Sunday, February 9, 2020

Sunday Reading

The Firing of Lt. Col. Vindman — Benjamin Wittes in The Atlantic.

In 2018, Donald Trump waited to move against Attorney General Jeff Sessions until the day after the midterm elections—but he didn’t wait a day longer than that. No sooner were the elections over than Trump dismissed Sessions, who had upset the president by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions, Trump believed, was “supposed to protect” him. The first senator to endorse Trump’s bid for the presidency never regained his favor.

Trump managed to wait two days after his Senate acquittal before taking care of family business, as Michael Corleone would put it, with respect to those who had upset him in the Ukraine affair.

Yesterday, he removed from the National Security Council staff Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman—along with Vindman’s twin brother, who served as an NSC attorney, for good measure. Lieutenant Colonel Vindman had had the temerity to object to Trump’s “perfect” phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then committed the unforgivable sin of telling the truth about the matter when the House impeachment investigation sought his testimony. The brothers were, according to reports, escorted out of the White House complex.

Explaining himself this morning on Twitter, Trump, of course, went on the attack:

Fake News @CNN & MSDNC keep talking about “Lt. Col.” Vindman as though I should think only how wonderful he was. Actually, I don’t know him, never spoke to him, or met him (I don’t believe!) but, he was very insubordinate, reported contents of my ‘perfect’ calls incorrectly, & was given a horrendous report by his superior, the man he reported to, who publicly stated that Vindman had problems with judgement, adhering to the chain of command and leaking information. In other words, “OUT”.

Trump also fired Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who had tried to play both sides—testifying in a fashion that upset Trump while being cagey at first and thus raising questions to House members about his candor. Sondland had managed to please nobody, and his presence on the scene at all was, in any event, a function of his large donation to the presidential inaugural committee. He had bought his way into service at the pleasure of the president and, having done so, proceeded to displease the president. Most eyes will, I suspect, remain dry as Sondland blusters his way back to the hotel business.

But Vindman is another story.

His was not a political position. He is an active military officer, rotating through the NSC on assignment. The president can put quotation marks around lieutenant colonel, as he did in today’s tweets, in an effort to demean Vindman’s service, but there is nothing to demean about his service, which has been in all respects honorable. The conduct for which his career has been attacked, what the president calls Vindman’s “insubordination,” was exceptionally brave truth-telling—both in real time and later when Congress sought to hear from him. When that happened, Vindman did not shrink from the obligation to say what had happened.

Unlike his boss, John Bolton, he did not withhold information from Congress, nor did he cite potential privileges that could be resolved only by court order or by book contract. Unlike Sondland, he didn’t waffle when called. Rather, along with a group of other public servants at the NSC, the State Department, and the Defense Department, he went up to Capitol Hill and told the truth.

And thus did Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman join a very special club—a motley crew of public officials who have drawn the public ire of a president of uncompromising vindictiveness for the crime of doing the right thing. It’s a club composed of former FBI officials, including two former directors of the bureau; American ambassadors; a former attorney general; some lawyers and investigators; even the former ambassador to the United States from the United Kingdom—anyone who has a line he or she won’t cross to serve Trump’s personal needs or who insists on doing his or her job by not hiding unpleasant realities.

Membership in this ever less exclusive club entitles Vindman to a number of, uh, benefits: unending, random attack by the most powerful man in the world using any of his available means of communication with the entire globe; mockery and derision by his associated media outlets, a category of abuse that in Vindman’s case includes anti-Semitic insinuations and frivolous allegations of inappropriate liaison with a foreign power; the security threats that inevitably come with such unwanted attention; damage to a distinguished career, a dramatic example of which happened yesterday; and, perhaps most unnerving of all for people who are used to anonymity, a kind of notoriety that leaves club members wondering if the person catching their eye on the street recognizes them with hatred or admiration or something else.

It is all part of a civil-liberties violation so profound that we don’t even have a name for it: the power of the president to suddenly point his finger at a random person and announce that this is the point in the story when that person’s life gets ruined.

Membership in this particular club has some genuine benefits, too. They are hokey things, such as honor and patriotism and duty. Because one thing all of the members of this particular club have in common is that—in very different ways—they all tried to do their jobs. They sought the truth. And they told the truth when called upon to do so.

In his congressional testimony, Alexander Vindman promised his father, “I will be fine for telling the truth.” It is the solemn obligation of the Pentagon and the military brass not to make a naïf of him for saying this. It is the job of the Washington policy community and the private sector to make sure that he is employable when he leaves military service—a role the community has not always played effectively with respect to members of this particular club.

And it is all of our jobs to make sure that Trump’s stigmatization does not work, to push back against his ability to turn public servants into nonpersons when honor and truth-telling displease him.

