The Trump-Ukraine Story Nobody is Telling
I remember it like it was yesterday…
“Lieutenant Colonels do not make national policy.”
It’s what former Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General Alfred Gray, said to me as we stood next to each other in the Pentagon bookstore in the summer of 1987.
I was a Navy lieutenant, working on the staff of Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Gen. Gray had just assumed command of the Marine Corps.
Gen. Alfred M. Gray, USMC, Commandant 1987 – 1991
Here’s what happened…
I was transiting the Pentagon maze, heading from one alphabet-soup office to another. Along the way, I had a few minutes to kill. I stopped into the bookstore to eyeball titles.
Out of nowhere, a short guy walked up next to me. He wore a Marine uniform, had gray hair, and I noticed four silver stars on the edge of his shirt collar. I realized that it was Al Gray, the recently-appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps.
I looked around, and Gen. Gray was alone. No aides, handlers or even security detail. Just another four-star general, all by himself in the bookstore. In the Pentagon, of course… It happens.
I had never met Gen. Gray, but my mother’s good parenting kicked in. I looked at him and said, “Pardon me sir, but I’d like to congratulate you on becoming Commandant, and shake your hand. I wish you well.”
Gen. Gray was gracious. He smiled and said thank you. We shook hands. Then he asked where I worked. I told him I was on CNO staff.
In a casual manner, Gen. Gray asked me what books I was reading. Fortunately, I had an answer for him. I was in the middle of Samuel Eliot Morison’s 1942 masterpiece, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus.
The General nodded his head. He approved… Whew!
As an aside, I’ll note that Gen. Gray soon instituted a “reading plan” for Marines. To this day, every Marine at every level must read certain books. I’m sure that my brief encounter with Gen. Gray had nothing to do with it. But it’s worth mentioning. Now, back to the story…
As we chatted, Gen. Gray’s eyes drifted to a nearby shelf displaying a magazine that had a picture of LtCol. Oliver North on the cover. This was towards the end of the 1985 – 1987 Iran-Contra blowup in Washington, in which North was deeply involved.
I turned my head, followed the General’s gaze and looked at the magazine as well.
Gen. Gray shook his head slowly, back and forth. Obviously, he was thinking. He looked back at me, and softly said, “Lieutenant colonels do not make national policy.”
What do you say to something like that? I replied, “Yes sir, I understand.”
Then Gen. Gray said, “That guy,” nodding towards the photo of Oliver North, “has a new career planner now. Me.”
Several months later, LtCol Oliver North retired from the Marines.
I thought of Gen. Al Gray and LtCol Oliver North as news broke in the past week about another high-visibility lieutenant colonel.
Army LtCol Alexander Vindman is the name. He just made headlines over his testimony about what he allegedly heard – or thought he heard – during President Trump’s July 25 telephone call with the President of Ukraine.
As mainstream media tell the story, LtCol Vindman is a “hero.” He’s openly undermining President Trump… and the media love him for it. Indeed, a quick Google search reveals over 14 million hits using the terms Vindman and hero.
But these new hero-worshipers really don’t get it. They don’t understand what just happened to the country – and to its military chain of command – with Vindman.
We’re already in the midst of a national-level political dogfight between Trump and his many Democrat enemies. Democrats want to impeach Trump, and basically undo the election of 2016; this, despite there being another election next year.
It’s American politics at its most sordid… The country is politically gridlocked at the top.
But now it gets even worse. About 32 years after Oliver North, we have another mid-grade officer charging into the political fray, boldly shooting off his mouth with political opinion and blatantly working outside of his proper role.
That is, Vindman is an O-5 in military rank, a lieutenant colonel. An officer must work hard and do well over about 15 years to achieve that rank; it’s an accomplishment to be sure, and praiseworthy. By comparison, many officers don’t make it that far.
But in the Washington arena, it’s not overstating the case to say that O-5s are a dime a dozen. I know this. I used to be one.
