Witnesses were uneven, but even his closest allies don’t try to deny he did what he’s accused of doing.
Look, the case has been made. Almost everything in the impeachment hearings this week fleshed out and backed up the charge that President Trump muscled Ukraine for political gain. The pending question is what precisely the House and its Democratic majority will decide to include in the articles of impeachment, what statutes or standards they will assert the president violated.
What was said consistently undermined Mr. Trump’s case, but more deadly was what has never been said. In the two months since Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry was under way and the two weeks since the Intelligence Committee’s public hearings began, no one, even in the White House, has said anything like, “He wouldn’t do that!” or “That would be so unlike him.” His best friends know he would do it and it’s exactly like him.
The week’s hearings were not a seamless success for Democrats. On Tuesday they seemed to be losing the thread. But by Wednesday and Thursday it was restored.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was not a persuasive witness and did not move the story forward, because in spite of the obvious patriotism reflected in his record he was annoying—smug and full of himself. He appeared in full dress uniform with three rows of ribbons. When Rep. Devin Nunes called him “Mr. Vindman,” he quickly corrected him: “Ranking Member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please.” Oh, snap. As he described his areas of authority at the National Security Council, he seemed to glisten with self-regard. You got the impression he saw himself as fully in charge of U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Asked if it was true that government offered to make him their defense minister he said “yes” with no apparent embarrassment. I don’t know about you but I don’t like it when a foreign government gets a sense of a U.S. military officer and concludes he might fit right in. (A Ukrainian official later said the job offer was a joke.)
Mr. Vindman—I’m sorry, Lt. Col. Vindman—self-valorized, as other witnesses have, and tugged in his opening statement on America’s heart strings by addressing his father, who brought his family from the Soviet Union 40 years ago: “Dad, . . . you made the right decision. . . . Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
The committee has paid entirely too much attention to the witnesses’ emotions. “How did that make you feel?” “Without upsetting you too much, I’d like to show you the excerpts from the call . . .”
I am sure the questioners were told to take this tack by communications professionals who believe this is how you manipulate housewives. In fact a mother at home with a vacuum in one hand and a crying baby in the other would look at them, listen, and think: “You guys represent us to other countries? You gotta butch up.”
Later, as Col. Vindman returned to work, and clearly wanting to be seen, he posed grinning for photos in front of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
It is not only Donald Trump who suffers from Absence of Gravity.
On Wednesday Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, was both weirdly jolly and enormously effective in doing Mr. Trump damage. He followed the president’s orders; there was a quid pro quo; “everyone was in the loop, it was no secret“; Rudy Giuliani was the point man, with whom Mr. Sondland worked “at the express direction of the president.”
It was his third try at truthful sworn testimony and it was completely believable. It was kind of the ballgame. He seemed like a guy with nothing to lose, or maybe a guy who’d already lost much.
On Thursday Fiona Hill, the former White House Russia expert, was all business, a serious woman you don’t want to mess with. She reoriented things, warning that those who excuse or don’t wish to see Russian propaganda efforts against America, and targeting its elections, are missing the obvious. The suspicion of the president and his allies that Ukraine is the great culprit in the 2016 election is a “fictional narrative.” They are, in fact, bowing to disinformation Russia spreads to cover its tracks and confuse the American people and its political class. She dismissed the president’s operatives’ efforts to get Ukraine’s new president to investigate his country’s alleged meddling as a “domestic political errand.” She and other diplomats were “involved in national security, foreign policy,” and the interests of the operatives and the diplomats had “diverged.” She warned Mr. Sondland: “This is all going to blow up.”
What became obvious in the hearings was the sober testimony from respectable diplomats—not disgruntled staffers with nutty memoirs but people of stature who don’t ordinarily talk—about how the administration operates. It became clear in a new and public way that pretty much everyone around the president has been forced for three years to work around his poor judgment and unpredictability in order to do their jobs. He no doubt knows this and no doubt doesn’t care. Because he’s the boss, they’ll do it his way.
