WASHINGTON — Two days after the U.S. Senate acquitted President Donald Trump of the charges leveled against him in his impeachment trial, the president ousted two witnesses who had testified against him.
Republican members of Florida’s congressional delegation see nothing wrong with that.
On Friday, Trump fired Gordon Sondland, his ambassador to the European Union. That same day, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, was escorted out of the White House and reassigned to the Pentagon.
Trump’s critics assailed the moves, warning that the president was sending a troubling message that officials who speak out against him will face retribution from the White House. But Trump’s allies — including Florida Republicans in Congress — argue the witnesses’ removal was justified.
“If I had a disloyal employee, I would probably fire them. But he didn’t fire them, he reassigned them. They didn’t get fired,” U.S. Rep. Bill Posey told the Florida Phoenix on Capitol Hill this week.
Vindman and his twin brother, who was also working at the National Security Council but did not testify against the president, were both reassigned to the Pentagon. Sondland refused to resign, so he was fired by the president, The New York Times reported.
“He has the right to fire Ambassador Sondland,” Posey said. “Ambassadors serve at the will of the president. If you have an ambassador that represents you that clearly doesn’t like you, do you think it’s smart to keep that ambassador?”
The Florida Republican — who represents Brevard and Indian River Counties and a portion of Orange County — said Trump’s moves are “a matter of the president staffing people that support his agenda, that don’t fight his agenda.”
U.S. Rep. Rep. Brian Mast, a second-term Republican who represents the 18th District in southeastern Florida, said it’s the administration’s prerogative to fire poor performers.
“If they’re underperforming, then they gotta go,” Mast told the Phoenix. Asked whether it would have been appropriate to fire them simply for testifying against the president, he said, “I don’t think that’s the only reason, so I think it’s a moot point.”
Vindman, a decorated U.S. Army officer, testified to the U.S. House about Trump’s now-famous July 25, 2019, call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That call became the center of the impeachment charges alleging that Trump had improperly pressured Ukraine to meddle in the coming U.S. presidential election.
Trump said in a tweet following Vindman’s removal from the White House that he was “very insubordinate,” reported parts of Trump’s call “incorrectly,” and “was given a horrendous report by his superior.”
Vindman’s attorney told Reuters that the president’s statements “conflict with the clear personnel record and the entirety of the impeachment record of which the President is well aware.”
U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a freshman Republican representing a large portion of central and southwest Florida, and who serves on the House Judiciary Committee — the first House committee that voted on impeachment articles — also defended the president’s personnel moves.
“He can decide who his ambassadors are, he can remove anybody. They all serve at the will of the president of the United States,” Steube told the Phoenix.
Another Florida GOP member of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Pensacola, told Fox News he wasn’t surprised to see Vindmand and Sondland removed from their posts after the impeachment proceedings.
“Many of the eruptions that gave rise to this impeachment were rooted in policy disagreement — a different approach, a different style, at times even a different outcome for various elements of Ukraine policy,” he said.
Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio wrote on Twitter that Vindmand hadn’t been “fired” from his job. “He was assigned to NSC to serve the president who has a right to have people he trusts on his staff,” Rubio wrote. He added that Sondland was a political appointee. “No point in having a political appointee who no longer has the [president’s] confidence.”
But Florida Democrats are troubled by Trump’s behavior.
“This is a president who is vindictive and acts out of retribution,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa told the Phoenix this week.
Trump’s removal of impeachment witnesses from their jobs weren’t unexpected, she added, “but it makes you think about the senators who stated during the impeachment proceedings, ‘Boy, the president has learned his lesson.’”
(Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins had said she believed Trump had learned a lesson from impeachment before walking that back, saying her statement was “aspirational.”)
Rubio and Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott both voted to acquit Trump on charges that he had abused his power and obstructed Congress.
Castor doesn’t think Trump “has learned any lessons at all,” she said this week. “Those senators really abdicated their responsibility to our national security and the U.S. Constitution when they gave the president a pass.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat, criticized Trump’s comment that Vindman had been “very insubordinate.” She wrote on Twitter, “One of these men is loyal to his nation and the Constitution. The other wants to silence the truth and hide his misdeeds.”