The Week in Impeachment: Ukrainegate Becomes a Sitcom?

Crime-time TV. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Unable to keep up with the dramatic twists and turns of the ongoing Ukraine saga? Losing the thread of the impeachment-hearing process? We’ll be recapping the latest developments in installments on Intelligencer, from here until we get subpoenaed to appear before Congress. This week: Colonel Vindman’s clear eyes — and Purple Heart — can’t lose.

The impeachment saga is revealing itself to be more of a sitcom than a drama: Each week’s events don’t advance a narrative so much as they supply fodder for the cast to perform slight variations on its tried-and-true shtick.

This distinguishes Ukrainegate (a.k.a. Ukraine-a-rama, a.k.a. National Buffoon’s Kiev Vacation) from its prequel. The Mueller investigation resembled nothing so much as a prestige puzzle-box thriller — one that compensated for the glacial pace of its plot development with ominous foreshadowing of an impossibly dark undisclosed truth (could Trump be the Yellow King???).

Ukraine-ghazi was also billed as a mystery. But just about everything was revealed in the pilot’s cold open. There’s essentially no question of “what the president knew” or when he knew it. No portents that maybe — just maybe — a grizzled old FBI director will expose the U.S. president as a Russian asset. No hint of a “Chekhov’s pee tape.” Donald Trump himself all but copped to the inquiry’s core allegation more than a month ago. Around the same time, his White House released documentary proof that the president had, in fact, tried to barter access to U.S. weaponry for an investigation into his chief political rival (albeit in the thinnest possible code).

Thus, the question that animates each new installment of the Ukraine-pot Dome Scandal is less “What bombshells will this week’s depositions reveal?” than “How will our motley crew of fish-out-of-water (or, more precisely, thugs out of Queens) wriggle their way out of this one?” The plot never thickens. But the joke does sometimes heighten.

Such was the case this week. On our previous episode, an extremely bipartisan, incredibly respectable diplomat regaled Congress with tales of the president’s treacherous betrayal of Ukranian freedom fighters — testimony that left Trump’s Russophilic Republican apologists with the uncomfortable task of disputing the integrity of a Reaganite cold warrior. Hilarity ensued. This week’s A-plot was an amped-up iteration of the same basic premise: Only now, instead of having to discredit an esteemed ambassador, Trump and the Gang were faced with the cringeworthy task of disputing the honesty of an Iraq War veteran who earned a Purple Heart after surviving an IED attack.

On Tuesday, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. Vindman strolled out of some Democratic consultant’s imagination and into the private chambers of the House Intelligence Committee. The man is a Ukrainian-American immigrant whose gratitude for the nation that offered his family refuge from Soviet oppression is so great he dedicated his entire adult life to its defense. An Army officer for more than two decades, Vindman served in South Korea, Germany, and Iraq before ascending to the position of top Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council. He’s that rare breed of neo–cold warrior whose faith in the U.S. as a guarantor of global freedom — and disdain for the Kremlin as the mother of all tyrannies — is rooted in personal experience, not Tom Clancy novels. And that makes him the kind of impeachment witness who can say things like, “I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country, irrespective of party or politics” with incontrovertible sincerity.

He also happens to have been a firsthand witness to the infamous July 25 phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky that kicked off Ukraine-a-palooza.

The basic beats of Vindman’s story will be familiar to anyone who’s tuned in to this program before: An expert on Eastern Europe enters the White House eager to solidify Ukraine’s alignment with the West. His hopes are raised by the election of the reformer Zelensky, and he encourages Trump to welcome Ukraine’s new leader into the Western alliance with open arms. But he finds the president strangely hostile to his new counterpart in Kiev. And he soon realizes that the administration’s official strategic goals in Ukraine and its actual ones are not only distinct but contradictory. Unlike previous witnesses, however, Vindman was listening in when Trump asked Zelensky to do the U.S. a “favor” by investigating the Bidens — and the Iraq War hero confirms that Trump’s meaning sounded as clear in the moment as it reads in retrospect. What’s more, Vindman testified that the “exact word-for-word transcript” of the call that the White House said it had released was not, in fact, a word-for-word transcript (in hindsight, we probably should have known that the administration was protesting too much when it appended not one but three exclamation points to the transcript’s title).

Specifically, Vindman revealed that the readout had been edited to conceal a moment when Trump cited a recording of Joe Biden discussing corruption in Ukraine. This omission doesn’t seem any more damning than the dialogue the White House declined to redact. But the fact that the administration felt compelled to excise a mention of the former vice-president’s name does seem to betray a cognizance of its own guilt. The gang ostensibly knew they had something to hide (even if they were too incompetent to discern exactly which thing it was).

Anyhow, Vindman was scandalized by what he’d heard. And so he did what any true patriot would have done: He shared his concerns with his identical-twin brother, who also happens to serve on the National Security Council, and then marched with his doppelganger into the office of the NSC’s top lawyer, John Eisenberg, where the Vindmans detailed Trump’s unseemly request. Eisenberg took in the twins’ explanation of why Trump’s words constituted a threat to democratic norms and long-standing U.S. policy and then did what any true apparatchik would have done: He moved the transcript of the president’s illicit conversation to a highly classified server.

