Trump attacks on Vindman trigger backlash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE's aggressive attacks on a White House official who testified about his concerns over Trump's communications with Ukraine in the impeachment inquiry set off a furious backlash on Tuesday, with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE calling the president's remarks “despicable.”

Trump described Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanNunes's facial expression right before lawmakers took break from Sondland testimony goes viral Sondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep Impeachment viewership drops for Day 3 of hearings as 11.4M tune in MORE, an active-duty member of the military who attended his deposition in uniform, as a “Never Trumper,” while some allies questioned the Purple Heart recipient’s patriotism given the fact that he emigrated from Ukraine as a child.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump FDA pick dodges questions on Trump's flavored vape ban Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping Progressive Democrats ramp up attacks on private equity MORE (R-Utah) called the attacks “absurd,” while Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran Cruz, Graham and Cheney call on Trump to end all nuclear waivers for Iran Pompeo: US ending sanctions waiver for site where Iran resumed uranium enrichment MORE (Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican in the House, admonished those who would question Vindman’s patriotism without naming names.

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“Their patriotism, their love of country — we're talking about decorated veterans who have served this nation, who put their lives on the line, and it is shameful to question their patriotism, their loving this nation, and we should not be involved in that process,” Cheney said at the House GOP leadership’s press conference.

Trump in a Tuesday tweet criticized Vindman as he prepared to testify before three congressional committees behind closed doors, suggesting the official was participating in a “witch hunt” against him.

“Supposedly, according to the Corrupt Media, the Ukraine call ‘concerned’ today’s Never Trumper witness,” Trump tweeted. “Was he on the same call that I was? Can’t be possible! Please ask him to read the Transcript of the call. Witch Hunt!”

The attack was on-brand for Trump, who has a well-earned reputation as a counterpuncher when criticized. Just last week, Trump slammed Vietnam veteran and U.S. diplomat William Taylor, using the same “Never Trumper” insult after decrying such critics as “human scum.”

Trump has previously targeted critics with military ties and bipartisan respect, including the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBudowsky: Trump destroying GOP in 2018, '19, '20 Conservative group cuts ties with Michelle Malkin Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters MORE (R-Ariz.) and Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

But the attacks on Vindman, coupled with comments from allies such as former Rep. Sean DuffySean DuffyOn The Money: Trump seeks to shift spotlight from impeachment to economy | Appropriators agree to Dec. 20 funding deadline | New study says tariffs threaten 1.5M jobs Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Trump's defenders are running out of options MORE (R-Wis.), ran into opposition from Republicans and highlighted a GOP divide even as the party seeks to shift its strategy on fighting Democrats over Trump's impeachment.

Vindman on Tuesday provided damaging testimony about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Vindman, a firsthand witness to the phone call, told lawmakers that he was so concerned about Trump raising an investigation into Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine that he reported it to the National Security Council’s (NSC)  lawyer, according to a copy of his prepared remarks that leaked out Monday night.

“I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security,” his remarks read.

Vindman, a Ukrainian refugee who fled to the United States with his family at age 3, is a former infantry officer who has served for two decades in the U.S. Army. He has deployed overseas multiple times, including serving a tour in Iraq where he was wounded by an improvised explosive device and received a Purple Heart. He has been an Army foreign area officer since 2008 and was asked to join Trump’s NSC in July 2018.

Vindman serves as the NSC’s director of European affairs, a role one former NSC official described as apolitical and typically filled with detailees from other parts of the federal government.

“It’s an apolitical role,” said the former official. “You’re not part of the policy team in terms of coming up with policy, you’re enacting policy.”

One former Trump administration official said the barrage of attacks on witnesses like Vindman, Taylor and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch can be demoralizing for other career officials still in government.

The barbs may not abate for some time, with a cast of current and former officials scheduled to testify.

Vindman’s Tuesday testimony could prove problematic for the White House, particularly as Trump has urged his allies to focus on substance over process in defending him despite some reluctance from Republican lawmakers.

“I thank him for his service. I thank him for his commitment to this country, but he is wrong,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthySaagar Enjeti expresses concern over MSNBC hosting debate after Weinstein scandal Former Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Saagar Enjeti blasts alleged Epstein cover-up by media MORE (R-Calif.) said of Vindman during a press conference.

Other Republican lawmakers deflected Vindman’s testimony by saying they felt the conduct outlined in the July 25 call was not impeachable.

But some of the president’s allies suggested Vindman’s Ukrainian roots might cloud his judgment.

“It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense,” said Duffy, the former congressman who is now a CNN commentator. “I don't know that he's concerned about American policy, but his main mission was to make sure the Ukraine got those weapons. I understand that we all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from.”

Trump’s personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiBiden: Impeachment hearings show 'Trump doesn't want me to be the nominee' Sondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep FBI sought interview with whistleblower at heart of impeachment probe MORE claimed that Vindman felt “confused” because he was “advising two [governments].”

Republican strategists dismissed the impact of Trump’s attacks, arguing Republicans may disagree with Trump over them but it wouldn’t compromise the president’s support amid the impeachment inquiry.

“Republicans who oppose that strategy will feel no compunction vocalizing that,” said one Republican strategist, citing Cheney’s remarks. “It doesn’t change the reality that he’s not going to be convicted in the Senate and impeachment is a waste of time.”

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell also said Trump is “right to challenge the veracity of witnesses coming before Congress,” noting that Vindman was presenting his opinion of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky and that the partial transcript released by the White House did not show an explicit quid pro quo on the phone call.

Still, it could complicate efforts to unify the White House and Republicans on messaging to effectively fend off the fast-moving impeachment inquiry.

Trump’s attacks come as the White House is struggling to adopt a coherent strategy to counter the growing body of evidence of impropriety in Trump’s interactions with Ukraine. One former White House official argued attacking witnesses wouldn’t serve the purpose of a strategy unless the attacks were credible.

“They have to rebut the claims and find credible angles of attack. Just blowtorching them isn’t a strategy,” said the former official.

“Overall, they should take a page from the Clinton playbook. Democrats are focused on tearing the president down instead of lifting the American people up; Democrats aren’t focused on your hopes and dreams, they’re focused on their own political ambition,” the former official continued.

House Democrats will vote on a resolution this week laying out the next steps for the investigation, with plans to take hearings with witnesses public over the next few weeks. The vote will force lawmakers to take a public position on the impeachment inquiry, which could work in the White House’s favor by putting vulnerable Democrats in a tough position.

The White House has refused to cooperate with the inquiry, casting it as “illegitimate” because Democrats refused to subject it to a formal vote, but officials have not committed to cooperating once a vote takes place.

Jordain Carney contributed.