The public phase of the Trump impeachment inquiry finally began, and quickly became theater, or at last theatrical. This was about outrage, outrage at Trump trashing whatever was good about how America had gone about being America, or outrage that the snotty and snitty Democrats were trying to overthrow the landslide election of Donald Trump – the man who would make America great again, at which point those who had been left behind by the modern world – the urban world – the world of college degrees and artisanal bespoke lettuce – would rule the world once again, as it had been in 1953 or so, with the right sort of people in charge – straight evangelical Christian white male gun owners.
But it isn’t that simple. There’s Donald Trump. He’s hard to defend, and that led to all sorts of strangeness. Frank Bruni notes that that led to this:
I came to your house with a gun. At least imagine I did. I tied you to a chair, took a step back and repeatedly fired. But my arm twitched; every bullet missed. Meanwhile, you slipped your knots and fled.
By the reasoning of Representative Jim Jordan, I did absolutely nothing wrong.
You’re alive! Not a drop of blood on you! An unconsummated crime is no crime at all, or so Jordan, one of the Republican Party’s more rococo philosophers, argued on Wednesday in defense of President Trump. Ukraine got its military aid; Trump did not get his investigation of the Bidens. To Jordan, that’s proof of innocence.
To a normal person, that’s proof of incompetence.
That should reassure his critics:
Trump’s an autocrat all right, but the silver lining is that he’s an inept one. All strongmen should be this weak…
Bruni sees the bind in which the Republicans find themselves:
They’re dismissing Wednesday’s and Friday’s hearings, held in public, as pure theater. But they complained about the closed-door testimony beforehand. They’re shrugging off the accounts of William Taylor, George Kent and others as hearsay. But the White House has decreed that such firsthand witnesses as Mick Mulvaney not cooperate.
One moment, Mulvaney publicly acknowledges the shakedown of Ukraine’s president, insists that is how foreign policy is done and tells the media to “get over it.” The next, he tells the media that they’re reprehensible fabulists for reporting exactly what he said. One moment, Republicans completely ignore Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call and claim that there’s no direct evidence of his bullying and – yes, Nancy Pelosi is right – his bribery. The next, they acknowledge the call, sigh over Trump’s behavior but say that it’s hardly impeachable.
They don’t have much here. Trump’s an autocrat but he’s an inept one, so everyone should calm down and move on. That won’t happen. Inept won’t do. Someone should know what they’re doing. That’s what the Democrats have been arguing. A functioning government isn’t a threat to anyone’s freedom, but that augment needed a visible symbol, or a champion, or something. They needed someone normal.
They found someone. The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser explains how that normal person shook up everything:
For a few hours this Friday, an unassuming career diplomat named Marie (Masha) Yovanovitch did something that I thought had become impossible in Trump’s Washington: she managed to hold on to her amazement and outrage at the President’s amazing and outrageous actions. In this hyper-partisan, hyper-political time, she was neither.
Nearly three years into this Presidency, that is no given. A state of weary cynicism has taken hold regarding Trump, among his supporters and also his critics. He is what he is. What can we do about it? Even impeachment has quickly come to be seen through this lens. Members of Congress are all too likely to vote the party line. Does any of it matter?
That woman made it matter:
In hours of spellbinding testimony, on the second day of the House’s public impeachment hearings, Yovanovitch offered a decisive rebuttal to that way of thinking. She said that she had been surprised and appalled when Trump succumbed to a foreign disinformation campaign and fired her as the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine based on false allegations trafficked by his private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. She had taken on corrupt interests inside Ukraine, and those parties had, in turn, targeted her – and, unbelievably, it had worked. The President, the most powerful man in the world, had gone along with it. “It was terrible,” she said.
Yovanovitch said that she was shocked when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to issue a statement in her defense, although she had spent thirty-three years in the Foreign Service. She said that she was intimidated and incredulous when the President attacked her in a phone call with a foreign leader. She said that she felt threatened.
These are simple truths, which is why they were so powerful. So was the question she posed to the members of the House Intelligence Committee arrayed on the dais in front of her: “How could our system fail like this?”
That, of course, is a question for which Americans as yet have no real answer.
But put that aside. How this happened can wait. The “now” is what matters:
As with most truly memorable public moments, there was something raw and unexpected about Yovanovitch’s appearance on Friday; it cut through the rote posturing and partisanship to get at an essential fact. Yovanovitch reminded us that all of this is, in fact, amazing and shocking and outrageous. It is not normal.
That’s because this president isn’t normal:
Trump is not on the brink of impeachment because of some arcane dispute over differing philosophies about anti-corruption policies in Ukraine. Yovanovitch, who spent her career fighting corruption in the former Soviet Union, was dumped because the President had allied himself with Ukrainians who wanted to stop America’s anti-corruption efforts. He personally ordered her fired. He spoke threateningly of her during a phone call with Ukraine’s new President and did it again, on Twitter, while she was testifying on Capitol Hill. No previous President – of either party – has ever acted in this way.
