Editors’ Blog

We’re All Kurt Volker

The “we” in the title is admittedly doing a lot of work, as they say. “We” applies to some of us more than others. Indeed, I should say I found much of Amb. Volker’s testimony far short of credible. But if we take his claims at face value he found himself, to use his words, trying to “thread the needle.” He could see that the requests from Rudy Giuliani (and the President) were at least problematic, specifically the focus on the company Burisma and what he now says he should have understood was targeting the Bidens. But if he could interpret these demands in such a way that they seemed facially legitimate (just a general restatement of the need to root out corruption in Ukraine) then he could provide what they were asking for in good conscience and advance the policy aims he genuinely seems to have believed in.

Burisma did have a reputation of corruption and even though he thought the claims about the 2016 election were baseless, what harm would there really be in looking into them? In other words, by adopting a kind of willful blindness to what was actually happening he could try to address Giuliani and Co’s demands with a clean conscience.

This is a microcosm of what the whole country is facing, and especially those involved in running the federal government and its national security functions.

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The Underbelly of ‘Unified Executive Authority’
National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, takes a break as he testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

One of the interesting themes of these hearings is the question of who controls US foreign policy: the President or the sum of the “interagency” or bureaucratic policy making process. In a narrow sense it is absolutely right that if all the President’s advisors (in the sense of the sum of everyone at State, DOD, the NSC, Intelligence Community, etc) decide on one policy and the President disagrees, the President’s choice governs. This is elementary. And if you listen to the various testimonies no one who has spoken as a witness has said otherwise. But there’s a part of this that bears closer examination. Because it gets at the underbelly of so-called theories of “unitary executive” power.

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Thoughts

Alexander Vindman’s occasionally halting delivery, slightly nerdy appearance underscores an impression of an essentially guileless individual. He’s an almost unrealistically novelistic player in this drama.

Vindman’s appearance is a not terribly subtle reminder that the US often needs a continuing flow of immigrants committed to American values to counter balance native born Americans who are eager to betray them.

Breaking Impeachment News

Two new deposition transcripts have been released this evening, for David Holmes and David Hale.

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Vindmania
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 29: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director of European affairs at the National Security Council, arrives in the Capitol Visitor Center for his deposition related to the House's impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call),

Folks on the right are focusing on statements from departed NSC Director Tim Morrison’s deposition in which he says he “had concerns about Lt. Col. Vindman’s judgment.” We don’t know a lot about Alexander Vindman. So perhaps there are issues with his judgement. On the basis of the available evidence though I’d take Vindman’s judgment over Morrison’s, in large part because he immediately reported the substance of Trump’s July 25th call with Zelensky to the White House Counsel’s office. Morrison simply recommended access to it be restricted, not that that there was anything wrong with what happened. But there’s an aspect of Vindman’s testimony I’ve been wanting to highlight since I read it soon after its release.

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Today’s Agenda: New Sondland Emails Show That Perry, Mulvaney In The Loop

Happy Monday, November 18. Emails from EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland solidify the growing picture of an administration tightly lashed to the Ukraine pressure campaign. Here’s more on that and the other stories we’re watching.

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A Bit More Detail on the ‘Deliverable’ That Never Was

I wanted to flag this brief account by Fareed Zakaria which comes after Matt Shuham’s report from last week about just how close Ukrainian President Zelensky came to delivering the “investigations” Trump demanded. As you’ve likely heard, the announcement was to come on Zakaria’s CNN show, Fareed Zakaria GPS. It got canceled only when the news of the whistleblower complaint was finally going public. It had seemed that the interview was likely scheduled for September 13th and canceled as late as the morning of that day. But according to Zakaria it was only canceled on the 18th or the 19th of September.

This isn’t just a matter of a few days difference.

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Why Did The Rudy Syndicate Want Yovanovitch Fired?

