The impeachment hearings have demolished Trump's 'deep state' defense
The impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives may or may not ultimately shift public opinion against President Trump. But the parade of somber, earnest, and sometimes geeky foreign service officers and National Security Council staffers has surely strained the credibility of the longstanding Republican hallucination that a cabal of rabid Democrats and Never Trumpers in the "deep state" is committed to doing anything possible to bring down the president.
The latest public servant to appear totally harmless, a little bit nerdy, and utterly unlikely to be plotting a coup was Tuesday's star witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Harvard-educated National Security Council aide whose family fled to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union when he was a child. Only the truly coldhearted could fail to be moved by Vindman's story of arriving as a refugee and then working his way up to scholarly and martial glory in his adopted homeland. One does not need to be a devotee of mindless military worship to see that this man's credentials are unassailable.
Vindman confirmed the outlines of the story that nearly everyone following the impeachment saga knows by now. He was one of many officials alarmed in the spring of 2019 by the bizarre subcontracting of America's Ukraine policy to the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and the subversion of longstanding policy goals to Trump's personal agenda of sabotaging the 2020 election. Vindman also calmly exploded the theory that Trump's real interest all along was corruption in Ukraine. He noted that he helped prepare corruption-related talking points prior to Trump's first call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, only to hear the president totally ignore the issue in the actual call.
He described attending the July 10th meeting with National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill, Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Ukrainian National Security Adviser Oleksandr Danylyuk, and confirmed previous testimony that Bolton cut the meeting short when Sondland said that a White House meeting with Zelensky was dependent on certain investigations being opened by the Ukrainian government. Vindman and Hill reported their concerns about this meeting to the NSC's lead counsel.
And finally, Vindman's account of Trump's July 25th phone call with Zelensky confirmed the key details first provided by the whistleblower. "It is improper," Vindman said in his opening statement, "for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent." He found the president's words so problematic that he contacted the NSC's counsel a second time.
Much chatter about Tuesday's hearings will likely focus on Vindman's exchanges with GOP Reps. Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio). But that sparring was less important than the cumulative damage the testimony of people like Vindman and State Department staffer Jennifer Williams have inflicted upon the idea that Trump is being hounded and destroyed by the deep state.
Vindman, Taylor, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch the are part of an elite foreign policy apparatus — what Obama aide Ben Rhodes once derisively called "The Blob." But the real superpower of The Blob is not betraying the country or fabricating evidence to destroy a president, but rather to propel American foreign policy along a certain trajectory and to fight efforts to change course. Most foreign policy professionals went to the same five finishing schools, imbibed the prevailing dogma about the American-led liberal world order, and believe in it fervently.
That's why so many of the people who have appeared in the hearings so far, or given closed-door testimony, served without issue in the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, who was responsible for, among other things, committing the most catastrophic foreign policy mistake since Vietnam by invading Iraq. Bush also made a series of controversial decisions, like withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia in 2002, declining to join the International Criminal Court, and cavalierly destroying the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea.
Yet throughout his disastrous time in office, Bush himself was not the target of any such "deep state" attacks, for the very simple reason that he did not run around ordering his underlings to break American laws (ok, at least not very often), or twist America's foreign policy with particular countries to aid in his re-election effort, or churn endlessly through top advisers desperately trying to keep him from accidentally starting a nuclear war. Bush's rule was, in many ways, just as destructive to the post-WWII order as anything Trump has done in office. And most foreign policy professionals were either fine with it, or resigned to it.
This I can confirm from personal experience. When I met dozens of members of the intelligence community at a month-long, DNI-sponsored retreat in the summer of 2007, I expected to be plunged into a den of hawks who would laugh off my views about a less militarized Middle East policy. Instead, many of the CIA and NSA analysts and other public servants I talked with disagreed vociferously with Bush's policies in Iraq and elsewhere. Yet none of them ended up conspiring against him. They were more interested in staying up late at the hotel bar with the academics and discussing the finer points of Battlestar Galactica.
Trump has run into trouble with these kinds of civil servants not because of his uniquely disruptive foreign policy views, but because his unhinged behavior has frequently called into question his mental fitness to serve in the office he holds, suspicions confirmed by multiple departed advisers who have described him as a dangerous, uninformed lunatic. His Ukraine dealings have led to impeachment not because it is or should be illegal for the president to shift gears or reverse existing policy, but because he did so to benefit himself, committing in the process one of the only two crimes specifically mentioned in the Constitution as grounds for impeachment.
I don't doubt that the president regards military aid to countries like Ukraine as a total waste of time and money. And if Trump had wanted to cut off aid to Ukraine and walk away from America's support for the country, he could have done so long ago, just as he decided to abandon America's Syrian Kurdish allies to the Turks earlier this year. There would have been howls from the press, and resignations and sniping from people like Vindman. This is how elements of The Blob tried to stop the Iran Deal: by launching a concerted effort, coordinated with Beltway think tanks, to dominate the broadcast and print media with voices critical of the proposed policy change.
But no one would be impeaching Trump if he hadn't gone far beyond policy reversal, and bent the apparatus of the American state to the task of smearing his likely 2020 opponent and opening up phony investigations. That has nothing to do with the deep state, and everything to do with Trump's contempt for the rule of law and his belief that the American government is his play thing. And the more Americans get a close look at the professionals trying desperately to stop American foreign policy from being rolled into the president's sordid crime syndicate, the more sympathetic they become.
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