John Kelly defends Vindman for doing ‘exactly’ the right thing in response to an illegal order

For better than a year, John Kelly played the role of chief of staff for Donald Trump, during which time he was the designated the “adult in the room” who would supposedly keep Trump’s bad-baby behavior under control. That went so well. Kelly, who spent the six months before that running Homeland Security and turning the Border Patrol into a meaner and also a meaner force, was apparently unhappy during those White House days. But he could keep quiet for the sake of the children … that he put in cages.

Since then, Kelly has sat out any number of outrages. But it seems that in the post-impeachment world, as Trump is systematically disassembling the vestiges of the Justice Department and sending a key witness in his impeachment proceedings, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, off to somewhere so that “the military can do what they want” to him, Kelly has reached the point of being concerned enough to speak up—just like everyone else who leaves Trump’s White House and speaks out only when it can’t do a damn bit of good.

During his time sitting outside Trump’s office door, Kelly was often described as angry at some Trump policy, or frustrated by his inability to control Trump’s chaotic behavior, or infuriated by Trump’s willingness to listen to anyone who praised him, even when they didn’t have a clue about the facts. But the only effect of that anger seemed to be that for much of his time in office, Kelly was something less than a figurehead. He and Trump seemed to rarely talk, and policies were made without his knowledge or presence.

Now that he’s borrowed Susan Collins’ wagging finger of concern, Kelly has quite a few items on his list. As The Atlantic reports, Kelly spoke to students and guests at Drew University in New Jersey for over an hour, laying out concerns about

Trump’s personal relationship with Vladimir Putin and how it shaped U.S. policy with regard to Russia. Trump’s personal relationship with Kim Jong Un and how it shaped U.S. policy with regard to North Korea. Trump’s intervention in military discipline to pardon service members accused of war crimes. Trump’s absolute fixation on building a border wall and how it shaped policy with regard to Mexico and Central America.

On that last point, Kelly also expressed concern about about the language and tactics Trump used in his immigration policy, including calling all immigrants rapists. Which was very much not an apology for his role in the whole system.

However, one topic on which Kelly was particularly vocal was Trump’s actions against Vindman. Kelly praised the Army colonel, saying that Vindman did just what he was supposed to do when he reported his concerns about Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president. As The Hill reported, Kelly painted Vindman’s actions as just what would be expected of a good officer. “He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave,” said Kelly. “He went and told his boss what he just heard.”

Kelly described what Trump has said was a “perfect call” as a fundamental change in the relationship between the United States and Ukraine. Until that point, starting during the Obama administration, the United States had a policy of supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia. With that call, Trump predicated that support on getting a personal political advantage.

“We teach them, don’t follow an illegal order.” said Kelly. “And if you’re ever given one, you’ll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss.”

But, of course, John Kelly is just one of “Trump’s generals”—the group that Trump used to give himself a semblance of credibility during his first days in office. All of them have since been disposed of, and Kelly’s words are likely to have all the sting of a tongue-lashing from James Mattis, or … Pufnstuf? Something like that.

Trump doesn’t need generals anymore. Or laws. But he may learn something from Kelly—that it’s time to get rid of the idea of an illegal order. When it comes from Trump, it can’t be illegal.

National security adviser O’Brien claims Vindman’s removal wasn’t retaliation. Trump disagrees

One good measure of how very, very far down an unpleasant rabbit hole the nation has plunged is simply this: John Bolton’s time as national security adviser now seems not so awful. Sure, Bolton is a paranoid warmonger who never met a bomb he didn’t like. On the other hand, he did seem to have some concerns other than whether he was making Donald Trump happy in every moment. When it comes to new national security adviser Robert O’Brien, the best that can be said is that he seems to be … unencumbered by ethics.

On Tuesday, not only did O’Brien embrace xenophobic Twitter conspiracy theories that the coronavirus outbreak in China might be a bioweapon, but he also claimed that the removal of both Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his twin brother from the National Security Council was not retaliation for Vindman’s testimony during House impeachment hearings against Donald Trump. But this seems like a time when O’Brien should be reading Twitter. Because that claim is absolutely counter to what Trump has openly admitted.

