Alexander Vindman on Trump as "cult leader" and the line from Jan. 6 to Putin's war on Ukraine

Salon talks to the retired Army officer about the many threats Donald Trump poses — foreign, domestic, existential

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 9, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Alexander Vindman, National Security Council Director for European Affairs, in Washington, DC on October 29, 2019. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Alexander Vindman, National Security Council Director for European Affairs, in Washington, DC on October 29, 2019. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The first eight House Jan. 6 committee hearings have conclusively proven that Donald Trump and his confederates attempted a coup to end American democracy and that their plot came very close to succeeding. Public evidence is mounting on the allegations that Donald Trump and his confederates committed seditious conspiracy, obstruction of justice, fraud and criminal conspiracy. Undeterred, Donald Trump and the Republican fascist movement are escalating their attempts to end American democracy with the goal of creating a new apartheid Christian fascist plutocracy that will rule unopposed.

For all of the undeserved and unearned praise that has been heaped upon them by the American news media and too many of the country's political class, the members of the Trump regime and other Republicans who testified before the House Jan. 6 committee are, with perhaps few exceptions, not heroes or role models. Almost to the one they are self-interested actors who, out of fear of legal consequences, public shaming or some other motivation, chose — after almost two years of being silent — to share what they knew about Trump's obvious crimes and the extreme threat he and his regime represented to American democracy and society.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, now retired, stands astride the Age of Trump and the horrible events of Jan. 6 as a type of Cassandra truth-teller and alarm sounder, in stark contrast to those members of the Trump regime who remained silent about the Trump White House's existential threat to American democracy. In 2019, Vindman, who was a member of the National Security Council, filed formal charges that would alert the American people and the world to how Donald Trump and his representatives were attempting to extort the Ukrainian government into helping him steal the 2020 election from then leading candidate Joe Biden. Vindman was then forced out of his position (thus prematurely ending a very distinguished decades-long military career) and subjected to death threats and other retaliation from Donald Trump and his agents.

In a recent conversation, Vindman shared his thoughts about the House Jan. 6 hearings and questions of character, integrity and decision-making as seen with supposed heroes such as White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson and other members of the Trump regime. He warns that the Trump movement is a dangerous political cult that represents an existential threat to American democracy — and the House Jan. 6 hearings have only provided more proof of that fact. In addition, Vindman offers his analysis of the war in Ukraine and why the United States and its allies must continue to provide advanced weapons to the Ukrainian forces in order defeat the Russian invaders. 

Vindman now serves as executive board member for the Renew Democracy Initiative and senior adviser to the PAC VoteVets. Before retiring from the U.S. Army, Vindman served as a Political-Military Affairs Officer for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his position on the Joint Staff, Vindman co-authored the National Military Strategy Russia Annex. He was also the principal author for the Global Campaign for Russia.

His memoir, "Here, Right Matters: An American Story," was a New York Times bestseller. 

I kept thinking of you while I watched the House Jan. 6 hearings. These people who worked for the Trump regime knew that he was an enemy of democracy, an enemy of the law, and was plotting to nullify an election, yet they kept quiet. They kept quiet then and could have gone public. They stayed quiet for two years and could have spoken out, but are only doing so now because of fear of legal consequences or perhaps some tiny amount of shame and are trying to publicly rehabilitate themselves. Now the mainstream news media, too many Democrats, and the public are falling all over themselves to declare these Trumpists as "heroes." You spoke out when you witnessed Trump's crimes. There were other whistleblowers as well. How are you feeling given the hearings and this narrative?

We want to encourage people to step forward. We have to find a balance where we don't necessarily tear them down right now, even though they were involved in doing wrong things, if they are finally making a change. We should be focusing on encouraging the members of the Trump administration and others who may have information to do the right thing and come forward.

That having been said, I do believe that there are people who are beyond reform and getting that kind of consideration.

"Trumpism really is like a cult. "

Cassidy Hutchinson is a totally different case. She is in her twenties. She has her whole life in front of her. The only thing she's known is the embrace of the Republican Party. She set all that aside to tell the truth. That's pretty courageous, in my view. That young lady didn't have all of the benefits of decades of military service and the values instilled in her by the U.S. Army like I did. 

Hutchinson said, without shame or embarrassment, that the Trump administration did "good things" for the American people and that she apparently is proud of being part of that. She is not the only Republican to testify who said such a thing. I heard that and took it as further evidence that these Republicans are in no way heroes or defenders of democracy. 

What were those good things that the Trump administration did? How do you separate the man and his corrupt fascist and other perfidious values from supporting him? You can't have it both ways. The behavior comes from the character. You're in the orbit around this bad man and you can speak out against him, yet you say you support what they were doing. Help me understand. I was not raised that way. Those are not the values as I have working-class Black American who was taught that the company you keep is a reflection of who you are. If you supported Trump and worked for his administration, you are dirty too. The stink is on all of them. 

