Prominent right-wing media commentators have sought for weeks to cast aspersions on the House impeachment inquiry into President Trump, echoing the president’s repeated cries of “witch hunt!” and framing the investigation as motivated by political bias.
This week, some of those commentators opened a new front: questioning the patriotism of Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the White House national security official and decorated Iraq war veteran who was testifying on Tuesday that he had heard Mr. Trump ask Ukraine to investigate his Democratic political rival.
[Related: Read Alexander Vindman’s opening statement on Trump and Ukraine.]
One pundit on Fox News went as far as to suggest that Colonel Vindman had engaged in “espionage” against the United States, prompting an unusual rebuke from a Republican member of Congress.
Colonel Vindman, who received a Purple Heart after he was wounded in Iraq, is a Ukrainian-American immigrant who was 3 years old when his family fled to the United States. On her Fox News program on Monday, the conservative host Laura Ingraham sought to turn his ethnic background against him, noting that Ukrainian officials had recently sought the colonel’s advice about interacting with Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
“Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest,” Ms. Ingraham said. “Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle on this story?”
Her guest, John Yoo, a former top lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, agreed. “I find that astounding,” Mr. Yoo said. “Some people might call that espionage.”
The accusation by Mr. Yoo was decried by left-leaning pundits and, on Tuesday, by Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a Republican lawmaker. “It is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this country,” Ms. Cheney said, calling on critics to stop questioning the colonel’s loyalties.
Still, the notion that Colonel Vindman has some allegiance to a foreign country rapidly spread in right-wing circles, who apparently sensed a useful talking point to undermine testimony that is expected to be deeply damaging to Mr. Trump.
On Tuesday, the president repeatedly described Colonel Vindman as a “Never Trumper” in a series of posts on Twitter. On CNN’s “New Day,” Sean Duffy — a former Republican representative from Wisconsin and now a pro-Trump pundit — declared: “It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy.”
“We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from,” Mr. Duffy added. “Like me, I’m sure that Vindman has the same affinity.”
His interviewer, the CNN anchor John Berman, pushed back. “Are you suggesting that you would put Irish defense over U.S. defense? Is that what you’re saying?” he asked, referring to Mr. Duffy’s Irish heritage.
“He has an affinity, I think, for the Ukraine,” Mr. Duffy said. “He speaks Ukrainian, and he came from the country and he wants to make sure they’re safe and free.”
Colonel Vindman, 44, grew up in Brooklyn, completed basic training in 1999, and carried out numerous overseas tours in the Army, including in South Korea, Germany and Iraq. In 2003, he was wounded by a roadside bomb and received a Purple Heart. He has served in multiple United States embassies and joined the National Security Council in 2018.
But online, the conspiracy theory about Mr. Vindman as a foreign agent has begun to spread.
On Tuesday morning, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, a close Trump ally, tweeted: “Donald Trump is innocent. The deep state is guilty.” An account tied to QAnon, the fringe online conspiracy movement, amplified his claim to 160,000 followers on Twitter, and the conspiracy claim was likewise posted to a Facebook QAnon page within the hour.
Jack Posobiec, a well-known figure on the far-right internet, tweeted the falsehood that Mr. Vindman had been advising the Ukrainian government on how to counter Mr. Trump’s foreign policy goals. Mr. Posobiec cited The New York Times as his source — in fact, The Times reported no such thing.
Nevertheless, his tweet was repeated verbatim at least 50 times by over 25 accounts in the same hour, many written in response to mainstream media tweets about news of Mr. Vindman’s testimony with no reference back to Mr. Posobiec’s original tweet.