Going After the Family

On Friday President Trump fired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from his post on the National Security Council and Gordon Sondland from his job as Ambassador to the European Union, in both cases because they testified before the House committees that eventually impeached the president. For good measure Trump also fired Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman from his NSC job, even though his only connection to the impeachment matter is that he’s the other Vindman’s brother.
Trump’s loyalists can rightly argue that all three served at the president’s pleasure, and presidents have broad constitutional authority to fire almost any executive branch employee for almost any reason, but in these cases the reasons look bad to anyone who’s not a Trump loyalist.
Alexander Vindman won several decorations during his service in the Iraq War, including a Purple Heart, and his integrity was never questioned as he rose through the ranks to his NSC job as the go-to guy on Ukrainian affairs, where his fluency in both Ukrainian and Russian was one of several hard-to-find credentials. When he complied with a congressional subpoena and testified under oath that he was aware of efforts by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and some associates to obtain help for Trump’s reelection in exchange for congressionally-authorized but withheld military aid, though, the Trump loyalists branded him a “deep state” conspirator. Vindman knew the Ukrainian language because he’d been born there and was a toddler when his father had escaped with the family to America, which Trump fans found mighty suspicious, and despite all the medals and the years of service to both Democratic and Republican administrations the fact that he’d given testimony detrimental to Trump was sufficient proof of treason.
Sondland is a self-made billionaire who had no relevant educational credentials or foreign policy or any other governmental experience when he became Ambassador to the European Union, and the only apparent reason he had the job was because he’d given a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. Even so, he was also branded a “Never Trumper” and “deep state” conspirator after he testified about his personal involvement in the effort by Giuliani and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to get help for Trump’s reelection by withholding aid to the Ukrainian government. The White House declined opportunities to have Giuliani or Perry or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or the moonlighting Office of Management and Budget director and White House Chief of Staff or anyone else with relevant information take an oath and dispute the testimony, so we’re inclined to believe every word Sondland said.
Trump didn’t deny that the two were fired as retribution for their testimony, and instead accused them of “insubordination” for complying with congressional subpoenas and giving truthful testimony. That’s arguably within his constitutional authority, although there’s an argument that he’s confessed to a violation of 18 U.S. Code § 1513, which prohibits retaliation against witnesses, victims or informants, and that in any case it looks petty and vindictive, but at this point such arcane legal and ethical arguments don’t much matter. Trump no doubt believes that taking vengeance on his enemies is in the public interest, and all but one of the Republican majority bought the argument made in the impeachment trial that gives him the right to do whatever he wants.
Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was removed from her post even before she testified, and Ambassador Bill Taylor, who was called out of retirement after a stellar career of foreign service by Pompeo to be envoy to Ukraine afterwards has also been relieved of duty following his testimony. The inspector general of the intelligence agencies who passed a “whistleblower’s” complaint to Congress to start all this mess is expected to fired any moment, and anyone else who had anything to say that Trump didn’t want to hear during the impeachment affair is by now polishing his or her resume. They’ll all have it coming, as far as Trump and his loyalists are concerned.
The case of Yevgeny Vindman is harder to explain, as he was a well-respected senior law and ethics official on the NSC and had nothing to do with anything about Ukraine, and never said a word to the press or congress against Trump. He was clearly fired solely because he was the other Vindman’s brother, and unless you believe in the ruthless Mafia tactic of going after the  family that’s hard to justify.
At least they’ll fare better than they would have in Russia or North Korea or any of the other authoritarian states Trump so admires. Both Vindmans will be reassigned to other and less stressful military assignments, and Sondland is still a self-made billionaire, although a million bucks short for his support of Trump. Taylor is returned to a well-earned retirement that was so rudely interrupted when Pompeo lured him to the Trump administration, and Yovanovitch has her reputation and retirement benefits intact and could earn some compensation down the line from a  book deal. As for the rest of the targets of Trump’s revenge, they’ll probably wind up with good jobs and less legal jeopardy than Trump will deal with in the coming years.
On the same day he fired the Vindmans and Sondland Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast that he didn’t agree with the Bible about forgiving one’s enemies. He also seems to reject the Good Book’s sound advice about leaving vengeance to God.

