Desperate to undercut the credibility of a White House official who testified to the House impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, Republicans resorted to an age-old smear tactic by questioning the loyalty of the witness, a naturalized American citizen who fled the Soviet persecution of Jews as a child and rose to the rank of Army colonel.
The witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, is a decorated Iraq War veteran who advises the National Security Council on Ukraine and Russia. According to his prepared testimony, Vindman notified White House lawyers on two occasions in July that President Donald Trump and his aides had politicized aid to Ukraine, by pressing Ukraine’s president to help smear Democrats in return for nearly $400 million in security assistance.
Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, reportedly told House impeachment investigators that the “transcript” released by the White House of a July call between Trump and Ukraine’s president was edited to exclude some references to Joe Biden and the Ukrainian gas company advised by his son Hunter.
Even before he testified, Republican operatives and cable news pundits began a coordinated effort to attack Vindman, implying that a man whose family had been forced to flee the Soviet Union as members of a persecuted minority when he was 3 years old might secretly have been working to advance Ukrainian interests over those of the United States.
“Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham said on Monday night. Ingraham cited as evidence a report that Vindman had been asked by Ukrainians how to deal with unofficial requests from the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate debunked conspiracy theories about Biden and supposed Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election.
The former Justice Department official John Yoo, who notoriously argued that the torture of suspected terrorists was legal, then told Ingraham that Vindman might have committed “espionage.”
Julia Ioffe, an American journalist whose family also fled the Soviet Union, observed on Twitter that “Laura Ingraham accusing Alexander Vindman, a Soviet Jewish refugee who became a decorated U.S. Army veteran, of dual loyalty is, well, anti-Semitic.”
“While Trump has a history of attacking anyone who questions his power, there is a particularly insidious history to questioning the loyalty of Jewish émigrés,” Ioffe explained in a GQ profile of Vindman published on Tuesday. “According to a source who knows the family, Vindman’s grandfather died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II. After the war was over and the state of Israel was founded, Stalin unleashed a bloody and ruthless campaign against Soviet Jewry. He called them ‘rootless cosmopolitans,’ a wandering people who had no real roots in the Russian soil, and therefore no loyalty to the Soviet state. The campaign continued even after Stalin died, with harsh quotas imposed in universities. Politically sensitive jobs were closed to Jews because their loyalty could not be trusted. In everyday life, Soviet Jews, whose ancestors had been in living in Russia for centuries, were told to ‘go to your Israel’ or to return to their ‘historic homeland.'”
“This constant harassment and discrimination, combined with Western pressure, triggered a mass exodus, with millions of Jews leaving the Soviet Union because it had decided that they were second-class citizens and not to be trusted,” Ioffe wrote. “The Vindmans were part of that exodus.”
In a tweet, Giuliani himself referred to Vindman as, “A US gov. employee who has reportedly been advising two gov’s? No wonder he is confused and feels pressure.” That characterization was, however, misleading, since Vindman was not working for Ukraine. He was responding, as an American official overseeing official White House policy, to requests for clarification from Ukrainian officials who were confused about Giuliani’s unofficial efforts to coerce their president.
As Financial Times correspondent Max Seddon pointed out, two of the central figures in the president’s Ukraine gambit, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who helped Giuliani apply pressure on Ukrainian officials, were also Soviet-born Jews who found refuge in the United States.
Brian Kilmeade, a host of the morning show “Fox and Friends,” told viewers on Tuesday morning that Vindman, who gave the impeachment inquiry a firsthand account of Trump’s July phone call with Zelensky, which he listened to in real time, “is from the Soviet Union, he emigrated here, and has an affinity to the Ukrainian people.”
A short time later, Sean Duffy, a former Republican congressman and paid CNN contributor, incorrectly described Vindman as Ukrainian and repeated the bizarre charge that the colonel might be more loyal to the country where his family was discriminated against than to the place that gave them refuge.
Sean Duffy on CNN on Army Lt. Col. Vindman: "It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don't know that he's concerned about American policy ... we all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from ... he has an affinity for the Ukraine." pic.twitter.com/dlsYlTnCwR— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 29, 2019
“It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy,” Duffy claimed. In fact, Vindman said that, behind the scenes, he simply pushed for Trump to carry out official American policy by releasing congressionally mandated aid to Ukraine, to help the country defend itself against Russian-backed separatists.
“We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from,” Duffy added, channeling Kellyanne Conway. “Like me, I’m sure that Vindman has the same affinity.”
Leonid Ragozin, who has written about the multicultural nature of Soviet society, and the profound dislocation felt by many former Soviet citizens whose identities do not fit neatly into ethnic nationalist states, argued that it is absurd to insist that Vindman, “who left the Soviet Union as a Jewish refugee at the age of three and was raised in the Russian district of New York,” is Ukrainian American. The effort to cast Vindman as a Ukrainian, Ragozin added, “is a good example of how many in the West are trying to fit absolutely everything in Eastern Europe into their cretinous nationalist mind frame.”
Despite the fact that the Soviet-born, Jewish American colonel is not an ethnic Ukrainian, the effort to mislead the American public about his origins and presumed loyalties succeeded to some extent. On Tuesday afternoon, for example, the New York Times homepage carried a headline that read, “Who Is Vindman? A Ukrainian Refugee Who Rose to the White House.”
While Republicans leaned in to the anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty, framing Vindman in a manner once used to attack the French army captain Alfred Dreyfus — a Jewish French army officer falsely accused and convicted of spying for Germany in 1894 — the colonel told the House inquiry that he had a refugee’s “deep appreciation for American values and ideals and the power of freedom.”
Vindman, who grew up in Brighton Beach, a Brooklyn neighborhood dominated by the Soviet diaspora, was interviewed there in 1985, along with his twin brother and his grandmother, for a Ken Burns documentary about the Statue of Liberty.
As @pbump of @washingtonpost unearthed today, Army Lt. Col. Vindman, who is testifying before Congress today, was featured as a young boy in the @KenBurns Academy Award-nominated doc "The Statue of Liberty" in 1985.— UNUMKenBurns (@UNUMKenBurns) October 29, 2019
Watch the full clip on UNUM here: https://t.co/aLDj0Fpjsx pic.twitter.com/QAMe6BjkAL
A clip from the documentary posted online offers even more evidence that the Vindmans were hardly Ukrainian nationalists. Speaking at the same time to the camera, the two boys say: “We came from Kiev” and “We came from Russia.” At the time, Ukraine was not an independent country, and the whole of the Soviet Union was often described as if it was still the old Russian empire.
On Tuesday, Vindman told the House inquiry that he was motivated by love of country to step forward and describe what he viewed as the president’s undermining of national security by withholding arms from a country invaded by Russia.
“My family fled the Soviet Union when I was three and a half years old,” Vindman said. “For many years, life was quite difficult. In spite of our challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American dream.”
“I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics,” he added.