Boldened by an impeachment that died a quick death in the Senate and flexing a continuous loosening of congressional restraints, President Donald Trump forcibly removed Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman (as well as Vindman’s twin brother Yevgeny) from the White House last week in the wake of their impeachment testimony. This action is a flagrant display of the undermining of democracy.
Sondland and Vindman both served as key witnesses in the impeachment hearings held in the House of Representatives; Sondland testified that the president’s orders were followed and that “everyone was in the loop”, while Vindman asserted to the House that the president’s actions were improper and coercive.
This raises concerns for a number of reasons, most prominent among them the clear breakdown of any willingness of the legislative branch to exercise a check on a president who continues to perform outrageously in almost every aspect of his job [maybe find some examples for this]. Not only did no House Republicans vote for impeachment in December, while only one Senate Republican–Mitt Romney–voted to convict the president on either article of impeachment, but Senate Republicans actually endorsed Trump’s firing of Sondland and Vindman. They argue that he had “every right to fire the men” and added that they were expected to remain loyal–which they did not do. While this is technically true, it demonstrates a concerning trend, as Republicans continue to refuse to use their constitutional (and democratically-endorsed) right to issue checks on the president.
This refusal shows clear and present danger to the concept of accountability, a tenet of democracy defined by political scientists Ellen Lust and David Waldner as having two parts: “answerability” and “punishment” . The main violation is, of course, that of punishment: “the capacity to impose negative sanctions on officeholders who violate certain rules of conduct”, present in the House and Senate as the system of checks and balances established in our Constitution. Our same-party Senate refuses to use their constitutionally-given power of checks and balances to exercise any form of punishment or admonishment on the president, and allows him to use his power egregiously and without restraint.
Accountability is also endangered by the source of Trump’s protests to Sondland and Vindman’s actions–not only is he bitter that they testified against him, but he is also frustrated that they complied with Congressional subpoenas, in rare contradiction of the desire the White House displayed throughout the investigative process that subpoenad officials defy the subpoenas and refuse to appear. This is in violation of the aspect of accountability that is concerned with the importance of answerability, defined here as the “obligation of public officials to provide information about their acitivites and to justify them”. Defying Congressional subpoenas is, in essence, the opposite of answerability, and serves, in fact, to obfuscate their activities and to completely dodge the prospect of justifying them.
Despite the fact that he is legally capable of firing Vindman and Sondland, doing so presents major concerns for the level of accountability in this administration, and it also suggests a likelihood that the democratic norm of forbearance, defined by Levitsky and Ziblatt as “avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit”, has been violated. It’s typically applied in case where a political entity overzealously applies the law to specifically its political opponents, but can also be applied in cases like this, where the ability to fire Vindman and Sondland, while not illegal and in fact enumerated in the Constitution itself–Article II grants the president the power to both appoint and remove officials–is applied specifically in the case of those actors who have displeased the president. This not only presents a concern in its specific application to the opposition, but also demonstrates another concern for democracy: a limitation of political speech, in that clear consequences have now been outlined for those who would do as they did . Trump has used his executive power to enact retribution on men who were performing their wholly legal, required duty, and in doing so has enacted a clear and continuing attack on democracy.
 Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 21, no. 1, 2018, pp. 93–113., doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.
 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
 Varol, Ozan. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review 100(4)
I, too, am alarmed at Trump’s removal of Sondland and Vindman, and even more so by the congressional GOP’s lack of response to the ordeal. This seems to be just another of countless examples of Trump abusing executive power (while still operating in legal parameters) while members of his own party from an allegedly co-equal branch of the government do nothing or defend him. Furthermore, the fact that they were fired right after he was acquitted is a disturbing sign that perhaps he did not learn his lesson as many members of the GOP say he did. Lastly, this was especially disturbing to me because during Vindman’s testimony, he assured his Ukrainian father that he would be “fine for telling the truth,” and that his father made the right choice to immigrate to the US.