So, who is Vindman? He entered the Army in 1999 via ROTC, straight out of the state university system of New York, SUNY Binghamton per his biography; he’s not “West Point,” as numerous accounts mistakenly relate.
Vindman did what he was supposed to do early in his Army days, as a junior officer. He was a platoon leader, and looked after his troops. Vindman earned a Ranger tab, which is definitely a major career milestone. Plus, he served in Iraq, where he was wounded. Strong start on an Army career, to be sure.
After a few years as an infantryman, Vindman went academic; to Harvard, in fact. Again, very praiseworthy. Meanwhile, Vindman has language skills in Ukrainian and Russian, and he is what’s called a “area expert” on Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia.
So far, so good. Indeed, with this background, it’s not hard to see why the Army’s officer assignment system detailed Vindman onto the military staff of National Security Council (NSC). NSC needs people with language skills and area knowledge.
But now it gets sticky. Because no matter what anyone tells you, Vindman was not at NSC to make national policy. Policymaking was not his job. Vindman was staff. And “staff” play a certain kind of role.
That is, Vindman was not at NSC as a military commanding officer. He’s not an appointed political official. He’s definitely not an elected official.
Vindman is an Army officer on detail to NSC. He’s there to work within his skill set, to do research, prepare reports and – if asked – advise his immediate superiors. Period.
Evidently, in July Vindman was allowed – and it’s a significant privilege! – to listen-in on Trump’s call with the Ukrainian presidential counterpart. It’s heady stuff to listen-in on big-time phone calls. In Washington, that’s the currency of access and power.
But LtCol Vindman didn’t like what he heard. According to a written statement by Vindman, Trump supposedly said things that Vindman believes are “inconsistent with the consensus views of the interagency” (sic) approach to Ukraine; meaning a so-called “interagency process” of defining foreign policy as pertains to Ukraine.
Oh really? LtCol Vindman heard the call and somehow came away believing that the President of the United States was somehow speaking or acting “inconsistent with the consensus views.”
Well, well, well… We can’t have that, can we? Presidents saying things that don’t meet the high standards of an O-5 NSC staffer! Whoa!
So LtCol Know-It-All – I mean, Lt Col Vindman – took it upon himself to lodge a complaint within the NSC hierarchy, which then leaked out.
It’s amazing! Or as Agora owner Bill Bonner often says, “Hmm…”
I suspect that the so-called “whistleblower’s” tale in this Ukraine matter may have a Vindman connection; we shall see, eh?
Meanwhile, l’affire Vindman is now a national-level political hurricane.
And in my view, Vindman is totally out of line.
The Constitution empowers the President to make agreements between the United States and other countries. The President can delegate, but always retains power to conduct foreign relations.
The Constitution does not empower some sort of ethereal, murky, government “policy community,” nor some mystical “consensus views of the interagency” to run the show.
Unquestionably, it’s beyond the pay-grade of LtCol Alexander Vindman, to define (or redefine) the strategic interests of the United States, and/or the country’s foreign policy. We elected a President to do such things.
Even worse is the sheer pettiness of the matter.
From news accounts, it appears that Vindman wants to quibble over his personal interpretation of what President Trump said on the phone call. Not so much “what” Trump said, but Vidman’s interpretation of what he thought Trump said. Yet no one else who listened-in has the same recollection or interpretation. Vindman’s direct boss at NSC disavowed Vindman.
Still, this is what happens when a staff officer at NSC begins to think that he outranks his chain of command; in this case, outranking everyone up to and including the Commander in Chief.
Despite Vindman’s dress blue uniform, and his chest full of medals, he has truly lost sight of a fundamental point.
Gen. Al Gray made it simple, and distilled things to the essence… as Marines often do. “Lieutenant colonels do not make national policy.”
Vindman is in the Army, or he is not. As an O-5 staffer, he should not showboat his partisan opinions to a bloodthirsty pack of political and media hounds. Clearly, Vindman needs a new Army career planner.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder