watching the hearings and, oh yes, a debate

Each morning I tuned in to the House Intelligence Committee's impeachment hearings with the intention to watch just enough to get a feel for the witnesses and the members of the committee before breaking away to get down to my own work. The program went awry as I was sucked into the hearings for the better part of two days last week and three this week.


Mark Shields absolutely nailed it with this assessment of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and Fiona Hill:


"[T]hese are people who are Americans by choice, not by accident, like you and I. And…every one of them was reassuring. And I have to say, for every cheap political ad that is run against nameless, faceless bureaucrats, these were people with names and with faces and who put their careers, their comfort, their peace of mind, their futures, in many cases, on the line to speak truth to power." (PBS NewsHour, November 22, 2019)


Then there were Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and Tim Morrison, who succeeded Hill at the National Security Council. Sondland is a clown whose only qualification for his position was that $1 million donation to secure a ticket to the Trump inauguration. Morrison may not be exactly a Republican operative or outright political hack, and to give him his due was at some pains to avoid lying or shading the truth too blatantly, but he clearly wanted to avoid saying anything damaging to the president. His gross misrepresentation of Hill's comments to him about Vindman, which she corrected in no uncertain terms, cast doubt on his good faith as a witness.


Fiona Hill is, as my old history professor used to say, a real tough baby. I suppose I am obliged in this politically correct year 2019 to note that the term "real tough baby" is an equal opportunity compliment used irrespective of gender, sex, sexual orientation, &c. Hill is smart, composed, a no-nonsense type who did not hesitate to correct Adam Schiff and other Democrats when their tongues got out ahead of their brains with sloppy characterization of testimony, overstatement, and the like. None of this seemed to be calculated on her part. It is simply who and what she is, a straight shooter who knows her stuff. This only bolstered the credibility of her testimony that was damning to the president, as when she stated bluntly that Sondland and his cronies were "involved in a domestic political errand" while she and her colleagues were concerned with national security.


She shot down the Republican narrative that the actions of a few individual Ukrainians critical of Trump's position on Crimea and other issues are equivalent in kind and scope to the Russian government's meddling in the 2016 election. These individuals acted less out of opposition to Trump than from a mistaken belief, held by many, that Hillary Clinton would win the election and they wanted to be on her good side. They bet on the wrong horse and lost.


Nobody really examined what exactly we mean when we speak of meddling in foreign elections? Is the mere expression of preference for or opposition to a particular candidate or political faction meddling? Don't US officials at the highest level and those of other nations too do this kind of thing routinely? Is something more required to constitute meddling?


I was happy to see Hill demolish the attempted smear of Lt. Col. Vindman. In doing so she made passing reference to the politicization of the National Security Council. This is another development under the Trump regime that is not in the best interest of the nation.


We would be hard-pressed to find statesmen among the Democrats, but all in all they comported themselves as well as I could have hoped. Their Republican counterparts on the other hand could make Alcibiades look good by comparison. During the hearings Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan were the face of their party. Think about it.


There were times when I thought Nunes actually leveled arguable criticisms (alas, I cannot recall concrete examples, just that I thought it at the time), but he undercut himself with his incessant rants about the impeachment sham, witch hunt, hoax, secret depositions in a cult-like atmosphere, the whistleblower, and other gibberish. Jordan is a bully and a blowhard who would be well advised to consider switching to decaf.


Among their colleagues, Elise Stefanik stood out. I was not familiar with her prior to the hearings. I take Charlies Sykes's word for it that she "is no fool, even though she occasionally plays one on television."


Will Hurd comes off as the one Republican member of the committee with whom I might be able to respectfully disgaree. But I cannot for the life of me see how he can fail to find multiple Trump actions that meet his criteria for impeachable offenses, "compelling, overwhelmingly clear and unambiguous." The evidence is right there in the transcript/summary of the Trump-Zelensky phone conversation released by the White House. It was corroborated and expanded upon in the testimony of Yovanovitch, Hill, Vindman, and others, including Sondland, over the past two weeks.


The wisdom of impeachment and the likely fallout from it is another matter. The Democrats had no choice but to move ahead with impeachment once the whistleblower allegations were known and corroborated. I still fear that it will not end well. This exchange between Mark Shields and David Brooks on yesterday's NewsHour sums up where things stand:


Shields: [N]ot to act was an action itself that Democrats or anybody else in Congress or America would have to answer for. I mean, if this is modus operandi, acceptable for an American president to do this, to extort basically another country that is dependent upon us, to get information, unflattering, unhelpful, damaging information the president's political opponent, and that that is — that's, what, OK, acceptable, look the other way?


Brooks: Yes, I think that's a strong argument. They had to do this just to uphold the standards of our country, and that I can't think of any president who has done anything as bad as this and didn't get impeached.


And so, I mean, that's basically true. I think Democrats do have to acknowledge that it's not a political winner. And some of them walked into this sort of knowing that.


David Brooks made a good observation when he remarked that he thinks it did not occur to Trump, Giuliani, and Sondland that they were doing anything unethical or in any way wrong. There was for them no distinction between the president's personal interest and his public duty and responsibility. It is for circumstances like this that the Constitution has the provision for impeachment.


Was it just me or did the candidates look and sound really tense during Wednesday's debate? I am thinking primarily of Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden just looked bizarre. Pete Buttigieg let Tulsi Gabbard get under his skin during that exchange about military involvement with Mexico. With the possible exception of Andrew Yang and ond Tom Steyer, everyone seemed a little amped-up.


Maybe this is a symptom of a race where no one is pulling away. And maybe they are beginning to have concerns about the effect of impeachment on the 2020 election. There is an all too real possibility that Donald Trump will be reelected. I hope this has occurred to the Democratic brain trust, such as it is, and someone is taking it into account.


Newly indicted Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu took a page from Trump's playbook this week when he accused prosecutors of staging "an attempted coup" and called for an investigation of the investigators (Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Charged in Corruption Cases, Time). This news immediately brought to mind the report in the recently published book Border Wars that Trump privately suggested that soldiers shoot migrants in the legs. Perhaps he was borrowing from Netanyahu's playbook (Trump 'suggested shooting migrants in the legs', BBC). The president denounced the claims as fake news.


Keep the faith.

David Matthews

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