Overnight Defense: Impeachment witness Vindman escorted from White House | Esper says Pentagon protects service members from retribution | Trump ousts EU envoy Sondland

Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.


THE TOPLINE: A member of the National Security Council and a key witness who testified in connection with the House impeachment inquiry on President Trump was escorted out of the White House on Friday.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was told to leave his position at the National Security Council, according to a statement released by his attorney.

Vindman testified about Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, during which Trump raised investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine.

When asked for comment Friday, National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said the NSC does not comment on personnel matters.

Breaking – EU ambassador out: And in late breaking news Friday, Trump also ousted Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, making him the second official who testified in the House impeachment inquiry to be dismissed.

“I was advised today that the president intends to recall me effective immediately as United States Ambassador to the European Union,” Sondland said in a statement.

“I am proud of our accomplishments,” Sondland added, thanking Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Our work here has been the highlight of my career.”

Sondland provided damaging testimony against Trump in the House impeachment inquiry, saying during a public hearing that “everyone was in the loop” about the effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate the president’s political rivals.


Esper vows to protect service members: Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday said the Pentagon protects its service members from retribution, following reports that Trump would likely oust Vindman.

“We protect all of our persons, service members, from retribution or anything like that. We’ve already addressed that in policy and other means,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon during a press conference with his Colombian counterpart.

Vindman was on detail to the White House and was dismissed early. He is expected to assume a position at the Pentagon before going to the National War College in July, according to The New York Times.

When asked if Vindman would be welcomed back to the Pentagon, Esper replied: “We welcome back all of our service members wherever they served, to any assignment they are given.”

Trump’s response: Trump earlier Friday told journalists that he was “not happy” with Vindman but would not say at the time if he would have the aide removed.

“Well, I’m not happy with him. You think I’m supposed to be happy with him? I’m not. They’ll make that decision. You’ll be hearing. They’ll make a decision,” he told reporters at the White House before departing for North Carolina.

The background: Vindman in November testified before the House impeachment committees during their inquiry that he believed Trump improperly demanded that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in order for Kyiv to receive military aid.

That demand, which came during a July phone call between the two leaders, was at the center of the House impeachment probe. 

Vindman also later defended career officials who testified in the inquiry.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted this week to acquit Trump on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress charges.

What Vindman’s attorney said: “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,” David Pressman, Vindman’s attorney, said in a statement. “LTC Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”

Pressman, Vindman’s attorney, accused Trump of exacting “revenge” on his client for testifying pursuant to a subpoena in connection with the impeachment inquiry.

“He did what any member of our military is charged with doing every day: He followed orders, he obeyed his oath, and he served his country, even when doing so was fraught with danger and personal peril,” Pressman said. “And for that, the most powerful man in the world — buoyed by the silent, the pliable, and the complicit — has decided to exact revenge.”

His brother also out: Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, Vindman’s twin brother who also works at the NSC, was escorted from the White House as well and removed from his position “with no explanation” on Friday, according to Pressman.


DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE TONIGHT: The final Democratic presidential debate before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary will feature seven candidates and stakes that are higher than ever on Friday night.

Following the botched Iowa caucuses, the candidates and observers are looking to New Hampshire’s Tuesday primary for clarity on the state of the race.

Speaking to supporters in the Granite State on Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden joked that “at this rate, New Hampshire will be the first in the country to get to vote.”

Who will be there: The debate — cohosted by ABC News, WMUR-TV and Apple News at St. Anselm College in Manchester and set to begin at 8 p.m. — will feature Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); former tech executive Andrew Yang and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer.



— The Hill: Trump to propose shifting Secret Service back to Treasury from Homeland Security: report

— The Hill: Republican senators call on Twitter to suspend Iran’s Khamenei, Zarif

— Military Times: Complaint accuses VA secretary of working to discredit Hill staffer who reported sexual assault

— Reuters: Russians head to Turkey for talks on Syria’s Idlib offensive: minister


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