Over the weeks that ensued, Vindman found himself increasingly frozen out of high-level meetings on Ukraine policy for a combination of corrupt and dumb reasons. Among the latter: Kashyap Patel, a former staffer to Republican congressman (and top-tier Trump toadie) Devin Nunes, “misrepresented” himself to Trump as the NSC’s top Ukraine expert, despite the fact that he had approximately no experience or expertise relevant to U.S.-Ukraine relations. Nevertheless, once Patel initiated his ruse, Vindman’s bosses felt that introducing him to Trump as the council’s actual Ukraine expert would only confuse and upset the president. So all involved allowed Patel to carry on with the little charade.

Meanwhile, in mid-August, Vindman says, national-security adviser John Bolton instructed him to draft a memo calling for the release of military aid to Ukraine — a memo that Trump refused to sign. That’s significant because the White House’s official story (at least on some days of the week) has been that the aid was frozen pending a security review and then promptly released once Bolton gave the all-clear. In Vindman’s telling, by contrast, the president personally blocked the dispensing of military aid for nearly a month after Bolton had given him the green light.

So: How would Trump’s team of rascals rebut the damning testimony of a decorated war hero with firsthand knowledge of its high crimes and misdemeanors?

Why, by accusing him of being a traitorous Ukrainian double agent, of course!

As the White House’s preeminent Ukrainian speaker, Vindman testified that he had often attracted queries from Ukrainian officials who were trying to make sense of the administration’s mixed messages (and/or of Rudy Giuliani). On Tuesday night, Trump’s state media channel recast those conversations as acts of light treason.

“Here we have a U.S. national-security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House apparently against the president’s interest,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham said. “Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle on this story?” Former Bush-administration lawyer (and torture-program mastermind) John Yoo replied, “Some people might call that espionage.”

Like most Trumpist lines of defense, this one had strong undercurrents of “I know what you are, but what am I?” Vindman’s core allegation is that the president put his own partisan interests above America’s national-security interests; Ingraham’s rejoinder is that by resisting Trump’s subversion of duly enacted U.S. policy — Congress’s appropriation of military aid to Ukraine included no “unless they won’t investigate Joe Biden” clause — Vindman betrayed his country. But the NSC official wasn’t the one working outside the chain of command to undermine official U.S. policy in the service of clandestine aims — the president’s personal attorney was.

Trump himself took a more tactful approach to smearing the Purple Heart recipient. Instead of decrying Vindman as a spy, Trump merely branded him a “Never Trumper” — a term that he had used as a synonym for “human scum” just days earlier.

Alas, congressional Republicans lacked the stomach to deride a decorated veteran as a traitor or filth. So rather than defending Trump’s (ever-shifting) version of events against Vindman’s rendition, they settled for shouting psychedelically demagogic process complaints: The only historical analogues for Nancy Pelosi’s decision to solicit impeachment-related testimony in closed-door committee hearings — where members of Trump’s party could interrogate witnesses — were the Salem Witch Trials and Stalinism. Meanwhile, some GOP allies revealed that, in their understanding, a “witch hunt” is a hunt conducted by witches.

Regardless, Pelosi delivered the GOP’s procedural catastrophism a blow Thursday by addressing its core complaint — that the House had never held a formal vote on launching an impeachment inquiry. With two defections, Pelosi’s caucus passed a resolution laying out the rules of its impeachment inquiry, including ample rights and protections for the defendant-in-chief.

Since then, Trump and friends have been furiously grasping at straws. On Thursday afternoon, former NSC adviser Tim Morrison testified that Trump-administration officials had told the Ukrainian government that it would receive no military aid until it announced an investigation into the energy company where Joe Biden’s son once worked. Morrison also said that, in his opinion, none of this was “illegal” — a trivial point given that impeachable offenses don’t need to be crimes, and Morrison was called as a fact witness, not an expert on campaign-finance laws or executive authority over aid disbursement. But, eager to take a (Pyrrhic) victory wherever they could find one, Trump and Republicans celebrated Morrison’s sworn confirmation of the alleged “quid pro quo.”

Some of the president’s savvier apologists have declared Trump “not guilty by reason of incompetence.” Last week, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board insisted that, while Trump may have “wanted a quid-pro-quo policy ultimatum toward Ukraine, he was too inept to execute it.”

But when Trump got wind of this line of defense, he furiously insisted that there is no high crime or misdemeanor he can’t pull off if he puts his mind to it. As The Daily Beast reported:

“[The president] mentioned he had seen [the Wall Street Journal editorial] and then he started saying things like, ‘What are they talking about, if I wanted to do quid pro quo, I would’ve done the damn quid pro quo,’ and … then defended his intelligence and then talked about how ‘perfect’ the call [with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] was,” said a source familiar with Trump’s reaction to the Journal editorial.

Will Trump quoting himself asking the Ukrainian president to do him a “favor” by investigating Hunter Biden’s former employer finally put this whole impeachment thing to rest? Will the Democrats’ next star witness be the ghost of the Unknown Solider, voyaging down from Heaven to share his or her omniscient account of Trump’s every nefarious word, deed, and thought? Tune in next week.

The Week in Impeachment: Ukrainegate Becomes a Sitcom?