What’s On TV Instead of “Jeopardy!”

The House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry regarding President Donald Trump preempted “Jeopardy!” on Tuesday afternoon, so we figure this getting to be serious business. All the critics on the talk radio right are panning the televised hearings as boring and lacking pizzaz, and so far the ratings are not boffo, but we’re finding it “binge-worthy,” as the kids might say.
If you’ve been following the latest installment of Trump’s ongoing reality show, you already know why the Trump-loving talk radio right doesn’t like it. So far all the evidence indicates that Trump sought help from the Ukrainian government in his reelection campaign in exchange for much-needed military aid that Congress had appropriated to an important ally, the polls show that most of the country thinks it was not a good thing for an American president to do, and no one in the Republican party has yet come up with a coherent rebuttal.
The pilot episode of the televised hearings featured a West Point alum and Vietnam war hero and distinguished foreign service officer who’d been lured out of retirement by Trump’s Secretary of State to take over in Ukraine, and he testified that Trump had sought reelection help from Ukraine in exchange or that much-needed military aid, and that he thought it was a bad thing to do. There was also the distinguished foreign service officer he replaced as ambassador to to Ukraine, who testified under oath that Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and two of his recently indicted associates were seeking help for Trump’s reelection, and that she was removed from her post because she thought it was a bad thing to do. In addition, there was an aide to Vice President Mike Pence who told pretty much the same story, and Trump of course “tweeted” that they’re both “Never Trumpers,” as if that’s a bad thing and necessarily makes them liars.
Tuesday’s episode started out with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testifying in uniform, replete with his many combat decorations from the Iraq War, with his credentials as a National Security Council member and America’s top expert on Ukraine mentioned in the introductions, and he also testified that Trump was leaning on the Ukrainians for political advantage and that he thought it was a wrong thing to do. Under questioning from the Republicans Vindman admitted that he’ been born in Ukraine and was fluent in both Russian and Ukrainian, and the Republicans thought it damned suspicious that he wound up as a high-ranking expert on Ukraine, but Vindman’s uniform and decorations and and impeccable record of public service and no apparent reason to lie seemed to carry the day. There was also corroborating evidence from Jennifer Williams, and aide to Vice President Mike Pence, who was also dismissed by “tweet” as a “Never Trumper.”
The Republicans got to call two witnesses in the hearings, but neither did them much good. Trump loyalist and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker wound up vouching for the character of former Vice President and possible Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the very man Trump was allegedly seeking dirt on. He also derided the “conspiracy theories” that it was the Ukrainians and not the Russians were the ones who meddled in the last presidential election, depriving talk radio of a favorite talking point, and he couldn’t deny the bargain Trump is alleged to have sought political gain from Ukraine in exchange for the much-needed aid. Senior director on the National Security Council Timothy Morrison was no more helpful, admitting that when Trump admittedly asked the Ukrainian president for “a favor” it was “not what what we recommended the president discuss.”
Future guest stars in this embarrassing reality show surely include Gorland  Sondland, the billionaire who bought an ambassadorship to the European with a million-dollar donation to Trump’s inaugural and has already amended his testimony and now finds himself neck-deep in this mess, and potentially Giuliani and his recently indicted associates, and Trump himself is threatening to give written testimony. This will likely be increasingly hard for the talk radio right to explain, and it can only hope that the ratings remain low.

