Trump attacks on Vindman trigger backlash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHealth insurers Cigna, Humana waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment Puerto Rico needs more federal help to combat COVID-19 Fauci says April 30 extension is 'a wise and prudent decision' 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 BidenCoronavirus makes the campaign season treacherous for Joe Biden Biden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll Unions urge Chamber of Commerce to stop lobbying against Defense Production Act MORE calling the president's remarks “despicable.”

Trump described Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanAmerica's diplomats deserve our respect White House withdraws nomination for Pentagon budget chief who questioned Ukraine aid hold Juan Williams: Will the GOP ever curb Trump? 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 Romney7 things to know about the coronavirus stimulus package Scarborough rips Trump for mocking Romney's negative coronavirus test: 'Could have been a death sentence' Trump on Romney's negative coronavirus test: 'I am so happy I can barely speak' MORE (R-Utah) called the attacks “absurd,” while Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneySelf-quarantined New York lawmaker: 'We should be in total lockdown' On The Money: Trump hopes to reopen economy by Easter | GOP senators expect stimulus vote on Wednesday | Democratic leaders forecast at least two more relief bills Trump triggers congressional debate with comments on reopening economy 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 McCainJuan Williams: Biden's promises on women are a big deal Ernst calls for public presidential campaign funds to go to masks, protective equipment President Trump is right — Now's the time for 'all hands on deck' 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 DuffyRepublican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Bottom Line Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm 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 McCarthyMcCarthy says fourth stimulus bill might not be necessary Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House 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 GiulianiCuomo steps into national spotlight with coronavirus fight Hannity offers to help Cuomo in coronavirus response with radio, television shows The Hill's Campaign Report: Officials in spotlight over coronavirus response 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.