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Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who served as a key witness in President Trump's impeachment inquiry, told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that he believes Trump is a "useful idiot" and "unwitting agent" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Of note: He doubled down on his comments in an interview with NBC News airing Monday evening, saying Trump's "infatuated" with Putin and that some had described their relationship as "a kind of a love affair."

"I know that other senior government officials suspect that Putin might have dirt on him. But frankly, they don’t have to use coercive force. What they have is a willing participant in their enterprise."
— Vindman's comments to "NBC Nightly News"

Context: The Atlantic and NBC interviews are the first Vindman has had since he was fired from his position as the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council and retired from the military earlier this year. He claims that he was retaliated against for testifying that Trump's campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden was "improper."

What else he's saying: "I just had a visceral reaction to what I was hearing," he told The Atlantic, referencing what Trump has described as a "perfect" phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “I suspected it was criminal, but I knew it was wrong."

  • "Trump knew he had them over a barrel. I found it repulsive and un-American for an American president to try to get a leg up by pressuring a foreign leader to get dirt on an American politician."
  • "I knew by then that Giuliani was somewhere in the background. But I refused to believe that the president was party to what Rudy was doing. I learned in that phone call that the president was the driving force."

On whether Putin has some kind of leverage over Trump, which former director of national intelligence Dan Coats reportedly believes, Vindman said: "They may or may not have dirt on him, but they don’t have to use it. They have more effective and less risky ways to employ him."

  • "He has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him," Vindman continued. "He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So he’ll try to please Putin.”
  • “In the Army we call this ‘free chicken,’ something you don’t have to work for—it just comes to you. This is what the Russians have in Trump: free chicken.”

The big picture: "With previous Democratic and Republican administrations, there have been left and right guardrails that helped define what was acceptable in terms of Russia policy. I thought we were operating within those boundaries," Vindman said.

  • I didn’t know precisely what Trump’s boundaries would be, but I did think we would be operating within boundaries."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with Vindman's comments to NBC.

Go deeper

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Nov 10, 2020 - World

As Trump fights the transition in D.C., the world moves on to Biden

"Next." Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Governments around the world are preparing to work with President-elect Biden — but they still have to navigate what could be a bumpy final 10 weeks of President Trump.

Split screen: Around the time Biden was holding his first call as president-elect with a foreign leader, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump was firing his secretary of defense, Mark Esper.

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Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.

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Why it matters: The COVID Tracking Project warns of a "double-weekend pattern" on Thanksgiving — where the usual weekend backlog of data is tacked on to a holiday.

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