Joyner: LTC Vindman was making political claims and partisan statements while in uniform. You can’t be so far gone that you can’t remember that is a no-no.

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