In the first hearing of the new world we’re in, you would have thought the Democrats’ mission was not to impeach the president but to impeach the witness before them.
That would be acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, a Navy Seal for 34 years and a public servant who’s taken the oath of office 11 times and who came across as the sort of person you’d want to list as your emergency contact.
In treating him as a hostile witness, the Democrats on Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee sacrificed the opportunity to present the first coherent narrative of the remarkable revelations of the last few days. They’d had the whistleblower’s complaint in their hands since the night before, a summary of the actual call to Ukraine, the Inspector General’s letter outlining his interviews with suspect officials in the White House, and cameras trained on them for three hours.
That’s not to say Maguire was perfect. He said he couldn’t answer questions about privileged conversations with the president because doing so would destroy his relationship with him. Maguire is a tragic example of how good people can be harmed by Donald Trump without realizing it.
The Democrats frequently put aside the guns smoking around Trump and the disturbing revelations in the whistleblower’s bombshell report made public Thursday morning to instead wade deep into the weeds of executive privilege, the jurisdiction of the DNI, the scope of the whistleblower statute and other ephemera. And they did that while treating Maguire, who radiates integrity, at times as though he were a flunky covering for Trump rather than a servant of the executive branch.
To use Maguire’s favorite adjective, he was “prudent” to a fault at the hearing while explaining why he’d initially withheld the complaint from Congress, despite the statute requiring notification. Another acting director in an administration full of them, Maguire defined his post way too narrowly.
He said that he didn’t see the president as falling under his intelligence purview. Mistakenly trusting that others in government took their oath as seriously as he did, he asked the White House and the Justice Department, both alleged to be involved in the cover-up of the call to the Ukranian president and putting it into an unmarked server (Hillary, are you listening?), what to do.
Maguire said he totally trusted and believed the reports of the whistleblower and the Inspector General, by the way also a Trump appointee, but he didn’t always act like it. Why would he ask the president’s men if the rogue operation was privileged and, if so, would the White House and DOJ waive their privilege? Of course, they said yes to the former and no to the latter. Maguire looked genuinely surprised when he found out that the FBI to which he referred the complaint never conducted an investigation. He didn’t seem to know what Rudy Giuliani was up to. In the Trump White House, there’s no place left for apolitical career appointees. Would Dan Coats, the former Indiana senator who held the job, hae been so oblivious?
Still, Maguire was no John Ehrlichman. He only had high praise for the IG and the whistleblower. He stayed temperate throughout, ignoring the bait that members of both parties offered and keeping his opinions largely to himself, narrowly defining his authority and giving just the facts as he saw them.
Speaking of facts that could have been highlighted at this meeting, we had a confession from Trump that trickled out in his answers to questions on the fly in the hallways of the U.N. With less subtlety than a mob boss and because he doesn’t see anything wrong with anything he does, he admitted asking the Ukrainian president “about Biden” and “corruption” and that both should be investigated in coordination with Bill Barr, the supposed attorney general, and Giuliani, the president’s private attorney. Realizing what he’d done, Trump later got Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to go on camera to say he was fine with the phone call, which came across as a hostage saying he was happy being kidnapped. Anything to get his shoulder-mounted anti-tank Javelins.
What’s happened since then is an effort by officials who will generally do anything to cover up for Trump to jump in and devise a plausible cover-up. It backfired. Mitch McConnell, faking cooperation to cover for the next day when he would find Trump had done nothing wrong, went along with Sen. Chuck Schumer’s resolution to force the release of the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress on the grounds that couldn’t be any worse than what Trump had admitted to. McConnell was wrong.
As Maguire was raising his right hand, Trump, in the midst of honoring the U.N. mission and their families, went off on a tear condemning Biden and announcing his own witch hunt to find out who gave information to the whistleblower. That crooked person, or persons, is “close to a spy,” Trump said.
“You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
The good news for the Democrats who chose to delve into details that deserved minutes, not hours, rather than play the trailer of the horror story coming soon is that there are more episodes to come. And they don’t have to be Perry Mason to impeach Trump. With Trump’s belief that he’s impregnable, always right, and smarter than everyone else, he will prosecute himself.