November 19, 2019

Today’s big news was the resumption of the public impeachment hearings. Today was both breathtaking and grave.

The morning’s witnesses were Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine specialist at the National Security Council (the advisors who help the president on national security issues and foreign policy) and Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer assigned to Vice President Mike Pence’s office. Both Vindman and Williams were on the July 25 call.

The afternoon’s witnesses were Kurt Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine who resigned the day after the whistleblower’s complaint was made public, and Timothy Morrison, a former Republican staffer who at the time of the July 25 call was an NSC aide (he went on to replace Fiona Hill as Trump’s Russia and Ukraine advisor in August, and resigned the day after he testified before the House on October 31). Ranking member (that is, the top Republican member) of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes (R-CA), requested the appearance of Volker and Morrison. He expected their testimony would undercut the case against the president.

Bad call.

The day’s testimony was devastating all around, but perhaps Volker’s was the worst for the president. Expected to be a somewhat sympathetic witness, he started by revising what he had said on October 3 behind closed doors. Since then, he said, he had “learned many things that I did not know at the time of the events in question.” That is… he had to “revise” his previously somewhat sympathetic testimony to bring it into line with what other people had established.

See why closed door hearings were a good idea?

Volker distanced himself from the whole fiasco. He said he was completely out of the loop on whatever Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland were doing, and that, if he had known, he would have “raised my own objections.”

He denied that he was aware he was one of the “three amigos”— Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and himself—that acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had tapped for Trump to run a secret Ukraine policy to pressure Zelensky to announce an investigation into the Bidens. He blamed Giuliani for creating the mess in Ukraine, insisting that he, Volker, simply cared so deeply about the progress of democracy in Ukraine that he tried to “thread the needle” of what he thought were the inappropriate demands of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in such a way that he could still help Ukraine hold off Russia.

Whether or not Volker’s blindness will fly is not clear to me: he had a reputation as a straight shooter and a good diplomat who has done much for Ukraine, among other places, but his blindness here seems extreme (although perhaps explainable). That he is throwing himself on the mercy of the nation rather on Trump is clear both from his long description of his service to the country and his voluntary dismissal of the idea that Biden was corrupt. He volunteered that Joe Biden “is an honorable man and I hold him in the highest regard.”

Morrison, a staunch Republican, tried to defend the president by saying that his own flag of the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine President Zelensky, which he, too, heard, was problematic not because it was so very bad on its own but because he worried “how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate.” But then he, too, delivered a zinger: he testified that Sondland told him directly that he, Sondland, had told the Ukrainian officials that they would not get the military aid they so desperately needed (and that Congress had approved on a bipartisan vote) unless they announced an investigation into Burisma and the Bidens. Anyone waiting on a direct connection of aid to an investigation just got it.

That this was the best defense the Republicans could muster speaks volumes. So did Nunes’s opening statement: he sided with the Russian intelligence agencies pushing the idea that it was Ukraine, rather than Russia—as our intelligence agencies have established-- that attacked the 2016 US elections. And he accused the media of being the puppet of the Democrats because it has said the hearings are devastating for the president. (It has, of course, streamed them live as well as commenting on them, so people can watch for themselves.)

If the afternoon’s testimony was breathtaking, the morning’s was grave. We watched the clash of two visions of America as Republicans attacked the patriotism of anyone willing to cross the president. They questioned the abilities and the loyalty of Lt. Col. Vindman, a highly decorated military veteran, who came from the USSR as a refugee with his family when he was just three, and who went on to embrace the American dream. He got an education and joined the armed forces, fighting in Iraq, where he was wounded in 2004. Vindman continued his career serving the country as a Foreign Area Officer specializing in Eurasia, advising the U.S. embassies in Ukraine and Moscow before bringing his expertise back to Washington, D.C. An aide to the NSC, he was on the July 25 call and instantly flagged it as an attack on our democracy.

Vindman recognized that Trump was trying to solicit foreign help in undermining the 2020 election, an effort which makes our government look far more like the corrupt oligarchy of Russia than like a democracy. So he followed the rules. He reported the call to the head NSC lawyer, John Eisenberg. But rather than dealing with the substance of the complaint, Eisenberg tried to hide the problem, moving the call into the highly classified system to limit access to it. Now Vindman is telling what he knows to Congress, and in his opening statement he made clear the difference between the US he loves and the totalitarian government from which his family fled. In America, he said, “right matters.”

Vindman’s powerful testimony and the backlash against it, in the very halls of our democracy, were a grave portrait of the threat under which we now rest. And they were, I think, a reminder of our own responsibility for our future.

Today is the anniversary of Lincoln’s 1863 delivery of the Gettysburg address, when in the midst of the Civil War, the president insisted that America stood for equality before the law. That principle was under siege, he noted, and brave people were struggling to keep it alive. Lincoln was speaking at the dedication for a national cemetery where men who had died in that struggle were buried. He called for Americans to “here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain” and that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.