Just two days after he was acquitted of abuse of power charges, President Trump ousted two key impeachment witnesses on Friday: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and National Security Council official Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.
Sondland, who had tied Trump to the pressure campaign against Ukraine at the heart of impeachment proceedings, announced he had been let go but gave no reason for his removal.
“I was advised today that the President intends to recall me effective immediately as United States Ambassador to the European Union,” he said in a statement.
That was only hours after Vindman was demonstratively marched out of the White House, along with his attorney brother, in what his lawyer described as retaliation “for telling the truth” during impeachment proceedings.
Many had expected Trump to exact vengeance following his impeachment acquittal. After all, it was only two weeks ago that Eric Ueland, Trump's legislative affairs director, had breezed past a group of reporters and was quoted saying, “I can't wait for the revenge.”
And Trump allies were quick to gloat, with the president’s son facetiously thanking Rep. Adam Schiff for helping to identify who in the administration “needed to be fired” through the impeachment process.
Still, some U.S. officials were left alarmed by the moves.
“It’s incredibly disturbing that the president is unaware of his Constitutional powers until his corrupt intent is clear,” a State Department official told The Daily Beast. “All Americans should easily recognize at this point his personnel decisions have nothing to do with valid policy decisions for the public good and are only about the zero sum game of his own personal power interests.”
It was unclear if the post-impeachment bloodletting is over.
A dozen witnesses appeared on camera for the House impeachment hearings, and most have either left government or transferred to different positions. Those who remain in their posts include David Holmes, a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine; Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary at the Pentagon; and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state. All three are career officials but, like Vindman, could be transferred or removed.
Both Vindman and Sondland had provided crucial testimony during House impeachment hearings, with Vindman recalling his shock when he said he heard Trump pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, Hunter.
Vindman, a war hero who served as director of European affair on the NSC, testified that he revealed his concerns about Trump’s request to other NSC officials.
Trump had foreshadowed Vindman’s departure on Friday, telling reporters that he “wasn’t happy” with the colonel. “You think I’m supposed to be happy with him? I’m not.”
Sondland’s departure came more than two months after his stunning testimony in front of the House Intelligence Committee, when he singled out top Trump officials and said they were all in on the campaign to coerce Ukraine to conduct politically motivated investigations pushed by Trump.
Sondland told the panel that senior players including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Vice President Mike Pence knew about his attempt to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to make a public commitment to investigate a conspiracy theory around 2016 election and the gas company Burisma.
Sondland stopped short of saying the president directed him personally, instead saying he was following orders from Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who the president had directed Sondland, U.S. Envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry to deal with on Ukraine.
Two officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on Friday night said they had been expecting Sondland’s removal for months. The EU Ambassador had been absent for meetings and conference calls he had in the past frequented.
One former official said Sondland’s departure was not surprising and that the former ambassador had indicated privately that he knew he was on his way out.
The State Department official said Sondland’s ouster was even more concerning than Vindman’s.
“Regardless of our concerns with Sondland’s initial nomination, he was a duly sworn Ambassador and even more so than LTC Vindman, this is retributive,” the official said.
“I think we were anticipating that after the president was acquitted he was going to purge the people he couldn’t before because it was too politically costly beforehand,” another U.S. official said.
“Plus, what if these people had known something that they had not yet publicized?”
The official added that Sondland’s departure came as more of a shock since he hadn’t been as critical in his testimony as Vindman.
Vindman, the official said, seemed to have “no political leanings” when he started at the National Security Council and was devoted to serving the president.
“I think the idea that they had to fire him and not let him leave quietly is the big dramatic signal. The Secret Service comes in and walks you out. It was meant to humiliate him,” the official said.
A Republican Senate aide told The Daily Beast there was nothing unseemly about the Friday firings.
“This has nothing to do with loyalty or with questioning their patriotism. The president is entitled to his own staffing selections,” the aide said. “And if there’s one thing we learned through the past six months, it’s that there are a number of staff who think it is their job, not the president’s job, to set foreign policy.”
The Twitter account for Trump’s re-election campaign retweeted old tweets accusing Vindman of “colluding” in the impeachment “coup” and “leaking” information to the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment trial.
—Additional reporting by Adam Rawnsley