Opinion

With Vindman in the spotlight, the Democrats' impeachment theater loses the plot

The Ukraine drama's latest guest star was less than convincing

There is a real sense in which elected officials are the authors of our political life. But typically their stories are not carefully structured. They respond to events as they unfold and attempt to impose some kind of order upon them.

It has been possible over the course of the first three days of impeachment hearings, however, to see a definite structure — a gradual move from the periphery of President Trump's dealings with Ukraine to those who were directly familiar with the infamous July 25 phone call. Yet the closer we have gotten to the call itself, the less definite things have become. On Tuesday, the supposedly impeachable exchange between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine receded until it was almost invisible behind the pageantry with which Democrats have attempted to surround it.

This was a hearing concerned not with facts, which have already been rehearsed to the point of tedium, but with appearances — with uniforms and medals and titles, with lofty-sounding words like "nonpartisan" and "duty," with testaments to the honor and integrity of witnesses from official personalities and mawkish speeches about doing one's parents proud. One of the most significant exchanges of the morning involved Rep. Devin Nunes addressing Lt. Colonel Vindman as "Mister." To this Vindman immediately appeared to take offense: "It's Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please."

Except that it isn't, any more than the uniform Vindman was wearing is his everyday attire (like Colin Powell and many others before him, he wears a suit to the White House). In direct address lieutenant colonels are always addressed simply as "Colonel." Democratic members of the Intelligence Committee appeared to be aware of this even if Vindman was not. This suggests, among other things, that while Vindman was not himself accustomed to being called exclusively by his military title, it was very important to the Democratic majority that he appear not only comfortable with it but willing, quite literally, to pull rank.

This was not the only moment in which the image of Vindman Democrats sought to establish — as a devoted, scrupulous, and above all influential military man — was belied by other evidence. Over and over again Republicans were able to draw attention to the fact that Vindman was an almost totally insignificant figure within the Trump administration who nevertheless saw himself as single-handedly responsible for developing and implementing American foreign policy in Ukraine, a country whose president he has met only once, in a roomful of others. Despite having described himself in an official statement as "the principal adviser to the national security adviser and the president on Ukraine," Vindman's job, as he himself explained it, was to assemble factoids that members of the president's staff could make available to Trump, with whom Vindman has never met or spoken. He was the sort of person whose activities can be summed up with phrases like "Following the post-meeting meeting I had a short conversation," a man who could honestly claim that after two days of attempting to contact his boss, he could not even secure a conversation.

So much for influence. What about integrity? Vindman also described himself as pursuing his supposed concerns about Trump's "inappropriate" comments on July 25 with, as it were, "appropriate" individuals in the "chain of command." These individuals did not include his direct supervisor, Tim Morrison, but they did include members of his family and at least one person whose identity he was not allowed to reveal but whom we were told was not the quasi-anonymous "whistleblower." Vindman's actions may or may not have been justifiable by his own lights, but running to tell whoever was willing to listen about his own interpretation of a secure phone call between his own commander-in-chief and a foreign head of state is hardly the behavior one would expect of a stolid military man. It comports better with the personality which, despite the best efforts of the committee's Democrats, emerged on Tuesday — that of a petty, self-important desk jockey whose supervisors quite reasonably considered a potential source of leaks.

More than once over the course of Tuesday's proceedings I found myself on the verge of forgetting that there was in fact another witness present alongside Vindman — Jennifer Williams, a member of Vice President Pence's staff whose answers were brief and narrowly factual. Is it the case that, whatever part members on either side of the aisle might have wished her to play (a cool-headed foil to Democrats, for example), Williams was simply not interested in acting? Or was she just better at it than Vindman? I cannot make up my mind.

This is the problem with live theater.

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