by Matthew Stevenson
Listening to the many arias delivered to the House Intelligence Committee (think of the lawyers who draft all those opening statements as lyricists), it struck me that one of the problems of the hearings is that few in the audience had program notes. As much of the hearing was sung in the language of inside Washington (as difficult to understand as Wagner’s German), I thought a libretto might be in order.
As I watched the House impeachment hearings, the warning light on my dashboard started to flash when Ambassador Kurt Volker told the committee that he was working as the special U.S. envoy in the Ukraine “for free.”
This moment came several days into the hearings, during which Volker was figure in the wings, not unlike a ballerina limbering up behind the curtain.
Before the ambassador pirouetted onto the national state, other witnesses were asked about his towering intellect, shrewd judgment, and many “honorable” sacrifices for his country, and both they and the members of the committee had fallen over themselves to rank his integrity on a level with that of Klemens von Metternich or Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh—famed diplomats from the 19th century.
When Volker finally took the stand, I lost count of all the members thanking him “for his service” to the great cause of Ukrainian independence, in which clearly Volker was one of the liberators (along with the other amigos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Ambassador Gordon Sondland).
As an aside during his testimony, Volker averred that he was serving in the Ukraine for free. One committee member even joked with him that the American people had gotten “a great deal.”
That was when I began to smell a rat, although the odor was slightly different from that of the others leaping from pirate ship Trump.
Although my experience there is dated, I do have some familiarity with business practice in the Ukraine, and the one thing I learned in my travels to places such as Kharkiv and Kiev is that no one in the country works for free.
Not the Ukraine president, nor his aides, nor members of parliament—and certainly no one there in the service of the Trump boarding party shows up out the goodness of their heart or out of passion for Ukrainian irredentism.
Ukraine is not the American Cancer Society or Petfinder, but a greased pig scrambling between West and East, and there’s money to be made tilting the roulette wheels either in the direction of Washington or Moscow. In that great game Volker was another croupier.
In Volker’s case, his paymaster is a Washington lobbying firm that has interests in promoting Raytheon and its celebrated Javelin missiles, which, so far, have been the star of the Washington revue. Not since Tom Cruise wore Ray-Ban in Top Gun has there been such a successful Cold War product placement.
Who on the committee hasn’t celebrated the arrival of Javelin missiles, courtesy of the Trump administration, to the ramparts of the Donbas. (Barack Obama only sent blankets, at least according to Republicans.) But who, when thanking Volker for his service, made the connection between his dollar-a-year “service” and his other hat, which is that of an arms dealing front man?
The website for BGR Group (motto: “BGR’s professionals can help you meet your lobbying, public relations and business goals in Washington, in state capitals and around the world…”) has a full page pin-up on the ambassador and his day job peddling influence.
No wonder Volker wanted the $400 million to get to Ukraine—his Javelin clients had an overdue receivable, and this would clear the debt.
* * *
Although I am sure the Schiff committee has good political reasons for limiting its inquiry to a small mob-like shakedown in the Ukraine—that of the suspended military aid and the postponed presidential meeting when the Ukrainians failed to pay protection money, in the form of Kompromat on the Bidens—I fear it fails to cast its light wide enough on the president’s real intentions, which could well be to partition Ukraine between Russia and Trump Inc.
In the hearings, Ukraine has been cast as a “nation under attack”—perhaps akin to Britain during the Blitz—and worthy of American diplomatic and military aid.
Maybe it is, although I suspect that the Trump Hole-in-the-Wall gang sees more advantage in partitioning the borderland with Vladimir Putin’s Russian oligarchy, and in the fallout to extract some deals with benefits. (Why else would Trump send hotelier Sondland to the EU and Ukraine, if not to scout properties for Trump resorts? He’s not exactly a specialist on European affairs.)
The Russian view of Ukraine is similar to Adolf Hitler’s view of Czechoslovakia—that it is ethnically part of Russia, with Russian citizens living in the borderlands—and that it should be “erased from the map.”