That is why Yovanovitch’s appearance was ultimately about what the hell the country is supposed to do with a President who is so manifestly unpresidential.
It was time for that:
Friday offered a chance to reflect on Trump’s conduct, to consider the extent of his boorishness, his poor judgment, his ignorance, his recklessness, and his callous disregard for anything other than his own personal interests. There will be many days and weeks to come in which to hash out what, if anything, in all this saga involving Ukraine, should be considered impeachable by Congress. But that is not the real import of Friday’s hearing, which was a rare opportunity for America to stop and take stock of Trump and what he has wrought. This was a day to contemplate the excesses of Donald John Trump.
And of course Yovanovitch could help with that:
From the moment Yovanovitch began to speak, it was clear that this hearing was going to be different from the one that preceded it. She spoke of her parents, who fled Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. “My first tour was Mogadishu, Somalia,” she said, signaling that she was no simpering élite, holding court at fancy dinner parties, but a badass woman of the world, who chose to serve her country in the more remote and dangerous corners of the planet.
Before the hearing, Yovanovitch had been cast as an archetype of a woman wronged, but she refused to play the part of the marginalized victim on Friday. She was calm and measured, firm but not angry, as she delivered her devastating account.
This was apparently what set off Trump, who was watching in the White House, although his staff claimed that he was not. Trump knows when he’s being trolled. He can smell an insult from a million miles away.
And he can’t stand a badass woman of the world:
For those who wondered about what an impeachment in the Twitter era would look like, the answer came hurtling from Trump’s phone at 10:01 a.m. The President of the United States was hate-tweeting a witness in real time, while she was testifying. In the tweet, he appeared to blame Yovanovitch for all the troubles of the countries to which she had been assigned in the course of her career. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he tweeted. Her service in war-torn Somalia had clearly stung the Vietnam draft dodger in the Oval Office, and he wrote, “She started off in Somalia. How did that go?” He finished off with a reminder of his “absolute right” to hire and fire Ambassadors.
This was embarrassing, and this was used against Trump on the spot:
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, read the tweet out loud to Yovanovitch, to get her reaction, and called it “witness intimidation.”
It was breathtaking enough to cause even many Trump supporters to balk. On Fox News, the former independent counsel Ken Starr, whose investigation led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, said that Trump’s tweet had showed “extraordinarily poor judgement” and was “quite injurious” to the President’s defense.
The Fox News anchor Bret Baier said that Trump was “adding, essentially, an article of impeachment real time.”
Liz Cheney, the only woman in the House Republican leadership, said bluntly that Trump’s tweet was “wrong.” Will it change Cheney’s vote on impeachment? Doubtful. But Yovanovitch’s testimony was a reminder that what Trump did was manifestly wrong, regardless of the vote count, regardless of what Congress ultimately decides to do about it.
All of this was devastating in its way, but there was something else going on. The woman could tell a story:
Yovanovitch’s account of the moment when she was unceremoniously fired by Trump was gripping. It was a spring night, and she was hosting an event to celebrate a “woman of courage” award being given by the U.S. Embassy to one of Ukraine’s fearless anti-corruption crusaders, who had been gruesomely murdered in an acid attack. After the gathering, at 1 a.m., Yovanovitch received a phone call ordering her back to D.C. on the next flight. When she arrived, she was told by State Department officials that she had been fired on personal order of the President. By then, she knew about Giuliani’s campaign against her; she knew that two businessmen with ties in Kiev, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had gained his ear. She knew that even Donald Trump, Jr., was part of the campaign, tweeting that she should be ousted. What she did not know until that day was that the President himself was going along with it, and she pronounced herself amazed at the implications.
“Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray and shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American Ambassador who does not give them what they want,” she said.
And, implicitly, she was saying that any halfway smart guys can manipulate this particular president. But then, the guy is not normal, and Glasser adds this:
Yovanovitch’s firing has always struck me as problematic for Trump. Republican committee members did not attempt to defend it, and instead simply fell back on Trump’s right to fire her. Yovanovitch skewered that excuse after her GOP questioners reminded her one too many times that Trump held this right.
“The President has the right to withdraw an Ambassador at any time, for any reason,” Yovanovitch said, “but what I do wonder is, why was it necessary to smear my reputation?”
Paul Waldman has an answer to that:
Yovanovitch, a respected diplomat with decades of service to the United States, came to Ukraine determined to help the country fight corruption, as was U.S. policy through successive administrations. This garnered her enemies among people who were profiting from that corruption, including two of the country’s chief prosecutors, Viktor Shokin and Yuri Lutsenko, and Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch with reported connections to Russian organized crime.
The story of the smear campaign against Yovanovitch is complex, but it involves Shokin and Lutsenko feeding bogus information about her to Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and his recently arrested colleagues Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman (who are linked to Firtash), as well as to American right-wing media.
