This is America. This was the second week of the Trump impeachment hearings. Those were very American. In a parliamentary system there’d be a vote of “no confidence” and snap elections. That can happen at any time – this isn’t working, let’s try again. Americans, however, are stuck with the guy for four or eight years. He cannot be indicted for any crime of any kind while in office – not in the Constitution but a general agreement that has kept the nation from bitter chaos and far too risky loss of continuity since the late seventies. So if something is going wrong, all that’s available to fix the problem is impeachment. And that’s almost impossible. Strange people do stay in office forever. Our system is a bit odd.
And now this happened:
Two White House national security officials testified before the House’s impeachment inquiry on Tuesday that President Trump’s request to Ukraine’s president to investigate Democratic rivals was inappropriate, and one of them said it validated his “worst fear” that American policy toward that country would veer off course.
Hours later, two more witnesses – another former White House national security official and a former top American diplomat – charted a more careful course but said under oath that the president’s requests on a July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine were not in line with American national security goals.
Mr. Morrison, the council’s former senior director for Russia and Europe, testified in a second session that went well into Tuesday evening alongside Kurt D. Volker, the former United States special envoy to Ukraine. Public testimony from both men had been requested by Republicans, but they also confirmed key details of the case Democrats are building against Mr. Trump.
The problem was that the second set of witnesses had been called by the Republicans, to testify that Trump did nothing wrong. That was what they had said in their closed-door testimony weeks earlier. But they had both changed their minds. They understood things now, embarrassing the Republicans who had insisted that they be heard, but that wasn’t the issue. The noble soldier was:
Taking their cues from the White House, Republicans moved aggressively to try to undercut the day’s lead witness, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert. They tried to raise questions about Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, and sought to portray the concerns expressed by Colonel Vindman and an aide to Vice President Mike Pence as merely the opinions of unelected, and even unreliable, bureaucrats second-guessing the president of the United States.
Colonel Vindman responded by invoking his sense of duty as an American and an officer to explain why he was so alarmed by Mr. Trump’s request that he reported his concerns to White House lawyers.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Colonel Vindman, an Iraq war combat veteran who testified in his deep-blue Army dress uniform covered with military ribbons. “It was probably an element of shock – that maybe, in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security.”
And the other witness felt the same way:
Sitting beside him during the morning’s hearing, Jennifer Williams, a diplomat serving on Vice President Pence’s national security staff, reiterated that she found Mr. Trump’s phone call with Mr. Zelensky “unusual and inappropriate.” She said she was struck that Mr. Trump was pressing a foreign leader about a personal domestic political issue, though she did not report any concerns at the time and spoke in more reserved terms.
On the call, Mr. Trump veered off talking points prepared by Colonel Vindman and pressed Mr. Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden and a debunked theory that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to interfere in the 2016 election.
That was it. Something had gone terribly wrong here. Every witness of every kind had said so, but all eyes were on only one witness:
For Colonel Vindman in particular, the testimony amounted to an unusual act of public criticism of the president by a White House employee – and it came at an immediate cost.
The colonel, who came to the United States as a refugee at 3, referred to his family’s history in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, noting that in Russia, “offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.”
Addressing his father, who he credited with “the right decision” in leaving the Soviet Union to seek refuge in the United States 40 years ago, Colonel Vindman said, “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
But as Colonel Vindman sat in the stately House Ways and Means Committee Room, the official, taxpayer-funded Twitter account of the White House posted a critical quote in which Tim Morrison, his former boss at the National Security Council, questioned Colonel Vindman’s “judgment.”
He seemed heroic. The president was sneering at him. Choose sides. Or get picky:
In another exchange that touched on Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, Steve Castor, the top Republican staff lawyer, asked him about three instances when Oleksandr Danylyuk, the director of Ukraine’s national security council, had approached him with offers to become the country’s defense minister.
Colonel Vindman confirmed the offers and testified that he repeatedly declined, dismissing the idea out of hand and reporting the approaches to his superiors and to counterintelligence officials.
“Every single time, I dismissed it,” he said, adding: “I’m an American. I came here when I was a toddler.”
Mr. Danylyuk himself said Tuesday that the offer was not a serious one.
In fact, the two of them had been joking around, so there was this:
Democrats fumed, accusing Republicans of sliming a patriot because he had a politically inconvenient story to tell.
And then the Army, sticking up for one of their own, pointedly made Trump and the Republicans look bad:
The Army has placed Alexander Vindman, an expert on Ukraine and a central figure in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, and his family under 24-hour security monitoring after Trump targeted Vindman in tweets accusing Vindman of being politically opposed to Trump…
U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal that the Army has in recent weeks conducted a security assessment of Vindman and his family’s home and internet presence, and said they are prepared to move the Vindman’s to a military base if there are any threats to their safety.