Trump, personally, could not care less whether Ukraine is independent or part of Russia, but he does understand that money and political advantage can be gained in failed states (see Atlantic City), and for that he is happy to work with Russia on a division of the spoils.
For whatever reasons (but it would be a good avenue for a committee to explore), Trump sees his role in world affairs as that of a pitchman for Putin’s Russia. (Hey, Reagan did it for 20 Mule Team Borax.)
Trump groveled in front of the Russian president in Helsinki, and he has done his bidding in places such as Syria and now Ukraine. He’s defended Putin against the charges of election meddling in the 2016 U.S. election by promoting Infowar theories about Ukraine having the server and Hillary’s 30,000 missing emails buried in a Lviv chatroom.
Note too that after Secretary Mike Pompeo and Vice-President Mike Pence licked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s jackboots in Ankara, the Turkish strongman flew off to report to Putin in Sochi, and within a week the U.S. had lifted the sanctions against Turkey, and Russia mercenaries had occupied parts of northern Syria.
In Ukraine, Trump has been more than happy to do Putin’s bidding. He’s fired a troublesome (anti-Russian) U.S. ambassador, suspended U.S. military assistance to Kyiv, isolated the Ukrainian president from the West, and, through Rudy Giuliani, made an attempt to use pliant frontmen (co-indictees Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman) to corner some of Ukraine’s energy business. (Their defense: “We wuz working for Trump.”)
Trump has also gone to great lengths to cover his tracks in Russia. Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, George Papadopoulos, Rick Gates, and Paul Manafort have all been sent up the river for various crimes having to do with obscuring Trump’s relationships in Russia.
Add to this list Cohen’s revelation that in exchange for a building permit in Moscow, Trump was prepared to give Putin the penthouse apartment (valued at $50 million) in the dreamed-about Moscow Trump Tower. (From an unpublished sales brochure showing an infinity pool over the Moscow skyline: Some people dream about corruption—we make it come true….”)
One reason that Ukraine is a swing state between Russia and the West is because many of the gas and oil pipelines that connect Siberia and European markets run through Ukraine.
Anyone who controls Ukraine, in effect, controls Russia’s ability to export gas and oil to Europe, and that’s a huge part of Russia’s income. Hence Putin’s obsession and Trump’s marching orders.
In exchange, all Trump has asked of his daddies in Moscow is a few press releases about the Bidens—not exactly the art of the deal. Presumably Giuliani was there to cut in Trump on some bigger swag. Don’t forget: this is a man who wanted to buy Greenland.
* * *
I kept wondering how the hearings will end so that C-Span will bring them back for another season.
I have no doubt that House Democrats will vote articles of impeachment against Trump, just as I have no trouble imagining that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will stage his own Netflix original and exonerate the president. So why plunge ahead to certain defeat in the Senate and give Trump an I-got-out-of-jail card in time for the election in 2020?
One thought that has come to mind is that, at some point, the House could pivot and first bring impeachment charges against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice-President Pence, among others, for their role in the squeeze play.
After all, who wants to remove Trump from office and leave behind those task rabbits Pence and Pompeo, especially as they have been co-conspirators in Ukraine, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?
Another option for the Democrats would be to slow walk the hearings after this round and go to court against John Bolton, Mick Mulvaney, Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry, and Mike Pompeo, either to compel their testimony before Congress or to charge them with contempt.
For that matter, another round of hearings could well provide Trump himself with the forum to do as he has suggested, which is to appear before Congress under oath (assuming the country is ready for a remake of My Cousin Vinny).
I presume that the Trump administration would fight for months, up to the (reached) Supreme Court, to keep its senior officials from testifying. But the image of the administration as “fifth amendment communists” (to use the phrase of Senator Joseph McCarthy) isn’t exactly one that the Republicans in Congress might wish to take into the fall elections.