Thirteen (well, ten) Ways of Looking at an Impeachment — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

(With apologies to Wallace Stevens, and in descending order of despair—though, perhaps, ascending order of importance.)

1. Impeachment was, despite it all, essential.

The purpose of impeachment was never political. It was never meant to be undertaken, and never should have been undertaken, with an eye to the Democrats being in a better political position after it was over. On those grounds it was, as Nancy Pelosi clearly felt, up to the very brink, a gamble not worth taking. The reasonable argument for why it had to be attempted was that to not impeach Donald Trump was not, well, reasonable. To allow obvious heedlessness to pass unchallenged was to collaborate in it. Impeachment was undertaken out of principle—the principle that the rule of law matters, and the corollary principle that political parties are not put in office to practice passivity. And it was, it must always be remembered, undertaken not at the political behest of a few radicals but in response to the collective and appropriate panic of national-security and intelligence professionals within the executive branch, who blew whistles and gave testimony because they believed that the President’s behavior was as wrong as wrong could be. Whether it was politically advantageous or not in the short run, it would have been politically disastrous in the long run to crawl away from such a conflict begun in such patriotic good faith. Right really should matter here.

2. Yes, but Trump won, and the consequences are terrifying.

As some people said at the time, the one good thing about an attempted impeachment was that at least the Republican senators, who all know exactly who and what Trump is, would at last be forced to own their bad consciences. What no one properly understood was that they had no consciences left to own—that their recognition of Trump’s obvious guilt would be overwhelmed by their fear of his opposition and that of his followers; exactly because they knew how bad he was, they would be compelled to redouble their irrational allegiance. They could not even look at any evidence, because they knew what it would show. Bad money always gets thrown in after good, as the gamble becomes ever more desperate. The trouble is that Trump is now left in firmer control of a party made passive by adherence to him, with his wounded narcissism leaving him more evidently deranged than before. His behavior during his post-impeachment appearances might have seemed extreme to Ludwig II of Bavaria, or caused Caligula to raise an eyebrow. Meanwhile, Attorney General William Barr will protect Trump while allowing the Justice Department to be used as a weapon against his enemies. Of all the truly frightening moments of the process, the worst might have been the attempt at reassurance by Senator Lamar Alexander, who insisted that, though Trump might have been mistaken to ask a foreign President to investigate his political rivals, he will now know that the right thing to have done would have been to ask his Attorney General to start investigations. That this idea—in itself a betrayal of every imaginable American constitutional principle—was proposed as more appropriate is a true mark of the defeat of the rule of law. Nothing now stands between Trump’s id and Trump’s actions.

3. Actually, Trump won, but it’s trivial.

Trump is an inherently weak President—one with a narrow base of support and zero persuasion skills, and, as of now, one who is too chaotic to be much good at suppressing dissent. His acts and their intended consequences are further apart than our fears and his unhinged rages make us believe. Imagine if the plot had succeeded and the President of Ukraine actually announced investigations into the Bidens—would anyone have actually been fooled about the origins of those investigations, aside from those among Trump’s followers who live to be fooled by him? The true pattern of Trumpism—oafish chaos with self-defeating results, evil talk, and impotent action—will continue. Nothing has altered. The best efforts of Trump are horribly ugly but ultimately meaningless. All that has happened is that we are exactly where we were before, but with one side marginally less passive and the other marginally more enraged. Allowing Trump to have gotten away with his “perfect” phone call would seem to us now far worse as policy, while having exactly the same effect of creating an ever more unbounded Trump. A Trump not called to order would be no different than one who has been.

3. And you know what? Actually, Trump lost.

The idea of a “verdict of history” is an absurdity. But the verdict of verdicts is not. In this regard, Mitt Romney’s speech was, however impotent judicially, dispositive morally. Scoffing at the idea that Trump’s behavior was not impeachable, showing that it obviously was, Romney ended all ambiguity and spoke for the truth, and to history.

4. Adam Schiff’s eloquence will always be remembered.

Certainly, the most permanent moment of the entire impeachment lay in Schiff’s performance before the Senate as the lead House manager. Often speaking extemporaneously, with a sobriety and a carefully paced intelligence that one might have thought had vanished entirely from the American lectern, let alone American politics, he was, without exaggeration, Lincoln-like. Lincoln-like, that is, in a highly specific, formal way: he laid a careful, even tedious foundation of elaborate law and evidence, and then rose to moral exhortation only on that basis. He turned legal argument into moral practice. It may be too late for anyone to act on this truth, but, if the Democratic Party could vote its conscience and its honor right now, it would surely end, en masse, by nominating Schiff for President.

