Alexander Vindman is very, very familiar with authoritarianism.
In his childhood, he fled communist Ukraine as a refugee. As an adult, serving as the National Security Council’s Director for European Affairs, strongman regimes were his specialty. Now, in his first-ever interview with the press, Vindman is hoping to warn the American public that Trump’s distortion of truth takes its cue from leaders like Vladimir Putin — and democracy itself is on the line.
“Authoritarianism is able to take hold not because you have a strong set of leaders who are forcing their way,” Vindman told the Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg. “It’s more about the fact that we can give away our democracy. In Hungary and Turkey today, in Nazi Germany, those folks gave away their democracy, by being complacent.”
In the interview, Vindman — who retired from the Army in July, citing a campaign to stop his advancement due to his testimony during the Trump impeachment inquiry — offered insight on the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. (The Senate later acquitted him.)
“I just had a visceral reaction to what I was hearing,” Vindman said. “I suspected it was criminal, but I knew it was wrong.”
Vindman said that Trump was “putting the squeeze” on Zelensky, and called his actions “repulsive and un-American.”
When he took the job in the Trump administration, he told Goldberg, he expected there to be “guardrails” on the president’s dealings with Russia. Instead, he found that the Kremlin had undue influence on Trump. Asked if Trump might be a Russian asset, Vindman said the president “should be considered to be a useful idiot and a fellow traveler,” to Putin, “which makes him an unwitting agent of Putin.”
“He has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him,” Vindman said. “He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So he’ll try to please Putin.”
These claims are notably less cautious than the testimony Vindman delivered during the impeachment inquiry. His former boss at the NSC, Fiona Hill, told The Atlantic she sees Vindman as “Boy Scoutish;” the article paints him as an idealist who hoped to change things from inside the administration.
“We all believed we could make a difference,” Vindman said of government officials. “I thought I could potentially communicate with him, maybe speak to his better angels, explain to him that his ideas about Russia were harmful to the United States.”
Ultimately, he says, circumstance forced him to speak truth to power, and he filed a complaint over the president’s conduct on the Ukraine call.
“I had to choose between the president and the Constitution,” he told Goldberg. “I was aware of the fact that I could be compelled to testify. But I chose the Constitution. No Army officer wants to be put in that position, but there I was.”
Now, Vindman indicated, he feels a duty to alert the American people to their president’s effect on the country’s global standing.
“I think it’s important for the American people to know that this could happen to any honorable service member, any government official. I think it’s important for me to tell people that I think the president has made this country weaker. We’re mocked by our adversaries and by our allies, and we’re heading for more disaster.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com