O’Brien’s claims about Vindman came at the same venue where he made his chuckling suggestion that China might have created a virus that has now infected over 40,000 of its own citizens, a discussion at the Atlantic Council think tank. During that discussion, The Wall Street Journal reports, O’Brien claimed that he could “absolutely” say that the Vindman brothers were “not retaliated against.” Instead, said O’Brien, it was simply “time for them to go back” to the Army, because “their services were no longer needed.”

Alexander Vindman was the White House’s top expert on Ukraine, including on its governmental affairs and its military concerns. Clearly Trump no longer needs that expertise. He has Rudy Giuliani to fill that role. Yevgeny Vindman’s role on the NSC was as an expert on international law and ethics. So … clearly a superfluous position in the Trump White House.

Of course, Trump has given a different reason for the removal of Alexander Vindman, calling him a “never Trumper” and saying that he was “very insubordinate” for responding to a congressional subpoena and reporting his concerns about the plot to extort Ukraine. In an appearance on Tuesday, Trump told reports that Vindman had “reported a false call,” without explaining what he meant by this. And rather than just saying that Vindman had returned to the Army, Trump said that he had been sent “to a much different location” where “the military can handle him any way they want.” Which makes it seem much more like Vindman is on his way to Abu Ghraib than to the Pentagon. Trump went on to suggest that Vindman should face “disciplinary action” for the crime of testifying—a statement that made a heartbreaking lie of Vindman’s assurance to his father that in America, he could come to no harm for telling the truth.

Even O’Brien’s claim that the Vindman brothers had been sent home after completing their time at the White House only lasted a few more sentences, before the new national security adviser retreated to the phrase that Trump supporters have been using to justify the firing of qualified staffers since the day Trump began his occupation: “At the end of the day,” said O’Brien, “the president is entitled to staffers that want to execute his policies and he has confidence in.”

There’s been little doubt from day one, and absolutely no doubt since the acquittal vote in the Senate, that what’s meant by this is that Trump will not tolerate anyone who presents the least obstacle to corruption. O’Brien seems safe on this point.

And O’Brien might even have an excuse for passing on Twitter-based conspiracy theories about the origin of the Corvid-19 virus: On a National Security Council so depleted of resources that only those loyal to Trump remain, conspiracy theories from the back side of the web might be the best intelligence available.

U.S. is ‘not a banana republic,’ Trump official says, but his boss is determined to show that it is

Donald Trump isn’t stopping at getting Attorney General William Barr to reduce the Justice Department’s sentencing request for Trump buddy Roger Stone. He’s sending more messages to more parts of the government about how to show personal loyalty to Donald Trump rather than loyalty to the rule of law. Trump claimed to reporters that whether to discipline Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is “going to be up to the military.” But then he kept talking. “But if you look at what happened,” he said, “I mean they’re going to, certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that.” And “that” is Vindman testifying to the House, under subpoena.

“We’re not a banana republic where lieutenant colonels get together and decide what the policy is,” said national security adviser Robert O’Brien, justifying the firing of Vindman and his brother Yevgeny, who did not testify in the impeachment inquiry. No, we’re a banana republic where someone can be fired for testifying under subpoena to a duly elected House of Representatives working within its constitutional authority, by a president who came into office despite more people voting for his opponent and felt freed to persecute people who testified against him—along with their family members—because he was acquitted by 52 senators who represent fewer people than the 48 senators voting for his conviction.

The Vindman brothers did not try to “get together and decide what the policy is.” One of them testified before Congress, under subpoena. That’s it. But while some Senate Republicans are very concerned about the firing of Gordon Sondland from the post as ambassador to the European Union that he bought with $1 million in inauguration contributions, their concern is partly because he might be smeared by the association of having been fired on the same day as Vindman. 

“I agreed with the decision on Vindman,” Sen. Thom Tillis said. “I just felt like having the two have some distance would have been appropriate.” Heaven forbid a major Republican donor should be treated in a similar way to some immigrant Army officer with subject matter expertise rather than millions of dollars.

Trump’s escalating war with the imaginary deep state has also led to him withdrawing one nomination to an administration post and planning to withdraw another because he decided that the people he’d previously nominated had been unacceptably disloyal, with one questioning his illegal hold on Ukraine aid as he tried to coerce Ukraine into investigating his political opponents and another being involved in prosecuting Trump associates like Stone and Paul Manafort.