As details emerge out of the Ukraine impeachment drama, we still have no clear explanation for why members of the Giuliani criminal syndicate were so intent on getting Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch removed from her post in Kyiv. In her testimony, even Yovanovitch seemed genuinely mystified about just why they wanted her out. It is still possible there was something specific about Yovanovitch that made her an obstacle to the criminal enterprises or corrupt business deals of Parnas, Giuliani, Lutsenko or others. But that seems unlikely. We lack specific proof. But here I think is the explanation. It is my guess based on piecing together various bits of information generated so far in the impeachment inquiry.

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The Holmes Prepared Testimony Is a Way Bigger Deal Than Expected

Yesterday after the Yovanovitch testimony the House Intelligence Committee went into another closed door session to hear from Foreign Service Office David Holmes. This was the surprise witness referred to earlier in the week by Bill Taylor, the one who had allegedly overheard the conversation between President Trump and Gordon Sondland, the day after the July 25th Trump/Zelensky phone call. But Holmes’ opening statement, which got out to the press yesterday evening, turned out to include quite a bit more. It is a very big deal.

Let me hit the key points.

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What Endemic Corruption Really Means Prime Badge
Roger in the Dock

You have probably heard that a short time ago Roger Stone was convicted on all counts against him, including false statements, witness tampering and obstruction. On its face this is not surprising. Stone clearly and repeatedly lied to investigators and to Congress. His witness tampering and obstruction were fairly well documented in his own hand. I wanted to take a moment to put this into context — not so much the context of the Russia probe, in which he played a key role, but his own career and storyline trajectory in the recent decades of American history.

Roger Stone has been plotting and running schemes, in addition to helping run some campaigns, for going on half a century. This isn’t so much an accusation as a restatement of Stone’s personal brand. It’s hard to think of anyone of any note in politics — and it’s important to remember that he continued to play at the highest levels until the late 1990s — who more openly or eagerly embraced a reputation for bad acting.

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Key Links

As you watch this morning, keep checking our staff live blog of the testimony. You can also check our definitive timeline of events in the scandal, new and updated this morning.

Not Complicated

At the risk of re-covering old ground, the gist of what we just heard was this: The President and his personal lawyer, in a purported effort to fight ‘corruption’, teamed up with the most corrupt figures in Ukraine to lead a campaign of vilification against the US Ambassador. All evidence suggests that their deal with this figures – Lutsenko, Shokin, et al. – was that they would get protection from the US (to stay in office, avoid prosecution, etc) in exchange for sweetheart business deals and agreement to intervene on the President’s side in the 2020 presidential election.

Backdrop

One of the subtexts or backdrops to this part of the impeachment drama is something that doesn’t get discussed much explicitly. President Trump would despise Taylor, Kent, Yovanovitch, et al. regardless simply because they are saying things that are damaging to him. Opponents are all bad people. But it goes beyond that. In Trump’s worldview these people are losers. They are reasonably compensated. But working in the Foreign Service you don’t amass any great wealth, even over a lifetime. You also, by design, don’t become famous, unless something goes terribly wrong. To the President, the idea you’d spend your life like that is totally bizarre. You can hear this in all his comments.

Today’s Agenda: Ousted Ukraine Ambassador Testifies

Happy Friday, November 15. Former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch will testify this morning in the second public hearing of the impeachment inquiry. Here’s more on that and the other stories we’re watching.

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Another Absolute Must Read!

Truly another must-read from the team today. We know the “deliverable” (a Biden investigation announcement) from President Zelensky never got delivered and that has become a key part of the Republican defense. No harm, no foul. But as Matt Shuham explains here Zelensky was no more than 24 hours from recording the interview tarring the Biden’s for “Ukraine corruption” and possibly as little as three or four hours. And what killed it was the chain of events triggered by the whistleblower complaint, the notification to Congress and Trump relenting on releasing the aid since they had in essence gotten caught. Here’s the story.

Absolute Must Read

I can’t recommend this article to you strongly enough. If that’s enough to hear, here’s the link. I have wondered, many of you have asked me, just what the rush of activity was to get Vladimir Zelensky to kick off and publicly announce these investigations. After all, during the key events the US election was well over a year away. The answer comes down to the April election in Ukraine. Trump and Rudy had a deal in place or thought they had a deal in place with the crew around the old President Poroshenko. When Zelensky beat him in a landslide it set off a frenzied, sloppy and ultimate futile effort to get Zelensky to honor the deal. Read it.

