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: Universes collide, Yovanovitch shines, and Trump gets hoisted by his own “pizzazz.”
The House’s impeachment inquiry is both an investigation aimed at upholding our Constitution’s bedrock principles — and a ratings-chasing television extravaganza. The latter, naturally, is the bit that really matters. The substance of impeachment is now superficial; the spectacle is the only thing real enough to change the world.
In its capacity as a fact-finding mission, the House probe taught us little this week that we did not already know. It’s been a full month since the public evidence of the president’s illicit diplomacy with Ukraine crossed the threshold of “overwhelming.” In other words: We have caught the Hamburglar in a ransacked McDonald’s. His cheeks are smeared with ketchup, breath thick with Big Macs. There is surveillance footage showing a masked redhead in a prison-stripe outfit breaking into the kitchen and bingeing on beef patties. The suspect keeps shouting that he has an “absolute right” to steal hamburgers. Grimace has turned state’s witness. But a critical mass of the public remains unconvinced. And so, Speaker McCheese and the McDonaldland media must canvas for witnesses, send stool samples to the lab — and then declare each redundant confirmation of the infamous burger bandit’s barely disputed guilt a “bombshell” that just might break this case wide open.
This week’s prompt for feigned surprise: In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor revealed that one of his staff members had overheard a July 26 call between Trump and European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, during which Sondland told the president that Ukraine was ready to move forward with “the investigations.” After Sondland hung up, this staff member asked him what Trump had to say about Ukraine. Sondland (allegedly) replied, “Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.”
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who had denounced Trump during the 2016 campaign — then bought himself an ambassadorship for $1 million after the mogul’s victory — had conducted this (potentially criminal) conversation with the world’s most powerful official in the middle of a restaurant. Shortly after Taylor’s testimony, a second diplomatic staffer who’d been seated at the table with Sondland, Suriya Jayanti, came forward to say that he too had overheard the call.
This disclosure revealed three things: (1) Donald Trump’s avowed outrage at Hillary Clinton’s flouting of information-security protocols might not be entirely sincere, (2) the GOP’s latest patently absurd defense of Trump is even more patently absurd than it first appeared, and (3) the president talks very loudly, effectively putting all his calls on speakerphone.
Sondland has, lately, decided to make evading prison his sole priority; last week, the (somehow still-current) ambassador updated his testimony after suddenly remembering that actually, now that you mention it, he had personally told Ukrainian officials that military aid would not flow until they publicly announced an investigation into Joe Biden. Republicans responded to this about-face by casting Sondland as a rogue agent who had concocted a geopolitical extortion scheme without his boss ever catching wise. Somehow, the hapless hotelier had come under the bizarre misimpression that the president wanted Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. (Remarkably, Trump’s personal attorney also managed to hallucinate such marching orders.)
But enough about frivolous facts. Let’s turn to the weightier matter of political theater.
The first televised hearing of Donald Trump’s impeachment proved to be a kind of crossover episode — a Jetsons Meet the Flintstones for #resistance and #MAGA crowds. To that point, impeachment (as an infotainment product) had existed on two parallel planes. And the version set in the Fox News Cinematic Universe bore only a vague resemblance to the mainstream media’s more realist iteration. To those watching on CNN or MSNBC, the Republican members of the Intelligence committee seemed akin to characters from House of Cards who’d just tumbled through a wormhole into an episode of The West Wing. They were students of a separate canon, reading from a different script.
Devin Nunes, the committee’s ranking Republican and premier Trump sycophant, used his opening statement Wednesday to provide the Fox viewers in attendance with an elaborate “previously on” for their version of the program. In Nunes’s monotonous telling, the impeachment saga was not a black comedy about a fish out of water (and/or thug out of Queens) who pursued a ham-fisted scheme to abuse the power of his improbable office for political profit. Rather, it was paranoid thriller about a corrupt (and possibly Satanic) opposition party’s plot to destroy a duly-elected president no matter the cost: After the collapse of their “Russia hoax,” the Democrats hatched a backup coup (or, in Nunes’s phrasing, a “low-rent Ukrainian sequel”). To cover up Hillary Clinton’s collusion with Ukraine in the 2016 election, and Hunter Biden’s corrupt activities on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Pelosi’s caucus had partnered with an anti-Trump CIA agent to manufacture “a new batch of allegations” against the president. Then they interviewed potential witnesses at a “closed-door audition process in a cultlike atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol.” Only those willing to abet their lies — out of desire to subordinate the American people’s policy preferences to the deep state’s aims — would be allowed before the cameras. The only scandal worth convening public hearings to investigate was, thus, the existence of these very public hearings. It was past time for Congress to blow the whistle on the whistle-blower (never mind that said whistle-blower had merely compiled secondhand allegations of Trump’s misconduct, which had since been affirmed by named public witnesses and is thus no longer a significant figure in the investigation).
