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Sen. Duckworth To Hold Up Military Promotions Unless Vindman Is Treated Fairly

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is due for promotion to full colonel this year. Now, you may remember his name from the impeachment hearings last year. Vindman's firsthand testimony about that call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine was critical to the proceedings. Now some fear Vindman's promotion is in jeopardy since military promotions have to be signed off on by the White House. And Vindman was marched out of the White House by security back in February after the president said he was, quote, "not happy with him." Well, Sen. Tammy Duckworth has a plan to make sure Vindman gets his promotion, and she joins me now.

Senator, welcome.

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: It's good to be on. Thank you. Happy Fourth of July, by the way.

KELLY: Thank you. I hope you had a great Fourth. I will note that you sit on the Armed Services Committee, and you have said you're prepared to hold up more than a thousand other military promotions until the Secretary of Defense confirms to you in writing that he has not and will not block Vindman's promotion. So let's start there. Have you heard back from Secretary Esper?

DUCKWORTH: I have not heard back from Secretary Esper to my request, and I will be waiting to hear back from him. But until then, my block on the promotions of people to the rank of colonel and general will remain in place.

KELLY: What brought you to this point?

DUCKWORTH: Well, what brought me to this point was just seeing time and again the White House meddle in what should be routine military affairs - right? - a military that is supposed to be apolitical. You know, I'll give you an example. Lt. Col. Vindman's being on this promotion list - he was placed on it by his superiors. So three higher-ranking officers had to agree that he should be promoted. And if he's on the list, he deserves to go forward in a routine way as everyone else.

KELLY: I have to ask, is this fair - your strategy - to the thousand-plus service members, many of whom presumably are just as deserving of promotion as Vindman is? Their promotions are now in jeopardy because of your action here.

DUCKWORTH: Well their promotions are in jeopardy because of the president's actions and because of the White House action. All I'm saying to the secretary of defense is certify to me that you have not taken his name off - Lt. Col. Vindman's name off the list, and then it moves forward. And by the way, the promotions that I'm looking at are colonels and generals. I've not held up the promotions of lieutenants and captains and majors and lieutenant colonels, just colonels in general. So these are the very top...

KELLY: Just people at the top of the promotion structure. Yeah.

DUCKWORTH: These are the - right. These are the people at the very top who most are invested in keeping the military apolitical.

KELLY: And have you heard pushback from any of them? Are any of them objecting to this?

DUCKWORTH: I have not heard a single pushback. In fact, I've received many phone calls from people in the military, including those on the list, who support my actions.

KELLY: You've said promotion shouldn't be politicized, that the military is supposed to be apolitical. Do you believe the Pentagon has been politicized?

DUCKWORTH: I think under Secretary Esper, it has very much been politicized. And I do think that the White House and President Trump in particular continue to meddle in routine military decisions, which no previous president has ever meddled in. We've never had a president come in and pardon a service member who was convicted of a war crime, for example.

KELLY: We're talking about Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL.

DUCKWORTH: Yes. This is unprecedented. It's unprecedented that we would actually have a secretary of defense on a telephone call to governors talking about American soil and peaceful protesters as people - as a battlespace that needs to be dominated. And so I am trying my very best to make sure that we no longer politicize the military. And all I'm saying is, you know what? Confirm that you've not politicized the process, and I'll let the full list move forward. But until you send me a letter saying that you're not going to take his name off, then I'm going to keep this hold on.

KELLY: Yeah. We should note you're a veteran yourself, a recipient of the Purple Heart like Col. Vindman, which prompts me to ask, what do you make of the number of high-ranking military officials who have come forward and publicly taken issue with the president's recent action to use force and use active duty forces against protesters?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think that is very much where members of the military are. These are former military officers or these are retired military officers who can now speak their mind. And I think it speaks to the real professionalism of the United States military that they don't like when you use the military for political gain as this president is trying to do, whether it's trying to use them as props with a military parade like he did last year or whether it is to use them to silence peaceful protesting like they did this year. The military does not like that, and that's not the role of our military. That's why it's one of the few institutions left in this country that is really respected by Americans. And we dishonor the sacrifice of our troops when we politicize them.

KELLY: I want to turn you to the case of Vanessa Guillen, the Army specialist whose remains were found and just identified in Texas. I interviewed her sister Lupe last week. She says Vanessa was enduring sexual harassment at Fort Hood but that she was too scared to report it. I know this is a problem that you have worked to draw attention to. And I want to ask, is it time for those who do report harassment to have the ability to get support from outside the chain of command?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. And I've always supported the ability of victims to get support from outside the chain of command when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. I think the power needs to rest with the victim, and they can choose any numbers of ways of reporting. In this particular case, I am very concerned that she did not feel that the system that's in place was going to be responsive to her. That's why I have - today, actually, I am requesting the GAO, the General Accounting Office (ph), which is a congressional watchdog outside of the DOD, to look into the situation there and report back on cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault and whether the DOD's programs are actually working or not.

It's unacceptable. And I have lots of questions with this case. From what I've read in the popular media, in the general media, apparently, she was bludgeoned to death in the armory in the space that she - where she worked. How is it that we have gone this many weeks since she disappeared without them being able to find traces of blood or anything? What kind of a search has the military done? I - and I will tell you, I'm going to do everything I can to get to the bottom of this.

KELLY: The details of the allegations are horrific. As you know, the family and the family attorney would like Congress to get directly involved and investigate. Is that something you would support?

DUCKWORTH: Yes, and I'm calling for an investigation today.

KELLY: Last question - you are being vetted pretty seriously as Joe Biden's running mate. What do you say to those who argue the job this time should go to a black woman because of the powerful signal that would send in this moment of national reckoning of our country's legacy of slavery and inequality?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think that, you know, the Biden campaign has their own process, and Joe Biden knows best who he needs at his side. I do think that as a nation, we have to come to terms with the systemic racism that exists in our country. And that needs to be done regardless of who Joe Biden picks as his vice presidential candidate.

KELLY: But do you agree it would send a powerful signal to name a black woman right now?

DUCKWORTH: You know, I think that even just choosing a woman is a powerful signal that Joe Biden has made. But I will tell you that what I'm focused on is getting Joe Biden into the White House. And, you know, I would do whatever it takes to get Joe Biden elected.

KELLY: That is Tammy Duckworth, Democratic senator from Illinois.

Sen. Duckworth, thank you for your time. Great to speak with you.

DUCKWORTH: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be on.

(SOUNDBITE OF AEROC'S "BLUE EYED BITTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.