5. And so will Romney’s courage.

John F. Kennedy’s famous book “Profiles in Courage” would be better off called “Profiles in Collaboration,” since, as all now know, it was largely written by his doppelgänger, Theodore Sorensen, albeit from J.F.K.’s ideas, while the courage of many of Kennedy’s subjects, especially those who voted to acquit Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial, now seems less conclusive than it once did. No matter—the central idea is that democratic politics, though designed to conform legislator to constituency, sometimes demand a legislator who refuses to conform. This idea, of nonconformity through principle, is essential to the difference between demagogic democracy and liberal democracy, and Mitt Romney, whatever his flaws and faults, defined it for his time. (It was made all the more moving by his being inspired by that most echt American of scriptures, the Book of Mormon.)

6. There was a truly shocking collapse of conscience.

The real story was not the complete collapse of conscience among the Senate Republicans. That was to be expected—after all, the first vote for impeachment ever offered by a senator of the same political party as the President was Romney’s. The real collapse was among the higher-ranking politically appointed military and national-security professionals who had been part of Trump’s inner circle before departing it, voluntarily or not. John Bolton’s behavior, in particular, was inexplicable. Clearly filled with contempt for Trump’s manifest unfitness, he refused to speak openly against him, apparently out of some bizarre mix of distaste for the Democratic Congress and a will to sell books in the fall. The passivity of the Republicans was to be expected; that of Bolton was not. Nor was that of other high-ranking former officials, including respected retired generals like James Mattis—and H. R. McMaster and John F. Kelly, who spoke softly, but not sharply. Though they weren’t in the White House at the time of the Ukraine phone call, they know the character of the President. Yet they remained largely silent, seemingly out of a misplaced sense of professionalism and discretion. (Misplaced because of the unique gravity and urgency of the circumstance. Though it’s good for soldiers to be discreet, there are moments when their duties as citizens are more important than their habits as officers.)

7. It’s over, and Trump will win.

An overwhelming number of vectors now point toward Trump’s reëlection this year: the state of the economy, the disarray of the Democrats, and the general truth that incumbent Presidents win. How the Constitution will survive in the face of a second victory, given the speed with which Trump is demolishing it now, is hard to imagine.

8. It’s not over, and Trump will lose.

Trump’s disadvantages remain enormous. No incumbent President before him has done so little to win over even a small part of the opposition. The Democrats just need to nominate someone capable of understanding and acting on the basic truth of all liberal-democratic politics—that what is needed is the broadest possible coalition, the biggest imaginable tent in which to gather the forces against the autocrat. It should not really be as hard as it is threatening to be.

9. History has its eyes on you.

This quote from “Hamilton,” and the very fact that, not long ago, that work, with its image of glorious diversity, was the one great American entertainment, should remind us of how rapidly and suddenly political waves can crest and take over. The contingencies and chances that come with political life are far greater than its destinies and certainties. Any attempt to trace our current crisis to some inexorable pattern laid down in 1964 or 1980 or even 2007 is absurd. It was not very long ago when the natural culmination of the cycles of history seemed to be the Presidency of Barack Obama—a Presidency that had seemed to many impossible to imagine, and that, as hard as it is for progressives to accept, was sufficiently radical to inspire the wild reaction that we are living through now. History is made by lost regiments, late-arriving cavalry, or, in this case, by tens of thousands of votes hived off here and there in Midwestern states. Nothing is written, or fated, or certain, and, as momentous as this election will be, no one knows its outcome, which will depend as much on the tiny fractals of chance as on some inexorable plot in history.

10. History is happening.

One last quote from “Hamilton,” again, to coax us all out of the sudden, enforced numbness that many feel. There has been, perhaps, in the past three years, an undue lack of passion in the opposition to Trump’s degradation of democracy into PutinOrbán-style autocracy. Too much trust, perhaps, was placed in the workings of constructional processes, culminating in the impeachment and acquittal. During Trump’s term, there has been no march on Washington as large as the first Women’s March, right after the Inauguration, no turn to mass protest as the fundamental anti-democratic nature of the Administration deepens. History will forgive us our failures; it will never forgive us our passivity. The coming months are fateful for our democracy; everyone will be tested, and every vote will count if all these American ambiguities are, somehow, to be resolved.

Doonesbury — Surf you must.

3 barks and woofs on “Sunday Reading

  1. Any author who uses the phrase Democrats in disarray loses me automatically. We have a crowded field and some folks who should have dropped out long ago but that fact that we’re having an open discussion is not “disarray.”

    • and, my god, when is the winnowing? Throughout the Spring and into June. If we’re still in “disarray” by September then I’ll start to fret . . .

    • It’s the same trope (and tripe) that was prevalent in 2008: Whenever any Democrat made a gaffe or when the wind blew out of the east, the pundits would call it “good news for John McCain!” to the point that it became a joke: “Obama wins election; good news for John McCain.” Unfortunately, the Dems in disarray trope will not die as long as Chuck Todd and Chris Cillizza are around.

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