* * *
You do wonder why, toward the end of his appearance before the House committee, Gordon Sondland, American ambassador to the European Union (EU), had to fly urgently back to Brussels to conduct important missions of state when 1) the Trump administration has only contempt for the EU 2) his career as a Trump errand boy is over.
Having participated in several trials, I can say that few hierarchs ever appear in a court room without first telling the judge that they have an important flight to catch at some point later in the day. It helps position them as great men and above the tawdry constraints of the law.
But the charade of Sondland and his urgent flight to Brussels also suggested that maybe he’s still working closely with Trump’s lawyers, in this respect.
Sondland came into the hearing room with two goals: the first and most important one for him was to avoid being charged with perjury over his earlier depositions to the committee, in which he left out numerous direct contacts with President Trump. Why end up as Michael Cohen’s or Roger Stone’s bunkmate?
So he blamed the White House for not releasing his emails, which could have refreshed his spotty memory, and he blamed his near-endless phone calls with world leaders for not remembering that he had called Trump from a Kyiv restaurant. (“My job requires speaking with heads of state and senior government officials every day…”)
Sondland’s second goal was to say that he took his extortionate marching orders from Rudy Giuliani, who had the Ukraine portfolio from the president, but that the president personally never told him to do anything illegal.
In fact, the only thing the president appears ever to have said to him, in the nature of an instruction (aside from that grave matter of the imprisoned rapper), was to say: “I want nothing,” although he might have said in a deep Sicilian accent, “Tell ’em I don’t want nuttin’…”
Squeezing the House impeachment case into the (tight-fitting) suit of Rudy Giuliani could well be an attempt on the part of the Trump legal team to ice the puck. As follows:
Giuliani’s defense in these matters is that he’s the president’s “personal attorney,” which in his mind is a Cloak of Invisibility (Harry Potter-ism) that makes him immune from Muggle charges, including attempted extortion, racketeering, and contempt of Congress.
In theory, his communications with his client (Trump) are protected by attorney-client privilege, although it’s one thing to work with a client on a court case and it’s another to run a covey of bag men across the Ukraine and hope that you’re exempt from answering questions about them before Congress.
In fingering Giuliani with the crimes of commission (probably about 25%, plus travel and expenses), Sondland might well have been trying to put the Ukrainian matter in the one box that Trump’s defense team feels it can defend confidently with court challenges.
If the key evidence is locked in the relationship between Trump (the perp) and Rudy (his defense lawyer), their hope could well be that it’s out of the committee’s reach, and in that regard, while appearing to be cooperative, Sondland’s mission might have been to hide the evidence in plain sight. “Talk to Rudy…” except… “Rudy ain’t here.”
* * *
So far in the hearings we’ve heard from four ambassadors (Yovanovitch, Taylor, Sondland, and Volker), State Department officers, a budget person, and several National Security Council staffers, and to me most of the lineup sounded like contestants on “The Apprentice” (soon to be remade as “Washington Survivor”).
Ambassador Yovanovitch was the tearful applicant, not sure why the boss had turned on her in the boardroom (after all she has a great résumé), while Taylor was sad to be out of the back-channel loop, and Sondland and Volker, well, they only wanted to work as interns for Trump Inc. because of their love for Ukraine.
I found the struggles of Lt. Colonel Vindman to read aloud his opening statement to be cringeworthy, as was his seance, on live television, with his departed father. And I am not sure I share his optimism about “telling the truth”, as the last time I heard about the Boy Scout colonel the army was getting ready to stash him in a safe house, which seems to say something about the current occupant in the White House.
I assume that the presence of the diplomatic corps in the witness box was to establish the fact that President Trump and his henchmen have contempt for official State Department and NSC channels.
Hence the bureaucratic coup of Rudy Giuliani taking over the Ukraine portfolio and treating the East European country as he might a Miss Universe contestant (who to make it into the swimsuit round needs to drop by the owner’s suite).
