Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois announced on Thursday that she is blocking Senate confirmation of 1,123 senior US Armed Forces promotions until she receives assurances that the promotion of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness in President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry, won’t be blocked.
Duckworth, a combat veteran who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is seeking written confirmation from Defense Secretary Mark Esper that he has not and will not stop Vindman, a decorated veteran, from being promoted to the rank of Colonel.
Duckworth’s power play, which her office described as “unprecedented in modern history,” takes advantage of unanimous consent procedures in the Senate that are used to efficiently conduct Senate business. Typically, a large batch of non-controversial military promotions, like the ones Duckworth is holding up, would be passed all at once with just a few words exchanged on the floor between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and whoever is the presiding officer.
But instead of granting consent to pass the promotions, Duckworth objected, meaning McConnell would have to go through the time-consuming process of filing motions to overcome what amounts to her filibuster.
Her move also comes with some risk, as she could be criticized for holding up promotions and pay increases for hundreds of deserving servicemembers over what some will consider a political disagreement with Trump.
A defense official said that the Department of Defense “received the notification from the senator’s office last night and the secretary is aware.”
A Pentagon official said later Thursday: “It is disappointing that Senator Duckworth would willingly impede the careers of more than a thousand deserving Army officers, many of whom are deployed overseas defending our country. In addition, among those officers is the nominated next Chief of the National Guard Bureau, who, if confirmed, would be responsible for leading tens of thousands of Guardsman deployed around the country helping local communities fight COVID-19.”
Lisa Lawrence, a Pentagon spokesperson, previously told CNN that “The Department follows the applicable laws and regulations with regard to developing and reviewing officer promotion lists and submitting them to the White House and the Senate. This list and any names on it have been and will be treated as is customary.”
Vindman delivered explosive testimony during public impeachment hearings that Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden was “inappropriate” and that he knew “without hesitation” that he had to report it.
Vindman said that he reported his concerns out of a “sense of duty,” and he defended his fellow witnesses from what he described as “reprehensible” attacks. Testifying in his Army uniform as an active-duty soldier, Vindman invoked his father’s decision to leave the Soviet Union and come to the US, noting that the testimony he was giving would likely get him killed in Russia. “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth,” Vindman said in a now well-known line.
In February, Trump fired Vindman from his post as the top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council. An Army spokesperson told CNN at the time that Vindman had been reassigned to the Department of the Army. The President later defended Vindman’s firing from the National Security Council. Trump complained about news coverage of the firing in a tweet, saying reporting was done “as though I should think only how wonderful he was. Actually, I don’t know him, never spoke to him, or met him (I don’t believe!).”
In a statement released on Thursday, Duckworth said, “Our military is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy. It is simply unprecedented and wrong for any Commander in Chief to meddle in routine military matters at all, whether or not he has a personal vendetta against a Soldier who did his patriotic duty and told the truth—a Soldier who has been recommended for promotion by his superiors because of his performance. I won’t just sit by and let it happen, and neither should any of my colleagues.”
Former national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday that he believes Vindman deserves to be promoted.
Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” if Vindman should get a promotion and what signal it would send to military officers if he does not, Bolton responded, “Look, based on not just his service but his twin brother’s service at the NSC, both of whom were pushed out of their assignments early, I think they certainly deserve promotion based on what I saw.”
Bolton went on to say, “They shouldn’t be discriminated against. I hope there’s nobody in the White House who’s holding this up or putting bureaucratic obstacles in the way. I think it would be a terrible signal. I think this is something, this kind of corruption of this promotion process – unfortunately typical of a number of things that have happened in the administration – I think it’s a bad signal to all of our military.”
CNN’s Phil Mattngly, Caroline Kelly, Jeremy Herb and Devan Cole contributed