And then it became a matter of playing Trump:
People who knew Trump understood what would turn him against Yovanovitch: The allegation that she was insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump.
Which is why Joe diGenova – a Trump ally who is the lawyer for both Rudy’s goons Parnas and Fruman and for Firtash, the oligarch – went on Fox News in March and said that Yovanovitch “is known and reported by people there to have bad-mouthed the President” and “to have told Ukrainians not to listen to him or obey his policy, because he was going to be impeached.” He repeated this to Sean Hannity, and then the allegation quickly spread through conservative media.
DiGenova has never said where he learned Yovanovitch was supposedly “bad-mouthing” Trump. In her testimony, Yovanovitch was emphatic that it never happened. But Parnas worked the same angle; he recounts that at a gathering, he told Trump that Yovanovitch didn’t support him, and Trump reacted by saying she should be fired.
So what we see is that the people who understand Trump knew exactly how to manipulate him. Knowing that he values personal loyalty far more than competence or the interests of the United States, all they had to do was keep telling him that Yovanovitch wasn’t loyal to him, and she’d be gone.
So that’s that:
“How could our system fail like this?” Yovanovitch asked in her opening statement Friday. “How is it that foreign corrupt-interests could manipulate our government?”
Thought she didn’t say it herself, the answer is two words: Donald Trump.
That man does make things worse, and he makes the people around him worse too:
A veteran prosecutor who served in various capacities in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a “coward” Friday for not sticking up for U.S. diplomats abroad.
The criticism from Chuck Rosenberg, who served as acting DEA administrator during the first eight months of Trump’s tenure, came during a break in the testimony of ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
Rosenberg was reacting to Yovanovitch’s description of a July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump attacked Yovanovitch and said “she’s going to go through some things.” Yovanovitch said she felt threatened upon learning about Trump’s remarks, which were released by the White House in September.
Multiple impeachment inquiry witnesses have testified that they unsuccessfully lobbied Pompeo to release a statement supporting Yovanovitch after the White House released the memorandum of the call showing Trump’s attacks.
“His silence is deafening, it is an act of abject cowardice,” Rosenberg said of Pompeo. “I’m astonished that somebody who went to West Point and was an Army officer does not have the spine to stand up for the people in his organization who are being denigrated by this President.”
Rosenberg called Pompeo’s silence a “complete failure of leadership,” and “disgusting,” and said if Pompeo were watching, “I would tell him he’s a coward.”
He probably would, but then things got even worse for Trump:
Roger Stone has been found guilty on all of the counts against him, including obstruction, five counts of false statements, and witness tampering. The trial lasted a little over a week and the jury spent less than two days deliberating.
He had been a bad boy:
Stone was indicted in January by the Washington, D.C. grand jury that special counsel Robert Mueller empaneled for his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and related matters.
Prosecutors put forward emails and texts that they argued show Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee about having WikiLeaks-related communications that he didn’t turn over to Congress.
They also put on the stand two former top officials from the Trump campaign – Rick Gates and Steve Bannon – who testified that Stone was perceived in the campaign as having a backchannel to WikiLeaks.
Among the contacts prosecutors highlighted was Stone’s messages with Bannon about WikiLeaks’ plans. Lying to the House about WikiLeaks-related communications with the Trump campaign was one of the counts Stone was convicted of Friday.
And there was witness tampering too:
Randy Credico, whom Stone falsely claimed was his intermediary to WikiLeaks in the summer of 2016, was another major witness for prosecutors.
The jury found Stone guilty of witness tampering for the threatening texts Stone sent Credico demanding that Credico plead the 5th in the House investigation so he would not blow up Stone’s story about who was his intermediary.
This was a mess, but it sure looks like Team Trump was coordinating with WikiLeaks and the Russians so Trump tweeted:
So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come. Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself? Didn’t they lie? A double standard like never seen before in the history of our Country?
Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent say no:
It’s important to appreciate how deeply dangerous this sentiment really is. The difference between Stone and those figures mentioned by Trump is that Stone committed crimes and has been convicted for them, while those others have not.
And that’s not normal:
Trump’s constant use of disinformation-warfare and his serial attacks on the justice system are all about trying to erode people’s ability to make this basic distinction, that is, to erode their faith that the justice system can actually parcel out real justice.
Trump has long sought to turn law enforcement loose against his political enemies, especially those listed in his tweet. Simply through force of propaganda and serial lying, Trump hopes to make the legitimate conviction of Stone, and the legitimate investigations into his own corruption, into the exact equivalent of what he would like to see the machinery of justice illegitimately do to his enemies.
That’s certainly not normal, but that badass woman of the world, Marie Yovanovitch, is. She’s decent and honest and unpretentious and she knows her stuff, and she tries to do the right thing at all times. That’s normal too. The nation needed a reminder.