By: Jennifer Keohane
Character assassination infuses the impeachment inquiry unfolding in Washington, DC, the past few weeks. While there are any number of examples to investigate, I’ll call attention to one figure: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the U.S. Army. Lt. Col. Vindman has now testified twice before hearings convened to discuss impeachment: on October 29 and yesterday, November 19. In this short analysis, I draw insights from both examples of Vindman’s testimony and reactions thereto.
Character assassination started even before Vindman took the stand back in October. While some insinuated questionable motivations for his testimony, others suggested that Vindman is a spy for Ukraine since he was born there. This accusation made the rounds on social media after airing on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News. “Some people might call that espionage,” her guest John Yoo, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, noted, referring to the fact that Vindman advised Ukrainian officials on dealing with Rudy Giuliani. Nonetheless, these accusations of treason are unlikely to “stick” to the Lieutenant Colonel. Exploring the dynamics of this character assassination attempt illustrates why.
The problem with the attacks on Col. Vindman is that they are effectively co-opted by the credibility he has painstakingly built. Vindman seemed to know that his character would be impugned and preemptively rebuilt it in his statement to the House impeachment committee on October 29. “I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America,” he stated. “For more than two decades, it has been my honor to serve as an officer in the United States Army.” Col. Vindman tied his service to his personal narrative of immigration. “In spite of our challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American dream. 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,” he argued. In linking his personal immigration narrative to cherished American values, he suggested that his background made him more, not less, likely to act in the country’s best interest. Vindman also made clear in his statement that he followed appropriate reporting procedures for registering his concerns, another credibility-building move. “I did convey certain concerns internally to National Security officials in accordance with my decades of experience and training, sense of duty, and obligation to operate within the chain of command,” he noted. This served as a reminder of his long history of service and the gravity with which he undertook his duties.
In his November 19 testimony, Vindman called out the character assassins, seeking to pre-empt their arguments. “The vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible,” he said. He also, after his judgment was questioned, read directly from a performance evaluation from his boss, which proclaimed that “He is brilliant, unflappable, and exercises excellent judgment.” His preparation and care were on display, credibility-strengthening maneuvers to undermine character attacks.
Credible character attack and reputational defense is a strategic interplay, especially in the age of social media and cable news. Another reason why the character attacks on Col. Vindman likely won’t succeed is the advantage gained in defending him. In October, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers immediately rushed to his defense. Liz Cheney (R-WY) argued, “We’re talking about decorated war veterans who have served this nation…It is shameful to question their patriotism.” Other GOP lawmakers like Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Roy Blount (R-MO) also expressed support for Vindman’s character, stopping short of endorsing his testimony. Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar tweeted, “These attacks against [Vindman] because of his place of birth go against everything that our country stands for.” Regardless of their positions on the impeachment investigation, by defending the Lieutenant Colonel, lawmakers are building their own credibility as patriots who rise above the partisan fray. Defending Vindman allows politicians to declare their own support for American ideals, useful in a hyper-partisan climate. While the defenses were more muted in November as the partisan climate intensified, many on both sides of the aisle still asserted that Lt. Col. Vindman was a war hero doing his duty instead of undertaking partisan aims.
Despite its ubiquity, character assassination needs to be understood in its social and political context. Partisanship and social media often encourage personal attacks. Yet, while government institutions and politicians are increasingly viewed as untrustworthy, many Americans still express confidence in the military, meaning that attacking someone with a credible record of military service may be a flawed strategy.