- Iran-Contra Was a Better Class of Scandal
- The truth is, once we had information from Israel that we could trust the people in Iran, I didn’t have to think thirty seconds about saying yes
- The U.S. government had violated its own policies on antiterrorism and against arms sales to Iran, was buying our own citizens’ freedom in a manner that could only encourage the taking of others, was working through disreputable international go-betweens . . . and was misleading the American people—all in the guise of furthering some purported regional political transformation, or to obtain in actuality a hostage release
The famous caucuses are Feb. 3. Christmas is coming, the calendar tightening, and candidates zooming through the broad expanse in tinted-window SUVs.
A surprise is there’s little surprise. Reporters say interest in impeachment is minimal, and it’s true: in three days not a single question from the floor, not a stray comment from a voter in a forum. The candidates seem bored with the subject and don’t bother to fake passion if you ask. Impeachment is a reality show going on in Washington, and everyone knows the outcome, so it’s not even interesting. On my way to Waterloo I realized: We’re about to have the third impeachment of a president in American history, and the day it happens it’s not going to be Topic A in America. It will barely be mentioned at the dinner table. It is a coastal elite story, not a mainland story.
The Democratic race is as fluid as it looks. No one, even bright party professionals speaking off the record, knows what to expect. Biden was inevitable, then maybe Elizabeth, maybe Pete’s inevitable, but Bernie may be inevitable, and don’t write off Joe.
But “Beat Trump” is back. When 2019 began Democrats were thinking that was priority No. 1. Then other things became more important—Medicare for All, climate change, policy. But it feels like Democrats here are circling back to their original desire. “Who can beat Trump?” is again the most important question. They don’t know the answer. They’re trying to figure it out.
You can hear this in what the candidates say.
At a Teamsters forum in Cedar Rapids Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders was burly in his aggression. “This is a president who is a fraud,” “a pathological liar,” “a homophobe,” “a bigot.” Mr. Sanders said his campaign is about “telling the billionaire class that their greed is unacceptable.” He got a standing ovation.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar the day before, in Grinnell, spoke to about 150 people at the Iowa Farmer’s Union: “We’re not gonna let this Gilded Age roll right over us.” Donald Trump made promises he didn’t keep. After his tax cut passed, “he went to Mar-a-Lago and told his rich friends, ‘I just made you all a lot richer.’ And I can tell you none of them were farmer’s union members.”
“He thinks the Midwest is flyover country.”
Leaders are making decisions for seven generations, she said: “He can’t keep his decision seven minutes from now.”
Pete Buttigieg, at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, told a crowd of more than 1,000—lots of students but others too, many of them prosperous and middle-aged: Don’t just watch “the Trump show—help me pick up the remote and change the channel.”
Mr. Buttigieg used to say his name was pronounced “Buddha judge.” When he went national he changed it to what his crowds now chant: “boot edge edge.” I suspect he did this because America wears boots and likes edginess, but no one wants to be judged by the Buddha. I mention this because Mr. Buttigieg has the air of someone who thinks through even the smallest questions of presentation.
In person he seems like the smart young communications director for a Democratic presidential candidate, not the candidate himself. Yet he gets a particular respect because people think whatever happens this year, he’s going to be president some day. The local congressman who introduced him said as much: “No matter who comes out of this . . . Pete Buttigieg is the future of the party.”
He is personable in an old-fashioned sense; he reminds me of Michael Kinsley’s description of Al Gore when he was 38: “an old person’s idea of a young person.”
Mr. Buttigieg is often painted as a moderate. After he spoke I asked about something I’m interested in, how people develop their political views, where they get them. Do most inherit them, swallow them whole? His father was a Marxist-oriented academic at Notre Dame; he himself, I said, is a man of the left. Had he ever kicked away from family assumptions? Did he ever feel drawn to conservatism, to Burke or Kirk? He had not, though “I will say this: I came to respect the ways in which, right around the time of Russell Kirk, conservatives came to be very much in touch with the relationship between their ideas and their politics and politicians. I think it was born out of a period when the left had universities already, and the right needed to construct a structure of think tanks and so forth.”
When he was an intern on Capitol Hill, every young Republican staffer had a copy of Hayek on his desk. “On our side, the academic left, particularly in the humanities, had gotten into really abstruse things around postmodernism and poststructuralism. There was, ironically, contrary to our self-image, I think less of a clear relationship between ideas and politicians on the left. We had our policy intellectuals, but there was less of a connection between our politicians and our political theorists.”
He came to respect “the organizing efforts of conservatives.” I asked if this was around the time Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Of a sudden the Republican Party is the party of ideas.” He smiled and shrugged: “Just a hair before my time.”
She’s had strong debates. In the last one, social media went crazy because her hair shook. Not her face or voice, her hair. She later joked on Twitter: “I’ll plaster my runaway bangs down for the next NBC debate.”
What happened? She told me the debate hall had been reconfigured, overly air-conditioned, and unknown to her, a nearby air vent was blasting at the top of her head. She didn’t know there was a problem until the break, when a tech came by and said he was sorry.
“Now I guess hair spray,” she laughed as she told the story.
How difficult will it be to beat Mr. Trump? While I was in Iowa the new jobs numbers came out. America has functional full employment. It is a marvelous thing. We’re not in any new wars. With peace and prosperity, how can the incumbent lose?
The counterargument is that his approval is stuck in the low 40s with peace and prosperity, which tells you everything—he is vulnerable, more than half the country rejects him in what are for him ideal circumstances. This in turn brings back the familiar 2016 theme of shy Trump voters, people who don’t tell pollsters they’re going to vote for him, or even tell themselves.
Maybe the real story is that it’s all fluid.
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.
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.