And even beyond the things they think are fine and dandy, like firing Vindman, Senate Republicans (minus Mitt Romney) are complicit in every single thing Trump does. They signed off on his abuse of power to cheat in this year’s elections, and in so doing sent him the message that they will protect him no matter what.

The Constitution of the United States, and the nation’s future as a democracy, have a Donald Trump problem. But they equally have a Republican Party problem.

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Trump and Barr ramp up their abuses of power—and Senate Republicans are responsible for all of it

This is what a liberated post-acquittal Donald Trump looks like: not chastened, as some of the more dishonest Senate Republicans said they hoped he would be, but ever more brazen in his corruption and his destruction of democratic institutions. Tuesday was a nightmare for justice in the United States of America, with three top prosecutors either stepping down from the case or resigning entirely as Attorney General William Barr obeyed a Trump tweet and intervened in the sentencing recommendations for Trump buddy Roger Stone.

That came after the news that Barr is working with Rudy Giuliani to dig up and launder dirt on Trump’s political opponents, and after the firing of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his brother from their White House jobs because he testified at the impeachment inquiry. Trump and Barr are committing the abuses, but every single Republican senator other than Mitt Romney gave them permission. Said “Go right ahead, we won’t do a thing about it.”

Every day that goes by and every new abuse that Trump commits shows why it's so important to retake the Senate. Please dig deep to defeat vulnerable Republicans in 2020.

I’m talking about Susan Collins, up for reelection in Maine. Cory Gardner, up for reelection in Colorado. Joni Ernst, in Iowa. Thom Tillis, in North Carolina. Kelly Loeffler, who will be facing Georgia voters for the first time after being appointed to replace former Sen. Johnny Isakson. David Perdue, also in Georgia, meaning there are two Senate seats at stake in one state. Martha McSally, who lost a Senate election in Arizona in 2018 and was appointed to a Senate seat anyway—she needs to lose for a second time in a row. 

Every single one of these people voted to let Trump continue his lawlessness. They voted that way when any halfway sensible person knew that he would take the vote as permission to do more and worse. These senators intended to give him that permission—and do more and worse he has. He has been publicly vindictive against Vindman for daring to testify to what Trump did on Ukraine. His attorney general is systematically perverting the administration of justice to cater to Trump’s personal desires, to protect his friends and persecute his opponents, making a mockery of the Justice Department's mission statement to “ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.” 

Every Republican senator but Mitt Romney voted to tell Trump that he is above the law. In 2020, voters can make some of them pay for that. Give now to send the opposite message—that no one is above the law—by defeating these Republicans in 2020.

Trump’s targeting of truth tellers is turning the intelligence community into a crowd of cowards

Donald Trump’s removal of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, his brother Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was not a “massacre” in the spirit of what happened with Richard Nixon’s dismissal of special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Because what raised the body count in Nixon’s case was that his own people resigned rather than carry out clearly immoral orders. That’s not a problem for Trump.

The whole story of Donald Trump’s occupation of the White House has been one in which every unit of the government—from the EPA to the DOJ to the State Department—has been systematically cleansed of competency in favor of reflexive obedience. So naturally no one at the White House had a second thought about escorting out a decorated veteran for the crime of speaking the truth, or another veteran for the crime of being related to someone Trump doesn’t like. And just as naturally, Trump had no hesitation in owning these actions.

But what Trump has done so far, may be just a hint of the destruction to come, and what he’s already done to the intelligence agencies represents a looming threat from both inside and outside the nation.

Every time Trump plumbs new depths of odiousness, his staff makes a scramble to create an excuse. On Friday, that excuse was that Vindman wasn’t being let go because he obeyed a congressional subpoena; it was all just part of a “shrinking” of Trump’s already wildly reduced White House staff. 

And every time Trump’s staff constructs one of these pretexts for why he’s not as awful as he seems, Trump rushes forward to make it clear that he so, so is. Just as he continuously blew up the various reasons that Republicans concocted as excuses for Trump’s actions in Ukraine, he couldn’t allow the public to think that he was anything less than a monster in sending away Vindman.

That’s why Trump was on Twitter Saturday morning to make it clear he was sacking the Ukraine expert for being “very insubordinate.” Why Yevgeny Vindman was also shipped off wasn’t clear. Apparently he was insubordinate adjacent. Trump’s advisers surely have an excuse for that one, too.

