Stories Being Told

The impeachment hearings began. And they might not mean much. No one in America changes his or her mind about anything anymore. That’s a sign of weakness. That would be a moral failing too – much worse than mere weakness. So there is no one to convince that Trump is a disaster, or that he is Jesus returned to walk among us, or was sent here by Jesus, who might have been busy elsewhere. Everyone has dug in, and that makes this theater now. Who gives the most dramatic performance? Who gives the most dramatic performance before everyone goes home, and goes about the business of their smaller specific lives?

But the first day was good theater. The New York Times tells the tale well enough:

The House of Representatives opened historic impeachment hearings on Wednesday and took startling new testimony from a senior American diplomat that further implicated President Trump in a campaign to pressure Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

In a nationally televised hearing from a stately committee room across from the Capitol, William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, brought to life Democrats’ allegations that Mr. Trump had abused his office by trying to enlist a foreign power to help him in an election.

Mr. Taylor testified to the House Intelligence Committee that he learned only recently of a July telephone call overheard by one of his aides in which the president was preoccupied with Ukraine’s willingness to say it would look into Mr. Biden and work by his son Hunter Biden for a Ukrainian energy firm. Immediately afterward, Mr. Taylor said, the aide had been informed that Mr. Trump cared more about “investigations of Biden” than he did about Ukraine.

Ah ha! They got him:

Forceful, detailed and unflappable in the face of Republican taunts, the veteran diplomat delivered a remarkable rebuke of the actions taken by the president and his allies inside and outside of the government who placed Mr. Trump’s political objectives at the center of American policy toward Ukraine.

“Security was so important for Ukraine, as well as our own national interests,” Mr. Taylor testified, describing his growing sense of alarm at learning that $391 million in vital military aid for the former Soviet republic had been held up. “To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense. It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”

And the tales were engrossing:

In the first impeachment hearing in more than two decades, Mr. Taylor and another seasoned diplomat, George P. Kent, sketched out in testimony by turns cinematic and dry a tale of foreign policymaking distorted by a president’s political vendettas with a small country facing Russian aggression caught in the middle.

Heroes and villains! That’s the way to tell the tale:

Democrats toiled to make their case to a deeply divided nation that Mr. Trump had put the integrity of the 2020 election at risk by withholding the security assistance for Ukraine’s war with Russia to try to extract a political advantage for his re-election campaign.

“If this is not impeachable conduct,” demanded Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the committee, “what is?”

But there was another story to be told:

Showing no sign of doubts, Mr. Trump’s Republican defenders raged against a process they called unfair and illegitimate. They dismissed Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent – who between them have 70 years of experience as public servants under presidents of both parties – as part of a “politicized bureaucracy” who were offering nothing more than hearsay and supposition, rather than evidence of impeachable conduct.

“The American people see through all this,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio. “They understand the facts support the president. They understand this process is unfair. And they see through the whole darn sham.”

Deep expertise and massive experience mean nothing. These two made all this up. And that was the official line:

At the White House on Wednesday, Mr. Trump sought to project an air of confidence in the face of an existential threat to his presidency. Before a working meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Mr. Trump told reporters of the hearing: “It’s a hoax. I’m too busy to watch it.”

But even so, Mr. Trump was busy all day retweeting allies defending him. His re-election campaign blasted out a fund-raising solicitation accusing Democrats of “playing a sick game.” And the Republican National Committee circulated memes making fun of the witnesses as gossips who lacked firsthand information.

Asked for his reaction after the hearing ended, Mr. Trump said he had heard “it is a joke” and insisted that he had not watched it “for one minute.” He called the impeachment effort a sham and said, “It shouldn’t be allowed.”

Should the president be granted the power to shut down any impeachment inquiry, to say this is not allowed, this time, and forever too? But the two witnesses messed up that notion:

Both witnesses forcefully rejected attempts by Republicans and Democrats to draw them into a partisan drama over the impeachment inquiry, declaring they are not “Never Trumpers.” Responding to Mr. Jordan’s assertion that he was the star witness for the Democrats, Mr. Taylor insisted that he was not a political pawn of either party.