Today’s Agenda: Fallout From First Public Impeachment Hearings

Happy Thursday, November 14. Today, both parties will wrestle over the optics war of who “won” the first day of the public impeachment inquiry hearings, featuring top Ukraine diplomat Bill Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent. Here’s more on that and the other stories we’re watching.

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Dangerous When Cornered

Coming off today’s hearing Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing appeared on Lou Dobbs show this evening pushing a noxious set of bananas conspiracy theories about George Soros controlling the State Department and the FBI.

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The Irony Of The GOP Mocking Witnesses Who Didn’t Speak Directly To Trump

House Intelligence Republicans did a lot of mocking the fact that neither of the “two star witnesses” that Democrats called to kick off their public impeachment proceedings spoke directly to President Trump about his Ukraine pressure campaign.

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They Got Caught

This is a critical point and I’m surprised it took this long to surface in the hearing, though I’m heartened that it did. The evidence is circumstantial but overwhelming that the White House finally released the aid because they got caught.

What They’re Talking About

There have been repeated references to President Zelensky confirming that President Trump never pressured him. It is, as I’ve called it, what amounts to a hostage video since he was literally sitting next to him when he was asked. To refresh your memory, here’s the video they’re referring to.

Captures It

I’d say this captures the gist and tone of much of the Republican questioning.

Notable

Going back to my point that the career diplomats had a hard time getting their heads around the subterranean world of Trumpian conspiracy theories and crazy, it’s notable here that the top State Department official for Russia and Ukraine had never heard of the Crowdstrike conspiracy theory before the July 25th transcript was released.

Very Damning

Slightly separate matter: One of the most fascinating things about this story is how Trump was pre-defending himself about “quid pro quos” while the plot wasn’t even done yet. Almost certainly that is because he knew the WB complaint was already in play at the same time.

I Think It’s Real

Some of this is certainly benignly feigned naivete. But it’s nonetheless striking and I think real how these career diplomats and civil servants had genuine difficulty grasping the nature of the kind of Trumpian and pre-Trump GOP batshittery that those of us who’ve been covering it for years know as second nature.

Let’s Do This

We are, as you’d expect, all in on today’s hearings. Here’s our staff liveblog of today’s hearings: mainly Tierney Sneed (who is in the room) but also Matt Shuham and Kate Riga.

A Peek Inside The Impeachment Hearing Room

For their first impeachment hearing, House Democrats have picked a room that is TV ready.

The House Intelligence Committee, a relatively small committee that typically meets in private, is gathering in the cavernous Ways and Means hearing room — an upgrade from its typical hearing space and a world away from the underground secure conference room where all these witnesses have been talking to members up into this point.

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What Do The Democrats Have to Prove?

On virtually every talk show and daytime cable news discussion of impeachment, I hear the same question: Will the Democrats be able to make the case to the American people? Will they be able to make it clear enough, understandable enough, convincing enough? There’s often a Perils of Pauline tone about how the question is put to this or that guest, with Democrats on the line just as much as Republicans and perhaps hanging on the cusp of failure. Certainly the case can be made more or less well. I myself have pressed the importance of avoiding confounding obscurities like “quid pro quos” in favor of describing clearly what actually happened: an extortion plot to use a foreign power to sabotage a national election in the President’s favor.

But for all this the question itself misstates the situation in a critical way. What’s really being asked is whether Democrats will be able to convince not the American people but Republican partisans and more specifically congressional Republicans. And that is by design an all but impossible standard because they are deeply and unshakably committed to not being convinced.

This is not only the obvious verdict of the last three years. It’s even more clear with the questions which have emerged since September. Congressional Republicans have hopped from one argument to another: from no evidence of wrongdoing, to the wrongdoing is actually fine, to a rearguard action against a corrupt process. The chaos of arguments has zero logic or consistency beyond the simple and overriding one: of refusing to accept that the President did anything wrong no matter what evidence emerges and simply use whatever argument is available to justify that end.

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