At the same time, in listening to all of the testimony, I was struck by how committed the government has become to a revival of the Cold War against Russia.
Each witness, without exception, spoke of Ukraine as “at war” with Russia, and all of them, along with all the members of the committee (both Democrat and Republican), took it as an article of faith that the United States ought to be fighting a proxy war against Russia in eastern Ukraine.
Often I felt as though I were in a time warp and the Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles, and that at some point someone would speak about “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek or “lobbing a few A-bombs into the men’s room at the Kremlin.”
I can well understand anyone who questions President Putin’s aggression in eastern Ukraine and, especially, in Crimea. But if the national conversation is to be about U.S. polices in Ukraine and eastern Europe, there ought to be some mention that the United States promised Russia not to expand NATO to its borders, and that some in Russia found hostile intent in the projected enlargement of NATO to Ukraine and Georgia (after sweeping into the Baltics and upgrading Poland’s missiles).
Instead, it sounded at the committee hearings as if it was a given (with very few questions asked) that official American foreign policy in Ukraine is to supply military hardware to fight the Russians.
Granted, the subtleties of Ukrainian history are lost on Donald Trump, who, I am sure, if shown a map of Europe, would be hard-pressed to find Poltava or summarize the terms agreed at Brest-Litovsk.
For him Ukraine is just another protection racket that owes him some vig (dirt on the Bidens), but from a phalanx of ambassadors and professional diplomats (Dr. Fiona Hill was the slight exception although she’s still an acolyte of the war-mongering John Bolton), all of whom took umbrage that the world had failed to recognize their bureaucratic importance, I would have expected more than analysis that sounded as if lifted from a Cold War snuff film.
And what does it say about the culture in Trump’s White House that John Bolton came out of the hearings looking like the calm head in the room? (He was called “Doctor” so many times I almost thought they were talking about Marcus Welby, M.D.)
* * *
Watching the hearings, I began to wonder what the payback is for all of the Republican members of Congress for whom defending Trump has become a Sisyphean task—although in the case of Representative Devin Nunes (R-Trump International) his devotion might be personal, as it seems he, too, was the on the scent of Bidens in Ukraine and used the indicted Lev Parnas as his sniffer dog.
Does the Republican national committee buy such congressional obeisance with bountiful campaign contributions, or do the polls suggest that backing Trump, no matter what the circumstances, is a winning formula come the fall elections?
On the weekends do these members of Congress wear MAGA hats to rallies or get clapped on the back every time a court backs up the president for refusing to hand over his tax returns?
After a while, the Republicans on the committee stopped addressing questions to the witnesses and simply used their allotted five minutes to deliver either a stump speech about the perfidy of Adam Schiff or a Fox News editorial with Trump talking points about “wanting nothing” or “no collusion.”
Keep in mind that most of the committee questions were not of the Sergeant Joe Friday variety—“Sir, where were you on the day of July 25, 2018 at approximately 2:00 p.m.?”—but simply an inflected question mark or a tilted head at the end of a rambling monologue that, at least from Republican side, would need to include allusions to Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Democratic National Committee server, Burisma (Hunter’s golden ticket), the Steele report, and the FBI’s James Comey.
But the weakness of a hearing focused on foreign relations between the United States and Ukraine on the question withheld military aid is that you could almost have come away from the exchanges thinking that Trump is a functioning (albeit on the take) president.
The Trump of the hearings is an Oz-like figure, tucked away behind curtains of illusion. He appeared in a few snippets of testimony, but even in those exchanges (“Talk to Rudy…. Is he gonna do the investigations?”) it might be possible to conclude that the president has moments of lucidity and is capable of handling the responsibilities of the office.
But, because this was the House Intelligence Committee and its mandate was limited to digging into the shakedown of the Ukrainian president over investigating some Infowars conspiracy theories, crazy Trump never quite made it to the bright lights.
Nowhere in the testimony was Trump on his bed, either with cheeseburger wrappers or a porn star, furiously re-tweeting an editorial that compared him favorably to Abraham Lincoln (“I give better addresses every day…”).
