On a marathon day when four more witnesses testified in the impeachment hearings, things boiled down to a simple question: Who are you going to believe, first-hand witnesses including a war hero with a lifelong record of service to his country or the president who uses his office for personal gain and held up Congressionally-appropriated arms for an ally to use against Russia?
Anyone truthful would choose Alexander Vindman, another supposedly “radical, unelected bureaucrat” who’d been happy to labor in the background but found himself thrust unwillingly into the spotlight by the president’s conduct. The lieutenant colonel got an extra pat on the back from the Capitol guard checking him through security before reading his opening statement with hands shaking and voice cracking. He would need it.
His testimony in the morning, along with that of Jennifer Williams, Vice President Mike Pence’s Russia expert and a Republican loyalist, left little wiggle room for Trump’s defenders. The Republican witnesses at the afternoon session—with former special envoy Kurt Volker, who “amended” his prior testimony that had been overtaken by subsequent revelations that there had indeed been a quid pro quo, as Ambassador Gordon Sondland will do again in his testimony Wednesday, and former NSC senior director Tim Morrison, who the White House tweeted out in the morning had “questioned” Vindman’s “judgment”—wasn’t much better for Trump’s defense.
Morrison admitted he was disturbed when he heard about Trump’s call to Sondland, in the middle of a restaurant in Ukraine, because it made formal what he’d believed was before that an off-the-books effort by Rudy Giuliani and his so-called three amigos—Sondland, Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry--to hold up Zelensky, demanding the newly elected president probe the Bidens if he wanted to see the defense funds Congress had already allocated. Morrison wasn’t disturbed enough to do anything about it.
What Miller and Vindman did was kill a main line of Republicans’ defense, that the testimony to date had been hearsay even as Trump won’t let anyone he can intimidate testify. That had been as ludicrous as the Menendez brother pleading for mercy as orphans. After Tuesday’s first-hand accounts, it’s more ludicrous.
Which explains why Republicans spent the day trying to deflect attention from what Trump did to what others had done to expose him. Miller, whom Trump said he’d never met, said the call was “inappropriate and unusual” although she wasn’t let in on what was behind it. Vindman termed the call “improper” for asking a foreign official to investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent to get congressionally appropriated military aid and a White House meeting.
What was more remarkable than testimony about the imperfect call was how far Republicans would go to tear down an Army officer, who’d done no wrong, to lift up Trump, who’d done so much to concern Vindman, and more, as the president and his acting chief of staff admitted. What Trump hasn’t admitted is that all of it was in his own personal interests, designed to hurt Ukraine, unless they did as he said, and to help Russia, a one-off bonus to president Vladimir Putin. Trump’s private attorney couldn’t help but brag about his part in it on TV. The money was released, say the Republicans, without noting that only happened months later after Trump became aware of the whistleblower complaint, another thing Trump has to thank Attorney General Barr for. Zelensky is still waiting for his meeting with Trump.
But for Republicans, determined to hold the political line, facts were less important than slander. To that end, Rep. Jim Jordan and others shouted loaded questions at Vindman, suggesting that the career servant was a motivated Never Trumper (or “human scum” as Trump calls them) who had dual loyalties. Vindman replied that he was “never partisan.” Republicans harped on an offer from Ukraniane for Vindman serve as their defense minister. Vindman said he was honored to be asked, as Americans sometimes are by young governments hoping to emulate their democracy but that “I’m an American, I came here when I was a toddler. And I immediately dismissed these offers.” He also immediately reported the offer to his superiors. In case anyone missed the point, Vindman was asked what languages he speaks, a moment meant to lead Fox News. “Ukranian, Russian and a bit of English,” he replied, introducing a note of levity into another attempt to portray him as less than American.
Through it all, what prevailed was the opposite of what Trump’s defenders intended: we saw the toll it takes on a humble man testifying, out of duty, against the most powerful man in the world. Vindman could have gone back to his desk in silence, saved himself from having to hire a lawyer on a military man’s salary, and becoming a target of hate. To defend himself against charges he exaggerated his accomplishments, he read from his performance review in which the NSC’s Fiona Hill said he was in the top one percent there and the best military officer she’d ever worked with. When Nunes addressed him as “mister,” Vindman, in his full dress uniform as armor against those determined to discredit and marginalize him, asked to be referred to by his title.
Democratic Rep. Jim Himes summed up what had happened, in the guise of questioning the witness, as Trumpists in Brooks Brothers suits stooping to defend the indefensible by attacking a man “wearing a Springfield rifle on a field of blue above a Purple Heart.”
As the damning testimony piled up, Republicans just keep insisting that, never mind your lying eyes, nothing had happened, and besides there’d been no pizzazz. Nunes opened up the afternoon by claiming ratings were down, though there were no reported ratings. Hours later, Rep. Chris Stewart called the day “Impeachapolooza 2019, which is the Democratic plan to compel America to impeach President Donald J. Trump through the sheer force of boredom.”
It wasn’t boring for the people in the room, or the millions watching them. When the morning session ended, Vindman left with his twin brother Eugene, who’d come with him at age three to America. Jordan has suggested Alexander was a leaker because he’d shared his concerns about the July 25th call with his brother, a lawyer at the NSC. Alexander Vindman called that “preposterous.” “I never leaked. I never could.” he said.
As the brothers left together, there was no black SUV waiting at the curb. They hailed a cab back to the White House where there would be no meal in the mess for the Vindmans like those reserved for higher-ups.
I yield the rest of my time to the colonel, who got a round of applause and a few tears as he ended. We live for now in a world where Vindman was sidelined for a shadow policy run by a hotel magnate who contributed $1 million to buy his ambassadorship, Perry who cut a few lucrative gas deals when he was there, and Rudy Giuliani, not to mention Rudy’s associates arrested trying to leave the country, all summoned to help Trump unlevel the playing field in 2020 without a word from from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Vindman for now is still working in the White House, though he testified that he’s been cut off from some job duties since becoming a public figure. Since his deposition, Trump’s third NSC adviser, Robert O’Brien, said that in an effort to relieve “bloat” there, detailees like Vindman may be sent back where they came from—not Ukraine but the Pentagon.
Addressing his father in his opening statement, Vindman assured him, “Dad, do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.” When asked where he got his confidence, having been bloodied again, this time in service to his country on the killing fields of Congress, Vindman added, “This is America that all my brothers have served. Here, right matters.”
It used to. If there are more Vindmans than Trumps in the Capitol, it may again.