After Thursday’s hearings I felt some free-floating sympathy for high Trump appointees who joined early. You can say they knew what they signed up for, but it’s human to have hope, and they surely had it when they came aboard. They were no doubt ambitious—they wanted a big job—but they probably wanted to do good, too. They were optimistic—“How bad can it be?” And there would have been vanity—“I can handle him.” But they couldn’t. He not only doesn’t know where the line is; he has never wanted to know, so he can cross it with impunity, without consciousness of a bad act or one that might put him in danger. They were no match for his unpredictability and resentments, which at any moment could undo anything.
As to impeachment itself, the case has been so clearly made you wonder what exactly the Senate will be left doing. How will they hold a lengthy trial with a case this clear? Who exactly will be the president’s witnesses, those who’d testify he didn’t do what he appears to have done, and would never do it?
Procedures, rules and definitions aren’t fully worked out in the Senate. But we are approaching December and the clock is ticking. A full-blown trial on charges most everyone will believe are true, and with an election in less than a year, will seem absurd to all but diehards and do the country no good.
So the reasonable guess is Republican senators will call to let the people decide. In a divided country this is the right call. But they should take seriously the idea of censuring him for abuse of power. Mr. Trump would be the first president to be censured since Andrew Jackson, to whom his theorists have always compared him. In the end he will probably be proud of a tightening of the connection.
Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a secret White House taping system in Senate testimony. Trump once suggested that he may have covertly taped his conversations with Comey, though on Thursday he denied doing so. Nixon claimed the special prosecutor’s office was made up of political partisans out to get him, and Trump calls Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his staff “very bad and conflicted people.” Both presidents have also sharply criticized the press, calling it the “enemy.”
As if all these parallels are not enough, Trump’s surrogates have raised the possibility that he will fire Mueller, too. Presidential confidant and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy told reporters earlier this month he believed Trump was considering the dismissal. Incredibly, longtime Trump supporter Roger Stone, who himself worked on Nixon’s reelection campaign, has loudly encouraged Trump to reprise the Saturday Night Massacre by firing Mueller. This despite the fact that Mueller—tapped to lead the FBI by George W. Bush in 2001 and selected by Trump’s own deputy attorney general to lead the Russia inquiry, has been on the job for only a month and is still hiring staff.
If Trump’s actions seem like a ham-fisted imitation of Nixon’s, they are no laughing matter. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she is “increasingly concerned” that Trump will fire Mueller, and send a message that he “believes the law doesn’t apply to him, and that anyone who believes otherwise will be fired”—a perhaps unintentional allusion to Nixon himself, who once said that when a president does something, “that means that it is not illegal.” The usual limits on presidential power must apply to Trump, Feinstein argued: “The Senate should not let that happen. We’re a nation of laws that apply equally to everyone, a lesson the president would be wise to learn.”
The question is not whether Trump can fire Mueller—it is whether it would be a misuse of executive power for him to do so. Should Trump let Mueller go, it would spark a constitutional crisis the likes of which the country has not seen in four decades. The business of Congress would grind to a halt and the stock market would suffer a shock. With Comey’s dismissal as the backdrop, there could be an immediate resolution introduced in the House for Trump’s impeachment for attempting to obstruct a lawful, ongoing criminal investigation.
Rod Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general, followed the law in appointing Mueller to be special counsel to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election” and related matters. It should be remembered that Nixon was named by the Watergate grand jury as an unindicted co-conspirator in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, and that the House Judiciary Committee cited his interference with Cox’s investigation among the grounds for voting in favor of impeachment. And only former President Gerald Ford’s pardon precluded an indictment of citizen Nixon for obstruction.
In Watergate, there were several Republicans in both houses who are remembered for putting country above party loyalty. The die-hards who stood with Nixon until the end—not so much. If Trump were to fire Mueller to cut off a full investigation, it would fall to congressional Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, to determine whether the United States continues to be a nation of laws. Americans would see whether a new
- Howard Baker,
- Lowell Weicker,
- Tom Railsback,
- Bill Cohen,
- Caldwell Butler, or
- Hamilton Fish
would step forward and join with Democrats, who would no doubt sponsor an impeachment resolution. Or would GOP lawmakers simply go along with a foolhardy reenactment of the Watergate scandal’s Saturday Night Massacre?