Peggy Noonan: On Impeachment

A young foreign-affairs professional asked last week if the coming impeachment didn’t feel like Watergate. He was a child during that scandal, I in college. I said no, Watergate had the feeling of real drama, it was a reckoning with who we were as a people; it felt grave. This is more like the Clinton impeachment, grubby and small.

But watching the first day of hearings I thought that wasn’t quite right. There was something grave in it, and a kind of reckoning. This was due to the dignity and professionalism of the career diplomats who calmly and methodically told what they had seen and experienced. They were believable. It didn’t feel embarrassing to have faith in them.

Republicans on the panel didn’t know what to do. They know what this story is, and I believe they absolutely know the president muscled an ally, holding public money over its head to get a personal political favor. But they’re his party, they didn’t want to look weak, they had to show the base they had his back. In their interruptions and chaos-strewing they attempted to do some of what the Democrats did during the Kavanaugh hearings, only without the screaming meemies of Code Pink.

The Democrats were disciplined in their questioning and not bullying and theatrical, which was a surprise and unusual for them.

But the juxtaposition of the witnesses, the men of America’s diplomatic class, with the sullen, squirrelly, off-point Republicans, was what gave the hearing shape.

William B. Taylor Jr., acting ambassador to Ukraine, 72, was fifth in his class of 800 at West Point, where he was cadet battalion commander. Bronze Star, Vietnam, 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, 506th Infantry, Second Cavalry. After that, government work and diplomacy. He’s known for his modesty. You couldn’t be more impressive. Testifying along with him George P. Kent, younger and a different sort—studied Russian history and literature at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, speaks Ukrainian and Russian, 27 years in the foreign service.

They seemed to have capability and integrity. They weren’t deep state; they were old school, old style, not some big dope of a political donor, as all administrations have among their ambassadors, but the people who make it work, who maintain the standards, who keep it all up and running.

This is what I saw: the old America reasserting itself, under subpoena. They were American diplomats, with stature and command of their subject matter.

And the world was seeing it, and maybe thinking, “I remember them.” Older prime ministers and presidents in foreign capitals could be thinking, “I remember those pros, the bland Midwestern tough guys who knew their stuff. Good that they still exist.”

Quietly, smoothly, brick by brick, they gave their testimony and painted a picture that supports the charge that yes, Donald Trump muscled Ukraine.

To the week’s other attempt to make a case against the president:

I don’t like to beat up books, because they’re books; you can’t have enough data and argumentation and art; if you don’t like it, don’t read it. But “A Warning,” the White House insider exposé by “Anonymous,” is a poor piece of work, and something false at its heart shows a deep disrespect for the reader.

What we especially need in the political world now is guts, brains and sincerity. Anonymous does not offer them.

There’s nothing here that hasn’t already been said in a dozen books and a thousand articles. There is little first-person testimony telling us what the author saw, what was said, what happened, what it meant.

Halfway through I realized: Anonymous isn’t really hiding his identity, he’s hiding the major fact of that identity, which is that he is not a significant figure. The premise of the original article in the New York Times, of which this book is an expansion, was that he was a major player—a “senior official of the Trump administration”—who’s giving you what history needs, eyewitness testimony. But you get the impression the author wasn’t actually in the room where it happened, or not often. Not having new, first-person information he relies on high-class padding (thoughts on Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, the role of Congress) and style. The style is midlevel ad agency, clean but with no ballast. It is by the end irritating—shallow yet haughty, common yet pretentious, and full of clichés. His Trump “takes no prisoners” and “behind closed doors” damages “the fabric of our republic.” The president is historically and politically uninformed, inattentive in briefings, vengeful and dangerous, gets harebrained ideas, and says stupid things. Yes, we know. But you have to do more than assert.

Anonymous suggests he can’t be specific because it would blow his cover. But without specificity the work becomes contentless and devolves into mere rhetoric and polemic. And why not be specific and let people know who you are? It would make the truths you feel demand urgent expression more credible and concrete. There’s nothing dishonorable about thinking you are witnessing a catastrophe and telling the American people. But you have to look history in the face and take its punishments.

And in this case what punishments, anyway? You’ll be fired? You hate where you work! You’ll be insulted in tweets? So what? There are two Trump tweet lists in America, one with the names of those who’ve been attacked and the other with those who haven’t. The first is longer, and they’re still alive.

It is all so disguised, self-valorous and creepy.

Why was Anonymous there? He doesn’t really say. Since he saw the emptiness and danger early on, why didn’t he leave? “God knows,” he says, “it would have been easy.” He says he stayed because Mr. Trump is “a mess” and he wanted to help. But he gives no examples of how he helped. The fact is it’s hard to leave a White House. You’re unemployed, your office is gone, your old colleagues cool on you, and the neighbors are no longer impressed. Better to stay and simmer.

He claims “senior advisors and cabinet-level officials pondered a mass resignation, a ‘midnight self-massacre’ ” to draw the public’s attention to the White House disarray. But they didn’t go through with it. Why? “It would shake public confidence.” But diminishing public confidence in the administration was the point, no?