A few more Trump Tweets and someone is going to get a gun and “take care” of this irritating Army officer, and the New York Times’ Peter Baker has more:
As Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman sat in a stately chamber testifying on Tuesday, the White House posted on its official Twitter account a message denouncing his judgment. His fellow witness, Jennifer Williams, had barely left the room when the White House issued a statement challenging her credibility.
In President Trump’s Washington, where attacks on his enemies real or perceived have become so routine that they now often pass unnoticed, that might not seem all that remarkable – but for the fact that Colonel Vindman and Ms. Williams both still work for the very same White House that was publicly assailing them.
With the president’s allies joining in, the two aides found themselves condemned as nobodies, as plotting bureaucrats, as traitors within and, in Colonel Vindman’s case, as an immigrant with dual loyalties. Even for a president who rarely spares the rhetorical howitzer, this represents a new level of bombardment.
In short, Vindman isn’t unique at all, just an extreme example of the usual stuff that Trump does to all his people:
Mr. Trump has publicly disparaged cabinet secretaries, former aides and career officials working elsewhere in the government, but now he is taking aim at people still working for him inside the White House complex by name.
“This White House appears to be cannibalizing itself,” said William C. Inboden, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush. “While many previous White House staffs have feuded with each other and leaked against each other, this is the first time in history I am aware of a White House openly attacking its own staff – especially for merely upholding their constitutional duties.”
And then there’s this:
This reflects the president’s longstanding distrust of the career professionals who populate his White House, just as they have every other. While such officials characterize their work as nonpartisan in service of presidents of either party, Mr. Trump has felt burned since the early days of his administration when internal documents were leaked, including transcripts of two of his phone calls with foreign leaders.
“Nothing is the same anymore,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for Mr. Bush. “Clearly, when the staff leaks presidential phone calls with foreign leaders the first week of the president’s job, the staff is not what the staff used to be. It taints everyone, even good and loyal staffers.”
So, Trump lashes out. So, what else is new? But this guy has a uniform:
Even before raising his hand to take the oath on Tuesday, Colonel Vindman had come under particularly sharp fire. Mr. Trump’s allies on Fox News and elsewhere have questioned his patriotism by noting that he was born in Ukraine, a critique the naturalized citizen rebutted by showing up Tuesday in his Army dress uniform with Combat Infantry Badge and a Purple Heart from his service in Iraq.
And that really got to Trump:
Speaking with reporters, Mr. Trump seemed to scorn Colonel Vindman for appearing in uniform. “I never saw the man,” the president said. “I understand now he wears his uniform when goes in. No, I don’t know Vindman at all.”
And of course there’s a pattern here:
Charles A. Kupchan, who was President Barack Obama’s Europe adviser, said it should come as no surprise that Colonel Vindman and Ms. Williams would be targeted from within. “It is quite unusual for a White House to eat its young,” he said. “But Trump is a president who seems unable to tolerate dissent.”
And that’ll ruin everything:
Andrew Weiss, who was President Bill Clinton’s Russia adviser, said the attacks on Colonel Vindman “must be incredibly demoralizing for career people” still at the National Security Council. “During my time at the NSC there was a bright red line between national security and domestic politics,” he said. “Under Trump, that line has completely disappeared.”
Even some more supportive of Mr. Trump suggested on Tuesday that he stop going after witnesses. “The president should just ignore this whole thing,” Brian Kilmeade, a host on “Fox and Friends,” one of Mr. Trump’s favorite shows, said before the day’s hearings got underway. “Don’t tweet during it. Don’t get outraged over it. It ticks you off.”
Donald Trump wasn’t listening, and he got outplayed too. Mark Leibovich sees masterful stagecraft here:
The uniform made an entrance at the top of the morning.
Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient and an Iraq war veteran, strode into the hearing room with chest and shoulders trimmed with his Combat Infantry Badge, his Ranger tab and other recognitions of military service.
He stood there fidgeting next to the witness table, forced to linger on his feet while he waited for the morning’s other witness, Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, to arrive. His hands came to rest at his belt and appeared to be shaking slightly.
But that didn’t matter, because what he wore was everything:
Colonel Vindman, who still works at the White House as the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, testified in the House impeachment inquiry in his Army dress uniform, the ultimate witness power move. Oliver L. North, the lieutenant colonel at the center of the Reagan-era Iran-contra scandal more than three decades ago, would have a varied and checkered career. Yet the most indelible image of him remains the Marine uniform he wore in his televised hearings.
Visuals matter and so do words:
“It’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” Colonel Vindman said, correcting Representative Devin Nunes of California, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, who at one point in the morning had addressed him as “Mr. Vindman.”