More or less, the Trump reflected in the klieg lights was mafia Don, carefully plotting with his henchmen to take down the patsy newly elected to the Ukrainian presidency.
The only moment Trump’s detachment from reality came during the terrace restaurant phone call between Trump and Sondland, at which the latter told the president that the Ukraine president, Zelensky, “loves your ass.” (In the Trump presidency, it’s how you say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”)
In the call, Sondland began by telling the president he was “in Kyiv”, according to the witness to the call, David Holmes, a political counsellor at the U.S. embassy there. Then apparently there was a pause on the line, after which Trump asked: “Are you in Ukraine?” Maybe he thought Gordo was in Moscow, Idaho?
* * *
What’s the difference between Watergate and these hearings?
I was a sophomore and junior in college, majoring in political science, when the Senate (and then the House) held its hearings on the crimes broadly described as Watergate, and I didn’t miss many televised sessions.
Unlike these hearings, the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices felt free to roam over Richard Nixon’s abuses of power, so each day—rather than dwell on the same phone call to the same Ukrainian president—there was something new, a new witness with a new angle on either the break-in or coverup.
Watergate was more of a soap opera, with daily installments that rarely failed to deliver drama, and there was the sense that the hearings were creeping ever closer to the Oval Office (where Nixon was holed up with a whiskey saying, “I don’t give a shit about the lira…”).
Watergate went from the burglary and its trials to the coverup and then a complete review of how Nixon won re-election in 1972, and the case took more than two years to play out in full. For those watching or reading, the magic was that there was a revelation on many of those 800 days.
In the end the House Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon (for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress).
Prior to whittling down the charges, the House had dozens of possible articles that it was considering, including some that dealt with the bombing of Cambodia and others concerning hush money payments and the destruction of evidence (the 18-minute gap in the tapes).
On this occasion, the Democratic House leadership seems to be making the decision to focus exclusively on Ukraine, and to leave aside Trump’s other abuses of power or women.
If you tuned into the Schiff hearings expecting to hear more about paid porn stars, Miss December, the violation of the Emoluments Clause, lies submitted to Robert Mueller, fiddled taxes, the Comey firing, Saudi preferred shares in Trump Inc., Air Force pilots checking into Trump Turnberry, Jared’s sign-off on the Khashoggi rubout, Mar-a-Lago’s membership list, scheming with the likes of convicts Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, or Michael Flynn, you were disappointed, as all Schiff was looking at was the Ukraine shakedown in summer 2019. This was not a golden shower.
In the end Schiff will have picked up some additional articles—obstruction of justice, contempt of Congress, and witness intimidation—in addition to abuse of power, and these, I am sure, will be referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which can refer full articles of impeachment for a vote in the full House.
Here’s another difference between the Watergate hearings and these against Trump: many Republicans broke with Nixon during the course of the House and Senate investigations.
Right from the start, some Republicans in the House and Senate had no time for Nixon’s alibis, while it was conservative southern Democrats who formed a core base of support for the embattled president.
In the matter of the forthcoming Impeachment of Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, I have yet to hear any Republicans senators even wavering in their support of the president.
Count on Mitt Romney to express “deep concerns” and then to suggest himself as a replacement for Secretary of State when Mike Pompeo is thrown under a cement roller. Maine Senator Susan Collins will say “someone” sent Rudy and Parnas to Ukraine but it wasn’t Trump.
The few moderate Republicans on the Schiff committee, whatever their private concerns about the president’s many abuses of power, played these hearings as good Trump soldiers.
In the Senate I have a hard time imagining that—absent Trump driving errantly on an LA freeway in O.J. Simpson’s Bronco—twenty Republicans will vote to convict the president of abuse of power, or anything else.
That doesn’t mean that Trump is innocent of the crimes that Schiff has chronicled. It just means that he owns the judges.