“I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” he said. “I think I was clear I’m not here to take one side or the other.”

And Mr. Taylor refused to take a position on whether Mr. Trump’s actions were impeachable, telling Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas: “That is not what either of us is here for. This is your job.”

They wouldn’t play along, and Greg Jaffe saw this:

To the Democrats in the impeachment hearing room, President Trump was a corrupt leader who had manipulated American foreign policy to undercut a political rival and serve his personal ends.

To the Republicans in the room, Trump was an unconventional leader taking on unelected bureaucrats who dismissed his legitimate grievances and sought to undermine his foreign policy aims.

The historic impeachment hearings that opened Wednesday were ostensibly about the facts of the now infamous 30-minute call on July 25 in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations that would damage former vice president Joe Biden and benefit Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.

But the hearing Wednesday bore the unmistakable echo of fights that have divided the country since the day Trump delivered his “American carnage” inauguration speech from the steps of the Capitol and opened the doors of the Trump International Hotel to foreign leaders and lobbyists seeking favors from Washington.

So this was an argument about a larger issue:

In the first weeks of the Ukraine scandal, Republicans largely fell into line with Trump’s view that his call with Zelensky had been “perfect,” before edging away, amid hours of damaging testimony, and arguing that the call was problematic but far from impeachable.

On Wednesday, the country’s political leaders returned to the spot where they always seem to go. Once again, lawmakers were trying to untangle Trump’s self-interest from the broader national interest of the country he was elected to serve. At issue was the fundamental question of Trump’s presidency: Was his norm-breaking a betrayal of his oath of office or his right as the commander in chief?

That may have been the only question here:

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) described an “odious” scheme hatched by Trump and his allies to use desperately needed U.S. military aid as leverage to force Ukraine’s new president to dig up dirt on Trump’s political rival. “Is that what Americans should now expect from their president?” Schiff asked. “If that is not impeachable conduct, what is?”

His Republican counterpart and fellow Californian, Devin Nunes, insisted that the real wrongs were committed by an “outraged bureaucracy” that resented Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, his loathing of foreign aid and his dismissal this spring of one of their own, a career Foreign Service officer who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine…

In a notable break with tradition, Nunes didn’t thank the two witnesses for their decades of service to the nation, but rather sought to condemn them for it. By his reckoning, bureaucrats in the FBI, CIA and the State Department had manufactured the Russia collusion scandal and accusations of obstruction of justice that marred the first half of Trump’s presidency. Now the same “politicized bureaucracy” was at it again.

That clarifies things. Decades of service to the nation are a problem. That ruins you, no one can now trust you about anything, or with anything, but these two didn’t see it that way:

For the two witnesses and the Democrats in the hearing room, that policy agenda, executed on a bipartisan basis, was nothing short of sacrosanct. It involved repelling Russian aggression, safeguarding borders and supporting Ukraine in its “fight for the cause of freedom,” Kent said

“How does this affect our national security,” Schiff asked.

“It affects the world we live in, that our children and grandchildren will grow up in,” Taylor replied. “This affects the kind of world we want to see [and] our national interests very directly. Ukraine is on the front line of that conflict.”

The Republicans, meanwhile, sought to defend a president’s prerogative to define the nation’s interests as he or she sees fit. By this measure, the president’s actions were far less important than the motives of his accusers.

And that led to all the questions about what was really going on here, as Isaac Stanley-Becker explains here:

The question seemed to surprise William B. Taylor Jr., a Vietnam veteran with decades of diplomatic experience.

Couldn’t he “appreciate that President Trump was very concerned,” asked the Republican counsel, that the Ukrainians were “out to get him?”

The lawyer was referring to a conspiracy theory, popular in parts of the political right, that while Democrats have focused on Russia’s efforts to help Trump win the 2016 election, it was actually Ukraine that interfered during that campaign to help Trump’s Democratic opponent.

Taylor paused, casting his eyes down as his lips curled into a grin. He declined to give credence to the claim. “I don’t know the exact nature of President Trump’s concerns,” the witness answered.