— Bud Norman

When There’s No Getting Over It

Ambassador William Taylor spent 10 hours testifying to a House oversight committee on Tuesday about the Ukraine brouhaha, and by the time it was over President Donald Trump and his apologists needed yet another new defense.
Ever since a “whistleblower” report alleged that Trump had sought election help from the Ukrainian president during negotiations over aid and arms sales Trump and his defenders have insisted it was “fake news” and even if it did happen there was no quid pro quo, which does not let them off the hook for illegally soliciting foreign influence in American election, but doesn’t sound as bad, so it’s no big deal. In fact, the president insists, the phone call was “perfect.”
Since then both friendly and hostile witnesses have testified, texts have been released, and all of it made it sure like that there had indeed been a quid pro quo, even if no one was careless enough to use the term. It didn’t help when White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told a news conference that Trump did indeed withhold help to Ukraine unless it agreed to investigate a possible Democratic presidential nominee, adding that “we do it all the time — get over it,” or when Gordon Sondland, the big bucks Trump donor was tabbed as Ambassador to the European Union without any diplomatic experience, testified about his involvement in what sure sounded like a quid pro quo.
Taylor’s testimony the defense even harder to sell. A West Point graduate and a veteran of the Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq wars with an unblemished record of service to both Democratic and Republican administration over the past 50 years, he’ll be hard to smear as an America-hating “deep state” operative, but Trump tried that with war hero and respected public servant Robert Mueller, so maybe they’ll try it again.
Along with his stellar reputation Taylor brought documents and notes and other evidence to back up his account, which pretty damning to Trump. He was acting ambassador to Ukraine during that disputed phone call, and he describes how Sondland and soon-departing Energy Secretary Rick Perry and envoy and longtime Trump loyalist Kurt Volcker were running an “irregular” foreign policy with Ukraine that worked against longstanding principles of the United States government. He also testified that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and two of his recently indicted-and-jailed associates were also involved in gaining political help from the Ukrainians, and had undermined well-regarded and soon removed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch because they saw her as an impediment to a possible deal.
Trump will continue to chant his “no quid pro quo” mantra, if only to calm himself, but at this point his best defense is probably “So what?” He might as well come right out and reiterate that “We do it all the time — get over it,” as his die-hard fans don’t seem to mind. He’s already selling “Get over it” t-shirts at his campaign’s web site, and we expect to see a lot of them at the next Make America Great Again rally.

— Bud Norman

An Angry Day

President Donald Trump is an ill-tempered fellow even on a good day, and Wednesday was not at all a good day.
The House of Representatives passed a resolution rebuking Trump’s widely criticized decision to with American forces from by a vote of 354-60-4, with a majority of the chamber’s Republican members piling on. Yet another administration official was testifying to the House impeachment inquiry despite presidential orders not to, and yet another poll showed that Trump’s impeachment and removal from office already has the support of a majority of the country. A visiting British couple seeking justice for a son who was killed by an the wife of American government employee who was driving on the wrong side of the road refused Trump’s offer of a surprise meeting with the driver, saying they felt “ambushed,” and depriving Trump of what a staffer said he hoped would be a telegenic “hug and make up moment”for an otherwise dreary news cycle.
All of which made Trump even surlier than usual, which is saying something. In a White House meeting with the Democratic congressional leadership he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a “third-rate politician,” said that former Defense Secretary James Mattis was “the world’s most overrated general” and not “tough enough,” with Pelosi calling a “meltdown” and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer describing the conversation as  “not a dialogue but a diatribe, a very nasty diatribe.”
At a later joint news conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella Trump chided his guest for failing to spend 2 percent of his country’s gross domestic product on defense spending, comparing Italy unfavorably to the Turkish government that is currently using its military might to wipe out America’s erstwhile Kurdish allies in Syria. Trump added that the Kurds are “no angels,” and suggested they’re all aligned with a Kurdish terror group active in Turkey, which came after Trump told the Democratic leaders that the Kurds are also communists and that “you’re probably fine with that.” The president even had some insults for Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is usually a reliable sycophant but has lately dare to disagree with Trump’s Syrian policy. For good measure,  he claimed that the conspiracy that’s out to get him goes up to President Barack Obama.
Trump’s die-hard fans love the tough talk, but it doesn’t win any new voters, and it’s hard to see what good it does. The Democratic congressional leaders and the Italian president and the growing chorus of Republican critics clearly aren’t cowed by it, and to most of the country Trump comes off as angry and unhinged. If there were some reasonable explanation for Trump’s seemingly transactional dealings with Ukraine and other foreign governments that could be expressed in a calm and presidential voice the president would be well advised to go with that, but for now he doesn’t have that at his disposal, and is instead going with the raw anger that somehow got him elected.

— Bud Norman