This was, depending on your point of view, either a deft pulling of rank or a petty show of arrogance. But there was no missing the subtext beneath so much of Colonel Vindman’s testimony: He was, he said, a patriot, loyal to no partisan interest and driven by no animus to the president.
He was not a “Never Trumper,” as President Trump himself had suggested, using what has become the president’s catchall dismissal in this zero-sum capital that he has loomed over for nearly three years. In today’s Washington, you’re either with the president, or your ability to serve the country may be suspect.
And if you’re a “Never Trumper” you’re “human scum” of course, but that’s nonsense:
“I’m not sure I know an official definition of a Never Trumper,” Ms. Williams said during what has become a recurring feature of these hearings, the part where a committee member – in this case Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut — is obliged to ask the witness to assess their level of Never Trumpiness.
“I’d call myself Never Partisan,” Colonel Vindman replied to Mr. Himes.
They were ready for that, but Vindman is more serious than that:
On a few occasions, Colonel Vindman conveyed thanks to his father for having the courage to immigrate to the United States as a refugee from Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. To express concerns in the Soviet Union in public testimony “would surely cost me my life,” he said.
This was no small point to make, given that Colonel Vindman has faced threats since he came forward.
“Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected professionals, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago,” Colonel Vindman said in his opening statement, addressing his father, who was not in the room. “Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
There was no way for the Republicans to attack that, or this:
Late in the hearing, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, revisited that earlier statement. He asked whether Colonel Vindman’s father was concerned about his son coming forward and subjecting himself to this most severe spotlight.
Yes, his father was “deeply worried,” Colonel Vindman said. “Because in his context it was the ultimate risk.”
But this hearing room was a different context, or at least an ideal Colonel Vindman has spent his professional life fighting for. So no, he said, he was not worried about testifying.
“Because this is America,” he said, as a spontaneous burst of applause rose from the gallery.
Those four words did the trick. He really is going to be much harder to assassinate now. And Jesse Wegman adds this detail:
Republicans tried to dismiss Mr. Trump’s call for investigations of the Bidens as a harmless request. Colonel Vindman shot that down quickly. “The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it’s polite and pleasant, it’s not to be taken as a request, it’s to be taken as an order.”
Especially given the power disparity between the United States and Ukraine, Colonel Vindman said, it was clear that Mr. Zelensky wasn’t being given a choice. Slowly it dawned on the colonel that Mr. Trump’s true interest was not defending Ukraine against Russian aggression or helping it shake off its long history of official corruption – both longstanding and bipartisan American foreign policy goals.
“It was probably an element of shock that maybe in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security,” he said.
And then he went and did his job, no more, no less, and Max Boot adds this:
Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is a decorated and wounded veteran of the Iraq War. He is no coward, and yet his hands were shaking and he was visibly nervous as he read his opening statement on Tuesday before the House Intelligence Committee. This was a reminder of what a signal act of bravery it takes for a military officer – or a Foreign Service officer or an intelligence officer – to publicly reveal that the most powerful man in the world has committed impeachable and even criminal conduct.
And he had to face this:
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) stepped in Monday to supply speculation that Vindman “fits” the “profile” of anti-Trump bureaucrats who “try to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office.” His evidence? That Vindman told him in May “that it was the position of the NSC that our relationship with Ukraine should be kept separate from our geopolitical competition with Russia.” Johnson was rightly skeptical that this would be possible, but this is hardly evidence of anti-Trump animus. Presumably Vindman suggested keeping Ukraine separate from relations with Russia because Trump has an inexplicable soft spot for Russia.
It was all nonsense, but not this:
Vindman ended his opening statement with a stirring plea that had some spectators wiping away tears: “Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Vindman’s reassurance to his father resonated with me – another Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union who came to the United States as a young boy in the 1970s. People raised in tyrannical regimes such as the Soviet Union grow up with a terror of doing anything that could result in a trip to the gulag. As Vindman said, “In Russia, my act of offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.”
That paralyzing fear is hard to shake even when you move to a free country. Even today, my 84-year-old, Russian-born stepfather, who has been living in Los Angeles for more than four decades, expresses concern that something terrible might happen to me because of my outspoken criticism of the president.
Perhaps it has come to that, but not quite yet:
Like Vindman, I assure my loved one that I will be fine – and I truly believe this because I am exercising my constitutionally protected free-speech rights. But then I am not an existential threat to Trump’s political survival.
Vindman is. Along with his fellow witnesses, he is presenting incontrovertible evidence that the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors.
No wonder Vindman is visibly nervous. In testifying anyway, he is vindicating the highest ideals of a country where no man, not even the president, is above the law.
Vindman was not born here, but he is a far better American than the Trump toadies who question his loyalty.
And that’s how the day went. Because this is America.