Esper says 'Pentagon protects its service members from retribution' amid reports of possible Vindman ouster

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperDefense industrial base workers belong at home during this public health crisis An insecure America and an assertive China Overnight Defense: Pentagon grapples with coronavirus outbreak | Aircraft carrier docks in Guam after more sailors test positive | Army hospitals to reach NY on Friday MORE on Friday said the Pentagon protects its service members from retribution, following reports that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE may oust the top White House expert on Ukraine after he testified during House impeachment hearings.

“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.

Reports emerged early Friday that the White House would remove Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council (NSC) aide, from his role and that he would be reassigned to a position within the Defense Department.

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Trump later in the day addressed the reports, telling journalists that he was "not happy" with Vindman but would not say 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.

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.

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.”