The hearing’s Democrats and star witnesses treated Nunes’s table-setting tirade like the shriek of a passing subway car — grimacing for its duration, then promptly returning to the previous topic of conversation once it fell out of earshot. Acting Ambassador Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George P. Kent treated their audience to an extended lecture on the vital importance of Ukrainian self-determination to American security and the liberal world order. These two paragons of bipartisan Establishmentarianism — Kent with his bow tie, Taylor with his mellifluous news-anchor voice, both with meticulously white skin and male secondary sexual characteristics — spoke for a center that just wouldn’t hold. As they dryly recounted their conflicts with Trump’s “irregular” diplomatic channel, each appealed to a transpartisan American nationalism that had collapsed shortly after the Berlin Wall. At the end of his prepared remarks, Taylor spoke of “two Ukraine stories,” the first, “a rancorous story about whistle-blowers, Mr. Giuliani, side channels, quid pro quos, corruption, and interference in elections.” The second, about “a nation developing an inclusive, democratic nationalism, not unlike what we in America, in our best moments, feel about our diverse country.” Taylor’s testimony asked Americans to identify with neither Trump nor his Democratic critics, but with the Ukrainian patriots his administration had temporarily betrayed, whose nascent civic ideals might remind us of our own.
Shortly thereafter, lawmakers asked Taylor if he was a “Never Trumper.”
The inquiry’s opening performance met mixed reviews. The witnesses’ mild manners and relentless restraint undermined Nunes’s efforts to portray the hearing as an unseemly spectacle. But it also left some pundits with an unsatiated hunger for “pizzazz.” Where was the shouting, the drama, the musical numbers, the fireworks, the animals on parade?
Friday’s hearings yielded better theater and a clearer narrative for Democrats — thanks, in large part, to the president’s ill-conceived cameo. Former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is a relatively minor player in Ukraine-gate (a.k.a. Ukraine-ghazi, a.k.a. National Buffoon’s Kiev Vacation). She was not a witness to the president’s “quid pro quo,” or to the activities of Rudy Giuliani’s “irregular channel.” Which was by design. Giuliani and his Ukrainian-Floridian business partners, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, lobbied to have Yovanovitch fired (ostensibly because they deemed her insufficiently cooperative with their political and business ventures). They achieved this by orchestrating a smear campaign, spreading baseless allegations that Yovanovitch had bad-mouthed the president and given former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko a “do-not-prosecute list” that included powerful Democrats, through columns in The Hill and segments on Fox News. Trump and his son eventually got in on the act. Yovanovitch was then summarily fired without cause.
Faced with Yovanovitch’s decades-long résumé of public service and considerable poise — and their own party’s deepening gender issues — Republicans chose to break canon. They would not defend the Fox News Cinematic Universe’s depiction of Yovanovitch as a corrupt, scheming Demo-RAT. Instead, they would dutifully thank her for her service, while insisting that she had no relevant information to provide.
The president, however, didn’t receive the new pages of the script — or just ran out of patience with his apologists’ intolerably nuanced defenses of his conduct. If Republicans wouldn’t run Yovanovitch’s name through the mud, then he would do so himself. In a tweet posted shortly after her hearing commenced, Trump wrote, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”
The Intelligence Committee’s Democratic chair, Adam Schiff, interrupted the proceedings to read Yovanovitch the tweet, and solicit her response.
“It’s very intimidating,” she said. “I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do, but the effect is to be intimidating.”
“Some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously,” Schiff replied.
Whether Trump’s post qualified as an act of witness intimidation is debatable. But the impropriety of his interjection was not. Republicans could only render Trump’s conduct defensible by assassinating Yovanovitch’s character. And they didn’t have the stomach to read from that script. A core premise of the GOP narrative to this point has been that Donald Trump’s avowed concern with corruption in Ukraine was motivated by principle, not crass political interest. This has always been an insult to the public’s intelligence (the president who tried to host a G7 summit at his own resort is not an anti-corruption crusader). But if Yovanovitch is not who Trump said she is — if the GOP grants that she was an opponent of corruption in Ukraine rather than an agent of it — then their argument ceases to cohere on its own terms. And a tiny wormhole opens up in the Fox News Cinematic Universe. Here’s hoping a few of its denizens find their way through it and into our own.