WASHINGTON – As Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman sat in a stately chamber testifying Tuesday, the White House posted on its official Twitter account a message denouncing his judgment. His fellow witness, Jennifer Williams, had barely left the room when the White House issued a statement challenging her credibility.
In President Donald Trump’s Washington, where attacks on his enemies real or perceived have become so routine that they now often pass unnoticed, that might not seem all that remarkable — but for the fact that Vindman and Williams both still work for the very same White House that was publicly assailing them.
With the president’s allies joining in, the two aides found themselves condemned as nobodies, as plotting bureaucrats, as traitors within and, in Vindman’s case, as an immigrant with dual loyalties. Even for a president who rarely spares the rhetorical howitzer, that represents a new level of bombardment.
Trump has publicly disparaged Cabinet secretaries, former aides and career officials working elsewhere in the government, but now he is taking aim at people still working for him inside the White House complex by name.
“This White House appears to be cannibalizing itself,” said William Inboden, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush. “While many previous White House staffs have feuded with each other and leaked against each other, this is the first time in history I am aware of a White House openly attacking its own staff — especially for merely upholding their constitutional duties.”
In part, that reflects the challenge for a president facing an impeachment inquiry in which every witness called so far either currently or previously worked in the government over which he presides. To defend against potential charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, Trump evidently feels he must undercut the believability of the witnesses testifying about his pressure campaign on Ukraine for help against his domestic rivals.
It also reflects the president’s long-standing distrust of the career professionals who populate his White House, just as they have every other. While such officials characterize their work as nonpartisan in service of presidents of either party, Trump has felt burned since the early days of his administration when internal documents were leaked, including transcripts of two of his phone calls with foreign leaders.
“Nothing is the same anymore,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for Bush. “Clearly, when the staff leaks presidential phone calls with foreign leaders the first week of the president’s job, the staff is not what the staff used to be. It taints everyone, even good and loyal staffers.”
Even before raising his hand to take the oath Tuesday, Vindman had come under particularly sharp fire. Trump’s allies on Fox News and elsewhere have questioned his patriotism by noting that he was born in Ukraine, a critique the naturalized citizen rebutted by showing up Tuesday in his Army dress uniform with a Combat Infantry Badge and a Purple Heart from his service in Iraq.
Vindman opened his testimony by deploring smears on government officials who have been subpoenaed to testify in the inquiry. “The vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible,” he said.
As for Williams, the president tweeted about her over the weekend. “Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls, & see the just released ststement [stet] from Ukraine,” he wrote. “Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!”
Williams, a career official who got her start under Bush and called former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “a personal hero of mine,” denied that she was a “Never Trumper.” So did Vindman. “I’d call myself never partisan,” he said.
Asked her reaction to the president’s tweet, Williams said: “It certainly surprised me. I was not expecting to be called out by name.”
Andrew Weiss, who was President Bill Clinton’s Russia adviser, said the attacks on Vindman “must be incredibly demoralizing for career people” still at the National Security Council. “During my time at the NSC, there was a bright red line between national security and domestic politics,” he said. “Under Trump, that line has completely disappeared.”