There’s been a lot of talk today about Gordon Sondland underbusing the President or the Vice President or the Secretary of State. Only that’s not entirely right. Close but not quite. You’ll notice this in his insistence that he had no recollection of telling Kyiv Embassy official David Holmes that all Trump cared about was “Biden”. Perhaps Holmes misremembered it. But I doubt it. When it came to key conversations with the President his memory seemed to fray, though he generally wouldn’t dispute the recollections of others.
When everything a government official does is directed and authorized by the president, does that really make it rogue?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Happy Wednesday, November 13. Today marks the first public hearings in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Here’s more on that and the other stories we’re watching.
Today’s revelations out of the Roger Stone case put just one more weight on the branch of the Mueller probe’s credibility and probably far more weight than it can bear. Credibility in this context is a very fraught and weighty word. I don’t mean that it was crooked or out to whitewash the President’s actions. It’s all too complicated for anything like that. But we have a simple fact: six months out there is lots of new evidence that Mueller either must have known or could have known but didn’t make it anywhere into the report.
It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that Mueller ended up as what we might call the anti-Starr: determinedly refusing to look at anything not narrowly within the confines of his original brief. Just today we learn that there was at least pretty strong evidence that the President lied in written answers to the Special Counsel’s Office about Roger Stone delivering advance word to the campaign about Wikileaks.
Let me draw your attention to this new article in the Times, the subject of which is the range of rivalries, turf wars and personality conflicts which epitomize the Trump White House and are coming to the fore under the Stress Test of impeachment. One of these is the on-going battle between “acting” Chief of Staff and John Bolton, which flared up overnight when Bolton and his protege told Mulvaney to get his own lawsuit against the President and stop trying to glom on to theirs. Mulvaney complied. He first appeared set to file his own lawsuit before — apparently? — giving up on the whole idea.
But note this passage in the Times article which suggests that Mulvaney is telling colleagues he’s all but unfireable since he knows too much damaging information about President Trump.
There’s a jarring passage in the testimony of Christopher Anderson, which was released yesterday by the House Intelligence Committee. Anderson is a Foreign Service Officer who was serving as a special advisor to Kurt Volker while he was the U.S. Special Envoy on Ukraine.
In January of this year, the U.S. Navy was sending a naval vessel into the Black Sea and specifically through the Kerch Strait. Without going too deep into the geography, this is a narrow passageway through which Russia can limit maritime access to parts of Ukraine because Russia now controls Crimea. Here the Navy was asserting its right to unfettered transit to support Ukraine. It’s referred to as a “freedom of navigation operation.”
President Trump saw a CNN report about the mission, thought it was a challenge to Russia and called John Bolton at home one night ordering him to cancel the mission.