That was diplomatic, but there are two stories being told:

One story line rests on a whistleblower complaint – corroborated by a string of named diplomats as well as the White House’s own reconstructed transcript of a July phone call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart – about a shadow foreign policy to undermine conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election and damage one of Trump’s 2020 rivals, former vice president Joe Biden.

The other, which has played out in conservative media and on Trump’s own Twitter feed, relies largely on conspiracy theories and cover stories – some of which have taken root in the farthest reaches of the Internet before percolating up to the Oval Office – about Ukraine’s influence in the 2016 election and Biden’s reasons for going after a Ukrainian prosecutor, who was widely viewed by Western powers as corrupt.

And that made for a bit of a mess:

The competing information streams are epitomized by MSNBC and CNN, which have reported heavily on the impeachment inquiry, and Fox News, Trump’s favorite network. But those outlets and others trained their attention on the same scene on Wednesday – giving viewers from each world a rare glimpse into the other.

“The viewer encounters two competing sets of factual claims,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College. “I imagine it’s quite bewildering,”

But that helps the Republicans:

The malleability of facts emerged as a broader GOP talking point. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump ally, affirmed as much to reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday. “I think what happens is, when we start to look at the facts, everybody has their impression of what truth is,” he said.

And that makes all of this meaningless:

Many of the president’s most ardent supporters declined altogether to view the hearings as a legitimate source for facts. In some of the largest pro-Trump groups on Facebook, memes circulated exhorting users to boycott the hearing.

These seemed to take their cues from the White House and members of the president’s family. Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, tweeted that the hearing was “boring.” Eric Trump, the president’s younger son, labeled the proceedings “horribly boring.”

Mike Rothschild, a researcher and author who specializes in debunking conspiracy theories, said coaxing the public not to watch would be effective for the people already prepared to line up behind the president. “But it seems a bit desperate,” he added, born of an inability to “refute anything that the witnesses are claiming.”

Does that really matter anymore? This is about scoring points, not changing minds. That’s sport. Or that’s theater. That’s what Lili Loofbourow argues here:

Watch enough hearings and you’ll inevitably find yourself analyzing the performance. Politics are theater at a basic and obvious level, but theater criticism substituting for serious political inquiry is, unfortunately, everywhere now.

But something was different this time:

What America saw today was a shocking demonstration of what it looks like when actual experts testify to things they know about. Taylor and Kent were composed and matter-of-fact, like many witnesses we’ve watched during this presidency. But their testimony accomplished something the Robert Mueller hearing never could: It made the stakes clear. The “national security” mentioned during the Mueller hearings often felt too abstract for the average person to care about, especially given how much remained classified, how hard to follow much of it was. The story of what has happened in Ukraine is not simple. But through their testimony, Taylor and Kent made the country spring to life as an actual place with actual people whose concerns deserve consideration and whose urgent circumstances they can very capably communicate.

In short, this was damned good theater:

Taylor made the case for urgency by saying obvious but true things: This is a country that was and is being attacked, literally, right now, by Russia. People died while aid was delayed for no apparent reason.

He implicitly shamed everyone who’d been treating a country as a pawn in a game of chess for or against Trump, and morally annihilated those still clinging – bizarrely – to the conspiracy theory that Russia has been framed for its destructive policies in Ukraine and its intervention in U.S. elections. He explained why the White House visit mattered to Zelensky (negotiation leverage) and why he advised against Zelensky saying what Trump wanted him to in that CNN interview (bipartisan support is crucial for Ukraine to keep, and involvement in U.S. domestic politics would annihilate that). In so doing, he might have gotten at least a few Americans thinking about the fact that Ukraine has extremely delicate political considerations all its own that are worth at least remembering every time some Republican suggests that Zelensky felt no pressure from Trump.

And there was that other guy too:

Kent functioned as a kind of Wikipedia wizard, offering context and history for every Ukrainian business, politician, and entrepreneur mentioned in the course of the proceedings. Just as crucially, he clarified how American foreign policy ordinarily works, and who belongs where and why. He sketched out what an actual anti-corruption effort looks like and why Trump’s wasn’t one; he explained why neither he nor Taylor was involved in the notorious call.