— Bud Norman

Some Dare Call it Conspiracy

President Donald Trump and his many apologists have come up with an interesting defense of his role in the Ukrainian matter that seems to be hurtling toward his impeachment. Their argument is that Trump has been a perfect president in every way, and anyone who implies otherwise is a godless and America-hating traitor in a “deep state” conspiracy against democracy itself.
The latest congressional witness to be so refuted is Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who rose the ranks to a seat on the National Security Council, and thus sat it on the now-famous phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that has led to the current impeachment brouhaha. Vindman not only confirmed the White House’s own rough transcript of the call, which clearly shows Trump asking for the “favor” of investigations into his past and potential future Democratic opens in exchange for military and economic aid, he also made clear that he thought it was an egregious abuse of presidential power that compromised America’s national security.
So of course he’s a traitor. Vindman earned a Purple Heart in the Iraq War and was previously so well regarded by the military and foreign policy institutions that he was made a Lieutenant Colonel and put on the NSC by the Trump administration, but that’s just the perfect cover for a “deep state” conspirator. He was born in Ukraine and didn’t move to America until he was three years old, and although his fluency in both Ukrainian and Russian helped his rise through the military intelligence ranks it sure looks suspicious now, as Vindman stands accused of a greater loyalty to Ukraine than the United States and its perfect president. Brian Kilmeade of “Fox & Friends” accused Vindman of being “simpatico” with Ukraine, Fox opinion show host Laura Ingraham found it odd that Ukrainian officials often sought Vindman’s counsel, a guest on her show said it was “almost like espionage” to have Vindman sitting on a presidential phone call as an NSC member, and Trump “tweeted” that he didn’t even know the guy’s name. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told the press that “It is always appropriate to question the credibility of a witness, that’s part of why one has due process.”
Before this the same sort of allegations had been made against Ambassador William Taylor, a West Point graduate and decorated Vietnam War veteran who had interrupted a remarkable rise to the foreign service ranks to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was coaxed out of retirement to return to the Ukrainian embassy by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He also testified to congress that Trump was pursuing American foreign policy to his political advantage at the expense of America’s national security, though, so what more proof does one need of his treason. Before that it was former Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who testified that she was forced out of the job despite an impeccable record because she wasn’t going along with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani’s covert efforts to get illegal campaign hep from the Ukrainian government. Well before that it was special counsel Robert Mueller, another Purple Heart-winning war hero with a long and previously unquestioned record of outstanding public service.
After a while a weary public will begin to wonder if each and everyone of the people who express an opinion that Trump less than perfect in every way are godless and America-hating traiTrtors, despite such previously impeccable histories, and in Vindman’s case most congressional Republicans are already declining to hurl any stones. Such notable Republicans as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Rick Scott of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma and John Cornyn of Texas have outright dismissed any questions about Vindman’s character, and seem ready to risk Trump’s wrath and taunting “tweets” by arguing at the inevitable impeachment trial that he’s less than perfect but not to an impeachable extent.
That’s Trump’s best defense, at this point, but his gnawing insecurity and grandiose narcissism will prevent him from making the argument. He’ll continue to insist that he’s perfect in every way, that any Democrat who disagrees is a “deep state” conspirator and that any Republican who harbors any doubts is “human scum,” even if he did once appoint them to high positions in his administration. One would be hard-pressed to note a single moment in Trump’s life where he did anything for any reason other self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement, whereas his most prominent critics include numerous people whose lives are full of selfless moments, but the argument has worked before and he’ll bet that it can work again.
It might work well enough for Trump to survive an impeachment trial, but will be a hard argument to make in a general election. Trump still has solid support in a lot of small states that add up to much of what’s needed for another electoral college majority, but when you several all the big states into account a slight majority of the country wants to see him out of office right now, and it will be hard for Trump to disperse his dwindling base across enough of the swing states. Last time around he won narrow victories in four rust belt states to win the electoral college, but next time around he probably won’t be able to claim that the manufacturing jobs he promised to bring back have arrived.
By election day everyone who’s not at the Trump rallies in their red “MAGA” ball caps will have figured out that Trump is not perfect in every way, that not all of his critics are godless America-haters and human scum, and if the damned Democrats don’t go too far crazy left the die-hard Trump believers will be too far outnumbered to prevail on an electoral map. If the economy continues to slow at its recent rate, it might not matter what kind of godless and America-hating socialist kooks the damned Democrats might nominate.

— 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