Alexander Vindman’s faith in democracy remains intact

In the memoir “Here, Right Matters,” Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman defends his decision to report President Trump’s call with Ukraine.

Harper

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman became a reluctant public figure in the fall of 2019, when he testified before the United States Congress in the inquiry that led to President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. Vindman, an immigrant from Ukraine who became a decorated Army officer and later served as director for European affairs on the National Security Council (NSC), was one of several White House officials who listened in on the July 25, 2019, phone call on which Trump was supposed to congratulate Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on his party’s victory in the country’s parliamentary elections.

As the NSC’s expert on Russia and Ukraine, Vindman himself had written Trump’s talking points for the call, but he immediately realized, with alarm, that the president wasn’t adhering to them. Instead, as the world eventually learned, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate discredited rumors involving Hunter Biden and his father, Joe Biden, whom Trump expected to face in the 2020 presidential election. “Here, Right Matters: An American Story” is Vindman’s earnest account of his decision to report the call up the chain of command, an action that set the impeachment in motion.

As a memoir, the book covers more than that, of course, beginning with the author’s childhood in Brooklyn and spanning his long, distinguished military career. Even those early sections, however, by using Vindman’s immigrant story and passion for military service to express his deep patriotism, serve to frame his actions upon hearing the call. The book’s title is taken from the most stirring moment of his November 2019 public testimony, when he mentioned that his father – an engineer who fled the Soviet Union (Ukraine was then a Soviet republic) to, in his son’s words, “escape an arbitrary, tyrannical government” – was concerned that his son would be targeted by the administration for his role in the impeachment.  

Referring to his decision to report the call, and thus to place himself in opposition to the president, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney asked Vindman, “Why do you have confidence that you can do that, and tell your dad not to worry?” Vindman replied, “Congressman, because this is America. This is the country I’ve served and defended, that all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.” 

Those who follow the news will be familiar with these proceedings: not only the call, but the administration’s hold on nearly $400 million in security funds that Congress had earmarked for Ukraine; the pursuit of a shadow agenda there by Rudy Guiliani, the president's personal attorney; Trump’s unusual recall of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from the country. Still, it’s edifying to get Vindman’s perspective. He recalls his and his colleagues’ bafflement, in the run-up to the call, over Trump’s “inexplicable hostility” toward America’s ally Ukraine, a country, Vindman explains, with importance to U.S. strategic interests “as a bulwark against Russian aggression in eEastern Europe.” He further describes their attempts “to do our jobs, now somewhat desperately, against a host of mounting obstacles.” 

For his part, once Vindman told his superiors of the call, he writes, “I’d reported what I knew and then gotten back to work.” Somewhat naively, he notes that even then, “reversing the hold on the Ukraine funds was the foremost (and, at this point, nearly the only) thing on my mind.” 

His dedication to his work is touching. He wasn’t alone: he writes with admiration of the commitment and professionalism of his colleagues who struggled heroically to keep our foreign policy on track. He is less kind toward those political appointees in the administration who had no expertise in Eastern Europe and, as far as Vindman could tell, cared primarily about advancing their careers or saving their own skins.

Vindman’s wife saw before he did that he was about to be thrust into the center of a firestorm. When Trump’s call became public, Vindman was sidelined and badmouthed by those who saw him as an obstacle to their own political advancement; he was also a victim of harsh partisan attacks in the media. He understood that his testimony made the Trump White House regard him as an enemy. What surprised and saddened him was that the army, an institution he loved, began to regard him as “a liability, a headache, and a bad one.” Reluctantly, he retired from the military.

Vindman’s writing is direct and unadorned. One wishes he’d quoted more from the hearings to make his account more dramatic. But “Here, Right Matters” is still a compelling read. It’s interesting to gain his perspective on these events now that time has passed. “I’ve come to realize that the system worked largely as it was supposed to,” he writes. “Good actors did their duty, obeyed their oaths, and defended the Constitution.” It’s heartening that Vindman’s patriotism remains intact, even if he became collateral damage as the system did its work.

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