In sum, he served an amazingly useful function: At every step, he was the guy in the room with enough expertise to say this is what normal looks like and this is why this was not normal.

And that left the Republicans in a bind:

The GOP members did what they could to stop it. The ways they fell short are instructive.

Against that wealth of information from seasoned experts, they spun the usual bubbles, but their imagined reality could not upset the clear picture the witnesses had drawn. It was interesting, though, to watch their strategies of stagecraft age.

For three years now, Republicans have taken Newt Gingrich’s directive to treat feelings as fact – and consider facts irrelevant – to heart. They’ve aimed a Gingrichian firehose at every proceeding. In hearings, in short, they rage, they bluster, they propagate conspiracy theories. They whine and interrupt.

They are always apparently aggrieved and furious. The effect is less a defense than a bilious Gish gallop whose main objectives – deflect and disorient – have worked well enough. Trump, who switches subjects in midsentence but channels feeling quite well, has relieved the party of the need to make sense, and the congressmen have followed his example, often with terrific, base-rallying results.

The trouble is that any tactic suffers from too much exposure and overuse.

And then they hit the wall:

Neither Bill Taylor nor George Kent seemed even slightly discomfited by Jim Jordan’s very fast reading of questions, for example. Perhaps this is because they are so well versed in their subject that speed talking doesn’t disrupt. Or perhaps they just realized such childish displays were coming. Either way, none of it seemed very effective. The witnesses seemed considerably less agonized over their participation than the Mueller witnesses, who hedged, sometimes to the point of absurdity. They also both seemed, as witnesses, completely committed to the idea that they were there to inform, not to convince, and their reliance on objectivity in this way actually freed them from having to engage in a good deal of Republican drama.

And that is all that the Republicans had:

To the extent that Republicans have a case, it seems to be that a) there isn’t enough firsthand information (they always fail to mention that the White House has specifically forbidden witnesses with firsthand information from testifying); b) Trump didn’t actually succeed at extorting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky because others interfered, so therefore it doesn’t count and, trust them, he won’t try again; or c) Trump was sincerely concerned about Ukrainian corruption and was merely attempting to root it out, even though he didn’t mention it once in the infamous phone call (and also, since when does Trump care about corruption?).

I guess I should append the other two defenses that cropped up: d) A foreign president won’t publicly admit that he felt any pressure to follow Trump’s requests (it would be politically devastating for him to do so), and e) it is wrong for someone who hasn’t talked directly to Trump to be a witness in a hearing, period.

Needless to say, this is sad, weak stuff.

And that was made worse because they did face experts:

It’s a truism of the past several years that American faith in expertise suffered a serious blow. This sentiment crystallized after the 2016 election, when the United States had to face a president who knew nothing about government and grapple with how he got there.

Analyses of electoral defeats almost always end up endorsing weird and unsupported ideas about what the results really meant. One underappreciated side effect of Hillary Clinton’s defeat – which was frequently framed as the wonk trumped by the “outsider” – was that experience and knowledge got treated, suddenly, as a political liability. The polls were wrong, and expertise worthless.

“The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically might be right, but it’s not where human beings are,” Gingrich said two weeks before the election, and a lot of people took the results as confirmation of this foundational Republican un-wisdom. Actual knowledge has since been treated as suspect, and insisting on it is characterized in some GOP quarters as borderline treason, particularly if it conflicts with the president’s understanding. Trump surrounds himself with people who know how to flatter him; that seems to be the only expertise the party as presently constituted respects.

But something may have changed just now:

Kent and Taylor appeared as nonpartisan career officials and occupied that increasingly embattled space with unusual ease… Kent and Taylor rejected any representative or tactical characterization with remarkable, blunt ease. Every time a Republican tried to call Taylor the Democrats’ “star witness,” he repeated that he was simply there to offer what facts he had.

They presented themselves as exactly what they were: experts on one very specific topic. What remains to be seen is if America has the capacity to listen.

America may not have the capacity to listen. Americans just like a good show. Perhaps they just got a good show. But it was only a show. There were no minds to change. And nothing changes.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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