Meet Alexander Vindman, the colonel testifying on Trump's phone call

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 30 2019 08:47 AM

Meet Alexander Vindman, the colonel testifying on Trump's phone call 1
NSC Director for European Affairs Vindman arrives at House impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill in Washington. Reuters

WASHINGTON — Alexander S. Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, were 3 years old when they fled Ukraine with their father and grandmother, Jewish refugees with only their suitcases and $750, hoping for a better life in the United States.

In the 40 years since, he has become a scholar, diplomat, decorated lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and Harvard-educated Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council.

On Tuesday, his past and his present converged, when he became the first sitting White House official to testify in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s dealings with the country of his birth.

The testimony of Vindman, 44, is one of the more riveting turns in an inquiry that has been full of them. He told impeachment investigators in an opening statement that he “did not think it was proper” for Trump to push Ukraine’s leader to dig up dirt on his political rivals during a July phone call, and felt duty-bound to report the conversation to a White House lawyer, fearing that it jeopardized the country’s national security.

But more than that, Vindman’s testimony offered a compelling immigrants’ tale and a glimpse into the story of twin brothers who have lived a singular American experience. From their days as little boys in matching short pants and blue caps, toddling around the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn — known as Little Odessa for its population of refugees from the former Soviet Union — and into adulthood, they have followed strikingly similar paths.

Like Alexander Vindman, Yevgeny is a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He also serves on Trump’s National Security Council, as a lawyer handling ethics issues.

When Alexander Vindman decided to alert a White House lawyer to his concerns about Trump’s July telephone call with the Ukrainian president, he turned to his twin, bringing him along as he reported the conversation to John A. Eisenberg, the top National Security Council lawyer.

The twins both married, and they have offices across from one another in the West Wing of the White House, according to Carol Kitman, a photographer who met the family when they were boys, chronicled their growing up and remains a close family friend.

“They say nothing,” Kitman said, when asked if the two had revealed their views about Trump. “They’re very smart and they’re very discreet.”

Along with their older brother, Leonid, the twins left Kyiv with their father, Semyon, shortly after their mother died there. Their maternal grandmother came along to help care for them. The family sold its possessions to survive in Europe while waiting for visas to the United States.

“I think their father felt they would do better in the United States as Jews,” said Kitman, who recalls spotting the grandmother and the two boys, then known as Sanya and Genya, under the elevated train in Brooklyn. She spoke to the grandmother in Yiddish, she said, and returned the following day, aiming to do a book about their lives.

“Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night,” Vindman told House lawmakers on Tuesday. “He stressed to us the importance of fully integrating into our adopted country. For many years, life was quite difficult. In spite of our challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American dream.”

Kitman’s website tells the story in pictures.

“Genya is always the smiling twin. Sanya is serious,” she wrote in the caption accompanying the image of them in their blue ball caps and short pants in 1980, the year after they arrived. A 1985 photograph of them with their grandmother on a boardwalk appeared in a documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns, she wrote.

When they were 13, Kitman captured the Vindman twins in matching red shirts. When Vindman married, she photographed him and his bride under a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, that served as a huppah, or wedding canopy.

The twins’ father, Semyon Vindman, went on to become an engineer, Kitman said, and the twins’ older brother entered the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in college. She said the younger boys looked up to Leonid and decided to pursue their own military paths.

In 1998, Alexander Vindman graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton. He received his military commission from Cornell University, completed basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1999, and deployed to South Korea, where he led infantry and anti-armor platoons, the following year.

In his testimony, the colonel mentioned his “multiple overseas tours,” including in South Korea and Germany, and a 2003 combat deployment to Iraq that left him wounded by a roadside bomb, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart.

Since 2008, he has been an Army foreign area officer — an expert in political-military operations — specializing in Eurasia. Vindman has a master’s degree from Harvard in Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asian Studies. He has served in the United States’ embassies in Kyiv, Ukraine, and in Moscow, and was the officer specializing in Russia for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before joining the National Security Council in 2018.

By this spring, he said in his opening statement, he became troubled by what he described as efforts by “outside influencers” to create “a false narrative” about Ukraine. Documents reviewed by The New York Times suggest the reference is to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, and his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and implicate Ukraine, rather than Russia, in interfering with the 2016 elections.

In May, a month after Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected president of Ukraine in a landslide victory, Trump asked the colonel to join Energy Secretary Rick Perry to travel to Ukraine to attend the new president’s inauguration.

By July, Vindman had grown deeply concerned that administration officials were pressuring Zelenskiy to investigate Biden. That concern only intensified, he told investigators, when he listened in to the now-famous July 25 phone conversation between Zelenskiy and Trump.

“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen,” his testimony said, “and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”

His heritage gave Vindman, who is fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian, unique insight into Trump’s pressure campaign; on numerous occasions, Ukrainian officials sought him out for advice about how to deal with Giuliani.

Vindman’s testimony was sprinkled with references to duty, honor and patriotism — but also his life as an immigrant and a refugee.

“I sit here, as a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, an immigrant,” he said, adding, “I have a deep appreciation for American values and ideals and the power of freedom. I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country, irrespective of party or politics.”

Kitman, the photographer, said that was what she would expect from both the Vindman twins.

“When you talk about what good immigrants do,” she said, “look at what these immigrants are doing for this country.”