On the removal of Sondland and Vindman

Two of the key witnesses in the Trump impeachment have been removed from their positions. Gordon Sondland is out as Ambassador to the European Union. Lt. Col Alexander Vindman has been reassigned from the National Security Council to the Pentagon.

Democrats are crying foul, of course. But was it improper for Trump to take these personnel actions?

Sondland’s case seems easy to me. Ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the President. Trump lost confidence in Sondland. Thus, his removal made sense.

Vindman’s case is somewhat different and less easy for me. Unlike Sondland, he’s a career government employee and military man. Thus, ousting him from the government would be highly problematic, in my view.

However, Vindman wasn’t ousted from the government. He was reassigned to the Pentagon.

As far as I know, Vindman will suffer no loss of pay or rank. Nor is it extraordinary for NSC staffers to be sent back to their previous posting. As I understand it, these people often circulate back and forth from their Department to the White House. In fact, Vindman was scheduled to rotate back to the Pentagon this summer.

It may well be true that Vindman’s reassignment was in retaliation for his testimony, or at least that retaliation was one of his motives. In defending his decision, Trump cited Vindman’s report of his conversation with Ukraine’s president, calling it “inaccurate.” (I think Vindman’s report and his testimony held up well.)

In addition, Trump cited “insubordination.” He was relying, I assume, on an order from the White House that Vindman not testify before Congress.

Trump also said that the person Vindman reported to at the NSC gave him “a horrendous report.” However, during his testimony Vindman read from his fitness report. It stated: “Alex is a top 1 percent military officer . . . He is brilliant, unflappable, and exercises excellent judgment.”

In any event, the bottom line for me is that the president should have NSC staffers he trusts. He doesn’t trust Vindman. Thus, it made sense to transfer him back to the Pentagon.

Had Trump gone further and taken some extraordinary measure of retaliation — e.g., firing Vindman from the government, demoting him, or slashing his pay — that would be objectionable, in my view. But Trump didn’t. He simply moved Vindman back to his old posting (albeit unceremoniously), as is commonly done with NSC staffers.

The counterargument is that “whistleblowers” like Vindman won’t come forward in the future if they face the consequences he did. But that’s why the lack of severity of these consequences is important. I’m confident that Vindman would have acted just as he did had he known that doing so would hasten his move back to the Pentagon.

Trump could have waited until this summer, when Vindman was scheduled to leave. That might have been the more prudent course. However, I don’t think Trump deserves the flak he is taking for reassigning Vindman.

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