He refers to sensitive conversations that have not been declassified and vows not to speak of them—“such details have been omitted.” But it’s hard not to suspect he didn’t “omit” them, he didn’t know them.

“Trump wanted to use a domestic presidential power to do something absurd overseas, which for security reasons I cannot disclose.” Oh come on.

The Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed and the Trumpian Corruption of Language and the Media

But having this state of affairs described in print further establishes that an unelected body, or bodies, are overruling and actively undermining the elected leader. While this may be the country’s salvation in the short run, it also plainly signals the demise of some of its most cherished ideals and constitutional norms. An anonymous person or persons cannot govern for the people, because the people do not know who is governing.

..  The thing about autocracies, or budding autocracies, is that they present citizens with only bad choices. At a certain point, one has to stop trying to find the right solution and has to look, instead, for a course of action that avoids complicity. By publishing the anonymous Op-Ed, the Times became complicit in its own corruption.

.. The way in which the news media are being corrupted—even an outlet like the Times, which continues to publish remarkable investigative work throughout this era—is one of the most insidious, pronounced, and likely long-lasting effects of the Trump Administration. The media are being corrupted every time they engage with a nonsensical, false, or hateful Trump tweet (although not engaging with these tweets is not an option). They are being corrupted every time journalists act polite while the President, his press secretary, or other Administration officials lie to them. They are being corrupted every time a Trumpian lie is referred to as a “falsehood,” a “factually incorrect statement,” or as anything other than a lie. They are being corrupted every time journalists allow the Administration to frame an issue, like when they engage in a discussion about whether the separation of children from their parents at the border is an effective deterrent against illegal immigration. They are being corrupted every time they use the phrase “illegal immigration.”

.. The problem here is with the term “unsung heroes,” which usually refers to people who are hidden from the public eye, not to public persons who intentionally conceal the substance of their actions.

.. A lack of transparency in government is a constitutional crisis in the making, not an unrecognized feat of heroism.

.. We are, as a nation, grateful that James Mattis actively muffles Trump’s outbursts, but we should also be aware that he is laying the groundwork for Defense Secretaries to act against the wishes and possibly even the orders of future Presidents. This is part of the degradation that the author describes in this passage, while failing to acknowledge that he has been an active perpetrator of that degradation, not a passive victim.

..  A person who works for probably the most aggressively partisan Administration in American history has no business asking anyone to reach across the aisle, and his implied claim of common cause with bipartisanship is a lie. His other lie is juxtaposing “common ground” and politics. Politics is not the opposite of common ground; politics is the very process of finding common ground and making it inhabitable. Trump has been waging war on politics itself for more than two years.

Why the Anonymous Trump Official’s Op-Ed in the New York Times Matters

In 1947, “Mr. X” wrote an extremely influential article, for Foreign Affairs, advocating a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies. Its author turned out to be the diplomat George Kennan, who was then the second-ranking official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And, in 1996, Random House published “Primary Colors,” a thinly disguised roman à clef about Bill Clinton, by “Anonymous.” Less consequential than Kennan’s contribution, the novel nonetheless created a great deal of speculation about who its author was; it turned out to be the political journalist Joe Klein.

.. By nightfall on Wednesday, there were reports that White House officials were engaged in a frantic search for the culprit.

..  “scrutiny focused on a half-dozen names.”

.. the piece merely adds to what we already know about Trump’s character and the struggle of people around him to control his destructive tendencies.

.. it was reported that the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the national-security adviser at the time—James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and H. R. McMaster—had privately agreed to avoid being out of Washington at the same time.

.. There have been numerous reports about how Don McGahn, the outgoing White House counsel, tried to talk Trump out of firing James Comey and Jeff Sessions.

.. The real importance of the Op-Ed is that it corroborates these reports, provides a window into the mind-set of people who continue to work for Trump, and also reveals some intriguing details. “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president,”

.. Really? “Early whispers within the cabinet” of invoking the Constitution to oust the President? If this is true, it is information of enormous consequence, and leads to a series of further questions. Who was involved in these discussions, and how far did the whispers go?

.. The suggestion that at least some members of the Cabinet have talked about invoking these powers is new and shocking. But what does it mean to say that the whisperers didn’t want to precipitate a crisis? After all, the rest of the article makes clear that the crisis already exists and is deadly serious.

.. The head of state of the most powerful country in the world is someone whose own subordinates and appointees regard as unmoored, untrustworthy, and potentially dangerous.

.. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,” the Op-Ed says. “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making. . . . Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”

.. “I have no respect for someone who would say these things—of whose truth I have no doubt—in an anonymous oped, rather than in a public resignation letter copied to the House Judiciary Committee.”

.. He or she has enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness.”

.. These are legitimate concerns, but the larger one is that we have a menacing dingbat in the White House, and nobody with the requisite authority seems willing to do anything about it, other than to try to manage the situation on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis. Perhaps this could be seen as a “Trump containment” strategy, but it falls well short of the systematic containment strategy that Kennan advocated, and, in any case, the Trumpkins, unlike the early Cold War strategists, are not necessarily dealing with a rational actor. Something more is surely needed.