I didn't miss that comment either. Trumpism really is like a cult. She believed in what they were doing. Donald Trump is a cult leader and his acolytes are cultists. I was a professional staffer coming out of the Department of Defense, filling a role within the White House and the National Security Council. There were plenty of people operating within the Trump administration, and across administrations, who are following guidelines, parameters and larger plans and trying to be non-partisan. 

It's a little different for the political appointees. It's politics, but that drives the policies. There are probably some good things that the Trump administration did. But I can't think of any right now in the moment. The good things the Trump administration did were the result of professional staff developing policies and running them up the chain of leadership. That is what would happen with any administration. 

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What was the main takeaway for you from the hearings?

To me, one of the most important lessons from the January 6 hearings is that on the state level and federal level there were public servants who were going to stand on principle. They were not going to let an election be stolen. Frankly, these hearings were worth the wait. The committee has done a masterful job of pulling this all together and providing a powerful narrative of events.

If Trump had invoked the Insurrection Act or otherwise ordered the U.S. military to keep him in power on Jan. 6 as part of the coup, do you think they would have obeyed?

I had good confidence in the military holding the line, acting on principle and upholding their oaths to the Constitution. Yes, there are some flawed people in the military and civilian leadership. But even Chris Miller was not interested, or prepared, to support a declaration of martial law or anything of the kind.

"Michael Flynn should probably be in jail."

There was resistance from General Milley. What troubles me is what would happen if large numbers of paramilitary personnel — militia — seized the Capitol and then held it? What force would be tasked with that mission? The military might need to be used, depending on the scale of the insurrection, to put it down.

Moreover, what would have happened if Donald Trump refused to vacate the White House? Some contingent of Secret Service is protecting him along with Three Percenters and Oath Keepers and other militia types? Who is going to take back the White House?

Would the U.S. military obey the order of the legitimate President? I don't know. 

Flynn told the House Jan. 6 committee that he would not commit to the peaceful transfer of power in this country. He basically would not condemn a coup or other political violence. How did you feel when you saw that video recording? 

Michael Flynn is a person who should have never risen to the rank of a three-star general and Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. That he was able to do so demonstrates the shortcomings in the military leadership. 

I had a chance to work with Flynn when I was in the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was often described as an exceptionally hard worker, masterful at the tactical level, but not necessarily capable at the operational or strategic level. But Flynn is not indicative or otherwise emblematic of any unique problems to the U.S. military. Corrupt people manage to make it into Congress and other positions of power as well. Flynn's failings of character and behavior are not indicative of the country's military as a whole.

It is true that we do have a growing issue with right wing extremism in the military. In the end Michael Flynn should probably be in jail. He should lose his pension. But I would not overstate his importance as some type of representative of the American military as a whole.

How serious is right wing radicalization in the military?

I am actually going to be involved in a simulation where we will examine what happens if there is a fringe military unit that aligns with the insurrectionists. For example, we recently saw the general in charge of the Oklahoma National Guard taking a political position on COVID. That's politics in play right there. What happens if that type of politicking extends over to an election and military troops are brought to bear either there or in the Capitol?

Did you have a moment during these House Jan. 6 hearings where you said to yourself, my goodness, if they had only listened to my warnings about Trump none of this would have happened?

All I can do is just keep trying to do the right thing about democracy and encouraging good public policy. 

Of course, I can't help but think about if Donald Trump had been more thoughtful and heeded the warnings about how his behavior with Ukraine and foreign policy more generally might undermine the country's security. But that damage has been done. If Trump was a better president or human being, if he cared about U.S. national security, he would've recognized the harm that he was bringing to the U.S. by indicating that our support of Ukraine was weak. But that's not who he is. 

My main frustration is that these matters of foreign policy don't necessarily carry that much weight with the American electorate. They may vote on gasoline, not on national security issues. 

"Trump made decisions that helped to draw the U.S. into a cold war and now on the cusp of a hot war with Russia."

They won't vote based on the fact that the United States is now in a cold war with Russia because of Donald Trump — and actually on the cusp of a hot war. The American electorate won't vote against the Republicans and their anti-democratic actions in the number they should because of those facts.

The American mainstream news media has already moved on from the war in Ukraine. The American people's attention span is so short. 

My responsibility is to continue to talk about these issues. If we don't manage our foreign policy correctly, the country can be drawn into a hot war with Russia. 

Putin sees that the news cycle has moved on in the United States. He knows that high gas prices and the economy could win the Republicans the House and maybe even the Senate. Putin knows that a Republican victory could, and is likely to, undermine the kind of support that the U.S. is able to provide to Ukraine. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell that truth in a few seconds or minutes on TV.

How do you connect the events of Jan. 6 and the events in Ukraine? The connections are not being discussed enough by the mainstream news media. They certainly were avoided by the House Jan. 6 hearings. 

