President Trump was discussing the recent ouster from the White House National Security Council of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an impeachment witness against him, when a reporter asked the president if more staff departures are to come.
“Oh sure, absolutely,” the president replied. “There always are.”
Since his acquittal last week in the Senate, Mr. Trump has embarked on a post-impeachment house-cleaning to drain the swamp of staff deemed disloyal to him personally or unsupportive of his agenda. Democrats have accused him of carrying out political retribution, but some observers say the personnel moves are legitimate, retribution or not.
“There is no reason a president should suborn patently political opposition within his or her own administration,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of communications and rhetoric at Towson University in Maryland.
Among the moves, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, another impeachment witness, was recalled from his post last week. Lt. Col. Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, an NSC lawyer who also drew the president’s ire, also was sent packing.
And the White House said Wednesday that the president withdrew the Treasury Department nomination of Jessie Liu, who had supervised the prosecution at the Justice Department against his longtime friend Roger Stone. Mr. Trump publicly objected this week to federal prosecutors’ initial recommendation of a prison term of seven to nine years for Stone, calling it a “miscarriage of justice.”
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Senior officials at the Justice Department lowered the recommended prison term for Stone, but said the president played no role in their decision.
The president ignored a reporter’s question Wednesday about the Liu nomination, but said prosecutors treated Stone “very badly.” Four federal prosecutors have quit the case in an apparent protest.
“They ought to go back to school and learn, because the way they treated people, nobody should be treated,” Mr. Trump said.
The White House also has pulled the nomination of Elaine McCusker to become the Pentagon’s comptroller and chief financial officer, the New York Post reported. She had raised questions at the Defense Department last summer about holding up military aid for Ukraine, the issue at the heart of Democrats’ impeachment case.
“This administration needs people who are committed to implementing the president’s agenda, specifically on foreign policy, and not trying to thwart it,” a White House official told the paper.
In some of the cases, such as the Vindmans, the president has done little to dispel the notion that he was seeking political payback.
“Obviously I wasn’t happy with the job he did,” Mr. Trump said, adding that the Pentagon “certainly” should look at possible disciplinary action against him. He accused Lt. Col. Vindman of giving a false account of Mr. Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine.
Lt. Col. Vindman’s lawyer, who did not return a message Wednesday, has said he was moved out of his White House job for telling the truth.
White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who has been reducing the NSC staff since taking over last fall, said the reorganization is not politically motivated.
“The president has to have confidence in the folks on his National Security Council staff to ensure that they are committed to executing the agenda that he was elected by the American people to deliver,” Mr. O’Brien said Tuesday at the Atlantic Council.
Referring to the Stone case, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York blamed Senate Republicans for acquitting the president on an impeachment charge of abusing power.
“President Trump didn’t learn any ‘lessons’ when you excused his abuse of power,” Mr. Schumer said in a Twitter post Wednesday. “And now you are responsible for every new abuse he commits.”
But Mr. Trump said he did learn a lesson from impeachment — that “the Democrats are crooked.”
“They got a lot of crooked things going,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.
He said he also learned “that they’re vicious, that they shouldn’t have brought impeachment.”