Duckworth blocks military promotions to protect impeachment witness

Lt. Col. Alex Vindman earned the ire of President Donald Trump when he testified late last year

Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth has put a blanket hold on 1,100 military promotions until Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper assures her in writing that impeachment witness Lt. Col. Alex Vindman will not be punished for his testimony. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth has put a blanket hold on 1,100 military promotions until Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper assures her in writing that impeachment witness Lt. Col. Alex Vindman will not be punished for his testimony. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 2, 2020 at 5:40pm, Updated at 7:30pm

Corrected, 7:30 p.m. | Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth has put a blanket hold on 1,100 military promotions until Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper assures her in writing that impeachment witness Lt. Col. Alex Vindman will not be punished for his testimony.

Vindman, who had been staffed to the National Security Council as an expert on Ukraine, earned the ire of President Donald Trump when he testified during the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings in November. Vindman was fired from his NSC job, and there have been reports that Trump is pressuring the Pentagon to block his promotion to colonel.

A hold is an informal Senate practice by which a single senator can stop a piece of legislation or other matter from proceeding. It does not have to be honored, but it puts leadership on notice that a senator might filibuster further consideration of the matter.

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Duckworth told reporters that her hold, which applies to 1,123 scheduled promotions to the rank of “06” (colonel or Navy captain) or above, could actually make things easier for the Defense Department.

“I think my blanket hold allows them to have some top cover to say to the White House, ‘She has this hold on there, so we have to keep [Vindman] on the list,’” she said.

The hold does not apply to the nomination of Gen. Gustave Perna to be the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s effort to produce a coronavirus vaccine by early next year.

Duckworth said it is unprecedented for a commander in chief to take interest in a single promotion at the 06 level and that Vindman earned the promotion if his name was on the list.

The Army declined to comment for this story, citing a policy of not discussing promotions until they are finalized.

Russia response

Duckworth also criticized the Defense Department’s response to reports of Russia paying bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan.

Duckworth was among several lawmakers who received a briefing earlier this week from the Defense Department, but she said the briefing was “unsatisfactory.” She said she wants to hear directly from CIA head Gina Haspel, Gen. Paul Nakasone, who heads the National Security Agency, and Gen. Austin S. Miller, who commands Resolute Support, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers have access to five documents — secured in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF — and nothing in them conflict with media reports, she said.

“They indicate that there is evidence that the Russians did this,” she said. “I don’t know without a doubt what we do know because I haven’t been briefed by Gen. Nakasone, or Gina Haspel, or Gen. Miller, or any of the appropriate folks who should be briefing us.”

The Defense Department did not adjust its security measures after receiving the intelligence about Russian bounties, as far as she knows. But Duckworth wants to learn more about the issue before she considers inserting a provision into the annual defense policy bill, which is being debated on the Senate floor, she said.

Correction: This report and deck headline were revised to say Lt. Col. Vindman testified in November.