When he appeared on “Face the Nation” last week to promote his book, Mark Esper made a stunning disclosure. Months before Jan. 6, 2021, Esper had reason to believe Donald Trump might attempt a post-election coup, based on conversations he’d overheard as secretary of defense. But instead of sharing his concerns with the public right away, he crossed his fingers and hoped for the best. “I was patiently waiting to see what happened,” he told CBS host Margaret Brennan.
Esper became the latest in a line of Trump administration officials airing qualms months or years after the fact. From national security advisor John Bolton onward, the pattern is consistent: They witnessed untold chaos and corruption but kept going as if things were normal. “I could just see everything unraveling in that moment,” former White House coronavirus czar Deborah Birx told ABC News last month, describing her horror when in 2020 Trump proposed injecting COVID-19 patients with disinfectant. Still, Birx didn’t fully express her horror until she hit the book promo circuit this year.
Much like a slow-motion car crash, this parade of come-latelies is riveting. But to keep our leaders and ourselves accountable to higher ethical standards, we ought to pay more attention to officials who got it right — who told the truth when Americans needed to hear it, putting their own careers on the line to do so.
Brothers Yevgeny and Alexander Vindman stepped up to this challenge during the Trump years. Alexander, a veteran National Security Council official, listened in on a now-infamous July 2019 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the call, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden, suggesting hundreds of millions in US military aid hung on Zelensky’s decision.
After the call, Alexander Vindman hashed things out with Yevgeny, an ethics attorney for the NSC. Both brothers were disturbed by what had happened, and both took steps to bring the incident to light. Yevgeny raised specific concerns about the call to his supervisors at the NSC, and in October 2019, Alexander testified to House of Representatives committees about what he’d heard on the call. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a US citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the US government’s support of Ukraine,” he said, adding that he feared the fallout would threaten US national security.
Both brothers paid dearly for their decision to speak up at the right time. Yevgeny was soon booted from his NSC position, and last week, the Department of Defense inspector general’s office announced that it was “more likely than not” that he had been fired in retaliation for having reported concerns about the president’s phone call. Likewise, Alexander lost his NSC post as director for European affairs and then retired from the Army after what his lawyer called “a campaign of bullying, intimidation and retaliation.”
The Vindman brothers displayed what researchers Philip Zimbardo and Zeno Franco call “social heroism” — action in service to a larger cause, risking status, security, or well-being in the process. This kind of principled behavior, studies show, can inspire others to act with integrity as well, fostering a broader culture where higher-ups are held accountable for corruption.
Of course, decisions to call out a leader are always fraught. Birx, Esper, and Bolton knew exactly what they were running from: Had they spoken up promptly, they might have met the same fate as the Vindmans in short order. When you’re up against a wall, it’s easy to frame self-preservation as somehow selfless, as Esper did when he told himself he had to stay on board or Trump would replace him with someone worse.
Yet as the Vindmans’ story shows, bona fide service, not veiled careerism, is what often pays off in the long run. Alexander and Yevgeny might have gotten knocked off the status ladder, but they can take satisfaction in knowing their decisions helped people make informed judgments about leadership, shaping the trajectory of the nation. “We public servants, the antibodies against corruption, contributed to that. And then the public, the United States citizenry, held the president accountable,” Alexander Vindman told Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes. “And that, I think, is a success.”
Compare that with where Esper, Birx, and the rest now sit. When you fail to speak out in time against a leader who mulls coup prospects or suggests disinfectant shots for COVID-19, you have to wonder each day who might still be alive if you’d chosen differently. No book sales blitz can get you out of that existential bind. “Do not worry,” Alexander Vindman said in his impeachment hearing testimony, addressing his Soviet immigrant father. “I will be fine for telling the truth.” By elevating the Vindmans’ example, we can get the country closer to fine, too.
Elizabeth Svoboda is a writer in San Jose, Calif., and the author of “What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.”