Washington: Two days after President Donald Trump's impeachment acquittal, his administration on Friday ousted two officials -- Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland -- who provided damaging testimony about Trump in Democratic-led congressional hearings.
Sondland issued a statement saying he would be removed from his post hours after Vindman's lawyer announced that the military officer, the White House's top Ukraine expert, was being removed from his National Security Council job.
Vindman, a Ukraine-born U.S. citizen and decorated Iraq war combat veteran, was escorted out of the White House, his lawyer David Pressman said in a statement, adding that the move was retribution for Vindman's testimony. Michael Volkov, who represented Vindman when he testified in the impeachment inquiry, said Vindman's twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, was escorted off the White House grounds at the same time.
"There is no question in the mind of any American why this man's job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House. LTC Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth," Pressman said, using shorthand for Vindman military rank.
Sondland, a wealthy Oregon hotelier, was a Trump political donor before being named by the president to his ambassador post. In his statement, he said he was advised that Trump "intends to recall me effective immediately" from his job.
"I am grateful to President Trump for having given me the opportunity to serve, to Secretary Pompeo for his consistent support, and to the exceptional and dedicated professionals at the U.S. Mission to the European Union," he said, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Vindman and Sondland both testified in the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry that led to Trump becoming only the third U.S. president to be impeached. The Senate, controlled by Trump's fellow Republicans, acquitted him on Wednesday of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, keeping him in office.
Vindman in November testified that Trump made an improper demand of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July 25 phone call that became the focus of the inquiry. Vindman said that "I couldn't believe what I was hearing" in the phone call.
Trump asked Zelenskiy to launch investigations into both Democratic rival Joe Biden and a discredited theory beneficial to Russia that Ukraine colluded with Democrats to harm Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
During that appearance, Vindman downplayed concerns that he would suffer payback for speaking out. "I will be fine for telling the truth," he said. Yevgeny Vindman, also an Army lieutenant colonel, worked for the NSC as a lawyer. An Army spokesperson said both brothers had been reassigned to the Army, but declined to provide further information "out of respect for their privacy."
Representative Eliot Engel, Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the decision to remove Alexander Vindman was "shameful."
"This president believes the only loyalty that matters is loyalty to him personally," Engel said in a written statement. Asked earlier on Friday about media reports that he might remove Vindman, Trump told reporters: "I'm not happy with him. You think I'm supposed to be happy with him?...They're going to be making that decision."
A source familiar with the situation said that Vindman would be reassigned to the Defense Department. Vindman's two-year stint at the White House was due to end in July.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that the Pentagon protects all service members from retribution. Trump has said he is still bitter as he turns his attention to seeking a second four-year term in the November 3 presidential election.
In testimony in the House impeachment inquiry, Sondland said he was following Trump's orders when he pushed Ukrainian officials to carry out investigations sought by the president.
The ambassador also said he and two other officials -- Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Ukraine Special Envoy Kurt Volker -- were disappointed in Trump's May order that they work with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine policy at a time when Giuliani was playing a key role in pressuring the Ukrainians for the investigations. Sondland said he and the other two officials followed the directive.
Sondland also said that "inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong."
The White House and State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding Sondland's removal. Another senior White House aide who testified over impeachment, Jennifer Williams, left this week for a post at the U.S. military's Central Command, according to Bloomberg News.
Trump denied reports that he was weighing a permanent chief of staff to replace acting aide Mick Mulvaney, who was a central figure in the impeachment inquiry. "That was a false report. I have a great relationship with Mick," Trump said.
Biden's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination suffered a serious setback when he came in fourth place at the Democrats' first state contest in Iowa this week.