November 8, 2019

Today the stories we've been watching for weeks continued to develop. Congress released the transcripts of the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was on the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine President Zelensky, and Fiona Hill, formerly Trump's expert on Russia. As the other transcripts have done, these transcripts upped the ante for the Ukraine scandal. The witnesses said they had no doubt that the president was demanding the announcement of an investigation into the Bidens in exchange for release of the military aid to Ukraine. If you or I did that, it would be called extortion.

The two testimonies also clarified the timeline for the Ukraine scandal. It was at a meeting on July 10 with Ukrainian officials that career US officials realized that there was a second team working with the Ukrainians without their knowledge. In that meeting, Ukraine officials were still unaware that their military aid was being held back, and so they were focused on arranging a meeting between Zelensky and Trump to illustrate that the US backed the new Ukraine president. But just as then-National Security Advisor John Bolton said a meeting was possible, Gordon Sondland, the Ambassador to the European Union (remember, Ukraine is not in the European Union) hijacked the discussion and told the attendees that, under the direction of acting Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney, he had already worked out a deal for a meeting between Trump and Zelensky. Bolton called a quick end to the meeting, and Sondland then met with the Ukrainians to tell them they had to announce an investigation into Biden's son's work in Ukraine. Vindman, who was present (he speaks Ukrainian), was deeply trouble by the reported the conversation. For his part, Bolton told Fiona Hill that he was "not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this."

So now, the Ukraine scandal has an explicit quid pro quo and it reaches into the president's own circle. The obvious person for the House Intelligence Committee to question as it takes over the impeachment investigation is Mick Mulvaney, but, along with most other White House officials, Mulvaney and his own aides have refused to honor subpoenas. John Bolton is also a valuable witness. He has expressed a willingness to testify, but claims he wants clearance from a court first. I'm not sure how to call this one: Bolton is a hardliner who believes in a strong president... but he is clearly furious that he was undermined by amateurs when he was in a key position in our government. Will he testify in the end? My guess is yes, but that and $2 will get you a cup of coffee.

Fiona Hill also got frustrated by Republicans questioning her repeatedly over the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that attacked the US in 2016. Ukraine was not the country that attacked, she insisted. It was Russia, and Russian leaders were gearing up to do worse in 2020. "You just had the Senate report coming out informing us all yet again, a bipartisan, nonpartisan report from the Senate about the risk that there is to our elections," she said. "If we have people running around chasing rabbit holes because Rudy Giuliani or others have been feeding information to… [the media]… we are not going to be prepared as a country to push back on this again. The Russians thrive on misinformation and disinformation… We’re in peril as a democracy because of other people interfering here…. And if we don’t get our act together, they will continue to make fools of us internationally.” (177)

So the pressure on Trump continues to mount, and he continues to try to resist it by stonewalling.

But what I found most interesting today was two other things: a speech by a federal judge last night and a letter to Trump's personal lawyer from the whistleblower's lawyer. Both complained about Trump's behavior, but rather than the complaints we've heard all along about how cruel or boorish the man is, both of these two condemnations talked about the role of the presidency, and noted that Trump did not measure up to the requirements of the job.

US District Judge Paul Friedman's speech before a group of Washington judges and lawyers laid out Trump's vicious attacks on the judiciary, and concluded: “This is not normal.... And I mean that both in the colloquial sense and in the sense that this kind of personal attack on courts and individual judges violates all recognized democratic norms.”

The lawyer for the whistleblower did something similar in a "cease and desist" letter he wrote to the President's lawyer demanding that Trump stop his attacks on the whistleblower. The lawyer gave Trump a history lesson on other presidents in trying times, quoting Lincoln and JFK, and concluded: "Your client's rhetoric and behavior fall well beneath the dignity of the office."

What I see in these comments is a growing popular recognition that the struggle to hold Trump accountable for lawbreaking is not about party, but rather is about the survival of American democracy.

It's high time.