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Alexander Vindman sues Trump allies for alleged intimidation over impeachment hearing

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in November 2019 during the impeachment inquiry against former President Donald Trump.
Drew Angerer
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Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in November 2019 during the impeachment inquiry against former President Donald Trump.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is suing Donald Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani and two former White House staffers for allegedly seeking to prevent and later punish him for testifying in the first impeachment of Donald Trump.

In his civil lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Washington, D.C., Vindman accuses the defendants of engaging in an "intentional, concerted campaign of unlawful intimidation and retaliation" against him for testifying before Congress in 2019.

Vindman, an Iraq war veteran who served as a Ukraine expert on the National Security Council in the Trump White House, emerged as a key witness in the impeachment proceedings against then-President Trump. He testified about a phone call Trump had with Ukraine's president — a call that was central to the allegations against Trump.

The lawsuit names Trump Jr., Giuliani and former White House communications staffers Dan Scavino and Julia Hahn as defendants. It accuses the foursome of meeting to coordinate targets and talking points aimed at pushing false narratives about Vindman, including the baseless claim that he was a Ukrainian spy and that he lied under oath.

"Defendants' campaign against Lt. Col. Vindman was designed to inflict maximum damage by creating and spreading disinformation that they knew would be picked up and amplified by anchors at Fox News, other right-wing media outlets, and across social media — all while Lt. Col. Vindman 's active status prevented him from effectively defending himself," the lawsuit reads. "The campaign destroyed Lt. Col. Vindman's ability to serve in any national security position or foreign affairs role, and indeed, to continue the career he had pursued for his entire adult life."

NPR has reached out to former President Trump's spokesperson for comment.

To recap: Vindman listened to Trump's now-infamous 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in which Trump encouraged Ukraine to publicly investigate then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in exchange for security assistance funds and a White House visit.

Vindman reported his concerns through official channels at the National Security Council. Ultimately, the Democratic-led House held an impeachment inquiry in which Vindman testified before Congress twice — once behind closed doors and once publicly.

The House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump, who was ultimately acquitted in the Senate trial.

Trump fired Vindman from his White House National Security Council assignment in February. His twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, was fired from the NSC the same day.

Vindman has spoken publicly about the bullying and vitriol he faced from the Trump administration and its supporters, which he cited as the reason for his retirement from the military in July 2020.

In an op-ed published in USA Today on Wednesday, Vindman said he did not regret telling the truth, but wished it hadn't ended his career, upended his life and taken such a toll on his family. He regretted not filing the lawsuit sooner, he said, both for his sake and for "the other public servants who have been similarly tested."

"I've been disheartened to see so little accountability for what I experienced and other abuses of power that took place during that time," he wrote. "I worry about what that means for future whistleblowers, regardless of issue or party, who also want to do the right thing."

Vindman said he filed the lawsuit because he believes in the importance of citizen democracy, an especially personal cause for someone who spent two decades in the military working to defend it after fleeing autocratic oppression in the Soviet Union as a child.

He also said that while impeachment proceedings may be over, "the broader harm to our democracy has not been redressed," and — noting that witnesses subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 committee are refusing to cooperate — stressed that the need for accountability is only growing more urgent.

"America aspires to be a country governed by the rule of law — where the law applies equally to everyone and protects everyone, from the most powerful to the least," he wrote. "My case is a test of that proposition. I know the hill I'm about to climb might be steep, but I think it's worthwhile."

The lawsuit alleges this group violated federal civil rights law by targeting Vindman

The lawsuit outlines specific allegations of intimidation and retaliation, and says they had the intended effect of encouraging other Trump supporters to threaten Vindman and his family. It describes the impact those incidents had on his personal and professional life and seeks unspecified damages as a result.

It accuses the defendants of violating federal civil rights laws that protect federal officials from intimidation and retaliation. It specifically points to a section of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 that makes it illegal to conspire to interfere with any witness's ability to testify, among other things.

"President Trump and his aides and other close associates, including Defendants, waged a targeted campaign against Lt. Col. Vindman for upholding his oath of office and telling the truth," the lawsuit alleges. "That they attacked Lt. Col. Vindman with such coordinated precision should come as no surprise. It is implausible that there would not be a high degree of coordination by the White House and close allies responding to a presidential impeachment ... But in this case, Defendants employed the playbook with an agreed-upon unlawful purpose — in essence, witness intimidation and obstruction of justice."

The lawsuit alleges the former president made this clear from the outset of the proceedings when he said in a tweet that there would be "big consequences" for anyone who cooperated against him.

It argues that the defendants made a concerted effort to target Vindman, citing the "nearly identical timing and substance of their attacks," known instances of communication about him, the close relationships and working history of the associates and their incentives to do so again.

Additionally, the lawsuit describes the favorable relationship and "revolving door" of senior staff between the Trump administration and Fox News, and alleges that the network was a key part of the White House's strategy for attacking perceived political enemies like former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

Vindman alleges that the conspiracy against him followed the same playbook, "with an explicit and unlawful purpose." As he describes it, it began with direct and public threats by Trump, followed by a campaign to smear and intimidate him, "with the intended effect of ruining his career and subjecting him and his family to further threats and harassment."

He alleges that Fox hosts like Laura Ingraham participated in this campaign by publishing and amplifying false information, such as that he was a Ukranian spy or had lied under oath, and that the network refused to retract the false allegations even after a written request from his lawyer.

"The campaign was waged on social media and on allied media outlets such as Fox News by President Trump, members of his Administration including Defendants Scavino and Hahn, allies outside the White House including Defendants Donald Trump, Jr. and Rudy Giuliani (who was doing Trump's bidding as well as his own), Laura Ingraham and others at Fox News, and ultimately, even certain members of Congress," the lawsuit says.

NPR has reached out to Fox News for comment.

Vindman says he and his family suffered harm as a result of the alleged campaign

The lawsuit says that Vindman and his family members suffered "significant reputational, emotional and financial harm" as a result of the defendants' alleged actions.

It described the allegations as especially damaging to a member of the U.S. military and someone who works in intelligence, effectively preventing Vindman from advancing his career. He was also limited from finding work in other fields, with the lawsuit alleging that multiple unnamed academic institutions and think tanks told Vindman it was too risky to associate with him after the public attacks he faced in 2019 and 2020.

Vindman and his family also changed their lifestyles out of fear for their safety, which the lawsuit says incurred considerable costs.

He and his wife Rachel reportedly received threats on social media and email from strangers as well as fellow members of the military.

"After 20 years in the military, it was especially painful and disappointing to receive such threats from fellow servicemembers," the lawsuit reads. "The Department of Defense investigated these threats and disciplined more than one of the perpetrators."

The couple considered moving to a military base in late 2019 and early 2020 for their protection, but the lawsuit says they ultimately decided not to for fear of spurring more unwanted media attention.

They did, however, request and receive extra protection from the military for an unspecified amount of time, and local police reportedly provided additional patrols around their family home.

Even so, Vindman's wife and daughter decided to leave the house less frequently to reduce their risk, with Rachel cutting back on work hours out of concern for the attention she and her colleagues would receive. They also decided to skip certain family and social events.

After his retirement, Vindman paid to upgrade their home security system out of fear of continuing threats to his family's safety. The lawsuit also says he "suffered harm due to the psychological effects, and associated physical effects, of Defendants' actions."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.