Of course, both Vindmans are just immigrants in the armed services. As The Washington Post reported last November, Trump’s attitude in that area was godawful on multiple fronts.

“The Trump administration has reversed almost all progress, out loud and with purpose. Their message to immigrant service members is the same as that to Vindman: You are foreign, you are suspect, you cannot belong.”

But if what Trump has done so far seems egregious (because it is), it’s barely a patch on things to come. As The Washington Post reports, Trump has his staff working up the removal of intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson. Atkinson’s involvement was simply that he notified Congress of the existence of a whistleblower complain as required by law

Who watches the watchmen? Not a damned soul, apparently. Or at least no one who is allowed to do anything about it. Like speak.

At the State Department, at the National Security Council, at the CIA, the FBI, the DOJ … everywhere in the government the actions have been the same. Long term non-partisan employees have been forced from their positions and roles that have never in the past been political have been made over in the service of Trump. By long tradition, the CIA director does not attend the State of the Union address to avoid even a symbolic suggestion that the agency acts out of anything but its best interpretation of the information. But Gina Haspel was there on Tuesday night, bouncing up with the best Republican jack-in-the-boxes to applaud every moment of Trump’s partisan attacks and game show stunts.

Even before Trump gets around to sacking Atkinson, the conversion of the intelligence community into another aspect of his campaign machinery is already clear. As Politico reports, the regular briefing of Congress on threats to the nation has been delayed. The reason for that delay: “fears of provoking Trump's ire.”

Even though the purpose of this annual appearance is to outline the biggest threats to the nation in front of the nation, intelligence agencies are now arguing to move the whole hearing behind closed doors. More than that, they want the whole threat overview classified. After all, people don’t need to know what the dangers are; not when the biggest is sitting on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Intelligence agencies don’t want to tell Congress the truth about what is happening in public, because they’re afraid they might say something Trump doesn’t like. Because saying something that Trump doesn’t like can be punished. Even if it’s true.

Especially if it’s true.

Lt. Col. Vindman fired from White House job immediately following personal attack by Trump

What do you know—Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman has been fired from his National Security Council job almost immediately after Donald Trump said, “You think I’m supposed to be happy with him? I’m not,” but that staff would “make that decision” about Vindman’s future at the White House following his impeachment inquiry testimony about Trump’s extremely imperfect Ukraine call.

Trump then retweeted an attack on Vindman, making it 100% clear what “staff” were supposed to be doing about him, and lo and behold, Vindman was out of his job. Since he’s active-duty military, he is expected to be transferred elsewhere.

“Today, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman was escorted out of the White House where he has dutifully served his country and his President.  He does so having spoken publicly once, and only pursuant to a subpoena from the United States Congress,” Vindman’s lawyer said. “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. [He] was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”

White House plans retaliation against Vindman over impeachment testimony

What do you know? The same day as Donald Trump’s vindictive “celebration” of his acquittal, news came out that the White House is planning to push Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman out at the National Security Council—validating the concerns of the nonpartisan officials who testified in the impeachment inquiry.

Vindman was a key witness in the impeachment inquiry. In his capacity as an NSC Ukraine expert, he was on Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and immediately thought it was inappropriate and went to the NSC’s top lawyer to raise concerns. And his testimony was especially powerful, coming from an immigrant and a decorated Army officer, and because, as his former boss Dr. Fiona Hill said, he clearly wasn’t a politically adept diplomat. He was a guy with a moral compass trying to find his way in a corrupt environment.

Bloomberg reports that Vindman would likely be rotated to the Department of Defense, ending his time at the White House several months early, and says, “The White House intends to portray any house-cleaning as part of a downsizing of the NSC staff,” according to two sources “familiar with the matter.” There’s no word on what will happen to his brother, Yevgeny Vindman, who also works for the NSC. At Wednesday’s appalling celebration, Trump made a sneering reference to “Lt. Col. Vindman and his twin brother,” so you know that both are on his mind. 

The White House move on Vindman is particularly flagrant since The Washington Post reports that Vindman had already decided to leave his post early—but apparently Trump needed to have a “You can’t quit because I fired you” moment.