Trump Retaliates Against House Witnesses Vindman & Sondland
On Feb. 7, two distinct public dramas played out in China and the United States. One involved a Chinese doctor who tried to warn his medical colleagues about the potential dangers of the Coronavirus during its early stages, a “whistleblower” who was threatened and silenced by the government. He later died of the virus. The other involved a US Lt. Colonel and other whistleblowers who, during the House Impeachment hearings, tried to tell the American public the truth about a White House steeped in corruption and unlawful behavior. Despite legal protections granted to whistleblowers, US President Donald Trump has started a campaign of retaliation against them following his acquittal. Although these events took place in different countries, on different issues, both illustrate the dangers of suppressing freedom of speech.
On Feb. 7 in China, Dr. Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old Chinese ophthalmologist, died from the Coronavirus. People across China are mourning his death and honoring him as a hero because of his attempts to raise awareness about the virus before it became an epidemic. On Dec. 30, Dr. Weliang “shared concerns about the virus in a social messaging app with medical school classmates,” Li Yuan reported in the NY Times.
The repressive government of President Xi Jinping cracked down right away. Police forced Dr. Wenliang to sign a false statement that he had illegally spread rumors about the virus.
Weeks later the city of Wuhan was placed under travel restrictions as the government tried to contain the epidemic, which was spreading rapidly throughout the city and beyond.
In an interview with the NY Times before he died, Dr. Wenliang said, “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”
Since his death, the “Chinese public has staged what amounts to an online revolt” filled with outrage against the government, Li Yuan said. “In this highly censored society, it’s rare for ordinary people to make demands and openly express anger toward the government,” she said. Online criticism is routinely removed from public view. Instead of investigating early reports about the virus that emerged online, officials reprimanded Wenliang and seven other doctors, the Times reported. As of Feb. 9, the death toll from the Coronavirus stood at 811 and “confirmed infections” had risen to 37,198, the Times said.
After Dr. Wenliang’s death, “a group of scholars from prominent universities issued an open letter to the National People’s Congress, demanding immediate implementation of China’s constitutional guarantee of the freedom of speech,” according to Alice Su of the LA Times.
On Feb. 7 in the United States, Donald Trump started a campaign of retaliation against whistleblowers who bravely told the truth about his corrupt dealings with Ukraine. “He fired two of the most prominent witnesses in the House inquiry against him barely 48 hours after being acquitted by the Senate,” the Times said. First, he fired key witness Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, along with his twin brother Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, both of whom worked on the National Security Council staff. “Colonel Vindman, who was on Mr. Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, testified that it was ‘improper for the president’ to coerce a foreign country to investigate a political opponent.”
According to the Times, David Pressman, Colonel Vindman’s lawyer, said, he “was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”
“And thus did…Vindman join a very special club…public officials who have drawn the public ire of a president of uncompromising vindictiveness for the crime of doing the right thing,” wrote Benjamin Wittes in The Atlantic. Next Trump fired Gordon D. Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, who had previously donated $1 million dollars to Trump’s inauguration. “Mr. Sondland, who was deeply involved in the effort to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Mr. Trump’s Democratic rivals, testified that ‘we followed the president’s orders’ and that ‘everyone was in the loop,’” the Times said.
During a press conference in November 2019, Defense Secretary Mark Esper had promised that Vindman, a “decorated Iraq war veteran,” would suffer no retaliation as a result of his House testimony, Rachel Maddow reported. “There’s no relation. It’s that simple,” Esper said, according to a transcript of his remarks. In response to a letter regarding Vindman from Rep. Charles E. Schumer, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist reiterated Esper’s commitment that Vindman would not be retaliated against, Maddow said. Clearly, Trump had other plans.
In hindsight, comments that Vindman made during his testimony to his Dad, who emigrated from Russia to the USA in search of a better life, now seem ironic. “Dad…Do Not Worry,” Vindman said. “I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Maddow and the NY Times noted that several of those who testified against Trump have already left public service or taken other jobs, including Marie L. Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Ukraine who was pushed out by Trump, William B. Taylor Jr., who replaced Yovanovitch, Jennifer Williams, aide to Vice President Mike Pence, “Fiona Hill, the Europe policy chief at the National Security Council, and Kurt D. Volker, the special envoy for Ukraine.” “A Pentagon official told CBS News that Vindman will now return to the Department of the Army for assignment until his Army War College class starts this summer,” Grace Segers reported.
However, several officials who testified during the House Impeachment hearings are still in their jobs, “including George P. Kent at the State Department, Laura Cooper at the Defense Department and David Holmes at the embassy in Ukraine,” the Times said. Emboldened by his acquittal, Trump, who never tires of tweeting about his victimhood and still describes impeachment as a “hoax,” will likely go after the rest.
The acquittal itself has zero credibility, since the defendant controlled the outcome from the beginning. Living up to the second article of impeachment, where he was charged with obstructing Congress, Trump conspired with Senate Majority Leader Mitch O’Connell to block all witnesses, ignore subpoenas, and withhold documentation during the Senate trial.
Trump took pains to block testimony by all higher-level officials who had direct knowledge of his quid pro quo with Ukraine, including John Bolton, his former national security adviser. Trump is now trying to stop publication of Bolton’s book, in which Bolton describes how Trump withheld aid from Ukraine in exchange for an investigation of the Bidens that would help him in the 2020 election.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted on Jan. 30: “You cannot be acquitted if you don’t have a trial. You don’t have a trial if you don’t have witnesses and documentation. If Republican Senators choose a cover-up, the American people and history will judge it with the harshness it deserves.”
In the United States, unlike China, where free speech is celebrated as a fundamental right, Trump is using his acquittal to once again abuse his powers. He is trampling on free speech rights. He is retaliating against his perceived enemies and anyone else who dares to tell the truth. He is demanding complete loyalty to himself. He is behaving like Xi Jinping, one of the many autocrats that he admires.
In the case of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese public is demanding accountability from its government, at great risk. In the US, our president is acting again as if he is above the law, but where is the public’s moral outrage?
Trump’s revenge rampage is more than just a presidential tantrum. It’s part of a larger pattern of behavior that undermines our freedom of speech. He is setting a dangerous precedent that would allow him, and future presidents, to block whistleblowers from telling the truth and retaliate against those who dare to step out of line. And the biggest victim of all will be the precious freedoms granted under our Constitution.