America's actions matter. America's leaders' actions matter. They matter for our own democracy and the health of our society. They matter for stability around the world. Putin is a bad actor. Trump's presidency and decision-making has consequences. For example, a million people are dead in the U.S. because of COVID and there was an economic disaster as a result of COVID mismanagement. Those outcomes are largely a result of Trump's decision-making and character. Trump made decisions that helped to draw the U.S. into a cold war and now on the cusp of a hot war with Russia. 

As a military professional, how do you assess the possibility of the war in Ukraine spilling over to a larger hot war? 

"Putin believes that he can get away with escalation in Ukraine."

A war between the largest country in the world and the largest country in Europe has already spilled over beyond the borders. There are economic consequences, including the inflation that we're experiencing here. That can be traced back to the war in Ukraine. It's spilled over in the political sphere in terms of the Russians interfering in America's elections both in the past and future.

It hasn't spilled over thus far in the military realm, because the Russians do not want to tangle with NATO because of the difficult time they're having with Ukraine. 

Considering the precedent of two world wars, the United States is not really good about staying out of large wars in Europe. This is a large war already. 

If Russia were to escalate, whether that's with weapons of mass destruction or a general mobilization to seize Ukraine, I find it hard to believe that the U.S. and NATO — especially the East Europeans — would sit it out. 

That is the reason why I have been so vocal in terms of giving the Ukrainian people more military assistance.

Escalation occurs not because we've done too much, it's because we've done too little. Escalation can spiral because the United States has allowed Russia the breathing room to visualize victory in incremental steps. Putin believes that he can get away with escalation in Ukraine. Arming the Ukrainians with the weapons they need to deliver a decisive victory over the Russian invaders is completely in the interest of the United States.

"U.S. and NATO troops are not going to be deployed in Ukraine unless there's a catastrophic development."

Ultimately, the concerns about the risk of escalation are misplaced. Russia is deterred. Russia does not want to tangle with NATO. They didn't want to do it before the war, they certainly don't want to do it now, when they've suffered some 100,000 casualties.

The Russians have also suffered massive losses in equipment and some of their best units have been savaged.

For example, the U.S. and NATO don't need to establish a no-fly zone. We can give the Ukrainians the equipment they need to establish it. We can give the Ukrainians more advanced artillery systems like the HIMAR in sufficient quantities. Those weapons are going to make a big impact on the outcome of the war.

There are some observers who continue to highlight the dangers of escalation and that the U.S. and NATO support of Ukraine with weapons systems such as HIMARS are now a type of offensive threat to Russia proper. Their overall concern is that if the U.S. and NATO continue pouring hundreds of millions and billions of dollars of weapons into Ukraine that it goes from being an act of defense to one of offense — especially given that the U.S. has now stated that its goal is to degrade the Russian military. How much help for the Ukrainians is enough?

The contention is that in a conventional scenario, Russia strikes out at NATO to deter further NATO support. The reality is a Russian attack on NATO would precipitate the opposite and trigger a crushing response from NATO. Also, once you get into a conventional war, the risk of a nuclear war between the U.S., NATO and Russia increases. And there's no winning a nuclear war. Thus, both conventional and nuclear war scenarios remain a very low probability outcome for now.

It's not providing the Ukrainians with additional HIMARS that pushes us down the road to a nuclear war. 

U.S. and NATO troops are not going to be deployed in Ukraine unless there's a catastrophic development. That was taken off the table months ago. In my opinion, there is really nothing the U.S. and NATO could do in terms of providing the Ukrainians with conventional arms and equipment that is going to push Russia to take offensive action. Down the road that calculus may be different with Russia if the war in Ukraine drags on and Putin's regime feels like it is existentially threatened. But that is a much longer-term puzzle that is very difficult to put together right now.

What is the current state of the war in Ukraine? 

Russia is taking everything that it has and throwing it into this one narrow stretch of territory. They're no longer fighting the entire largest country in Europe. The Russians are fighting along a 100-kilometer front and holding territory across more than 700 kilometers. 

In this narrow space is where the Russians are cobbling together their most capable troops and are succeeding in taking some ground at a punishing cost. The cost has been very high for the Ukrainians as well. But the Russians are taking heavier losses than even the Ukrainians. The Russians are simply going to run out of combat power. They do not have the personnel to sustain and fight.

The Russians are then going to have to shift to the defense and try to reconstitute their forces. 

In the meantime, the Ukrainians are taking significant losses, but not across all forces evenly. The Ukrainians are in all probability going to seize the initiative and launch a counter-offensive and start to liberate more territory.

How do you think the war in Ukraine ends?

We had the opportunity to make this a short war. There were opportunities to arm the Ukrainians with sufficient weapons of the right type and number to force the Russians back and to find some type of offramp. At this point, I believe that the war in Ukraine will last at least another six months. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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