Ambassador Bill Taylor is concerned about process. The longtime diplomat—who began his career as a West Point cadet, went on to a role as an infantry officer in Vietnam, and now serves as a chief of mission in Ukraine—reluctantly took his current position in Kiev only to discover what he called last week “a confusing and unusual arrangement for making U.S. policy” toward Ukraine. There were, he said, “two channels of U.S. policy making and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular.”
The irregular channel, as Taylor described it while testifying to Congress in the course of its ongoing impeachment inquiry, included a trio of officials and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney. That irregular channel, Taylor testified, was conducting a policy that deviated from traditional U.S. policy—holding military aid to Ukraine hostage to the willingness of Ukrainian officials to conduct “investigations” into the president’s political opponents.
What does a long-serving public servant do when he has such process concerns—in this case, process concerns that give rise to substantive concerns of the highest order? He raises them internally. He argues. He keeps copious notes. He sends text messages. He tries to manage the situation. He threatens to resign. And ultimately, he writes a 15-page opening statement before giving what appears to be detailed testimony to the House inquiry considering the impeachment of the president.
Republican House members also have concerns about process. In their case, the concerns involve the processes associated with that impeachment inquiry. They’re upset that depositions are taking place in private, that the House did not vote formally to authorize the impeachment inquiry, and that the procedural rights afforded the president within the inquiry do not quite comport with those afforded to presidents past.
How did a group of Donald Trump–supporting members of Congress air their process grievances? They attempted to censure Representative Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who led the committee’s interview with Taylor and with many other witnesses. They tried to dig out the identity of the whistle-blower who filed the complaint that first sparked the Ukraine scandal and the ongoing inquiry, even as the whistle-blower’s lawyer argued that doing so risked “undermining the foundational underpinnings of government oversight and whistleblower protection.” They complained about secrecy and closed-door proceedings.
And they decided to “storm the SCIF”—which is to say, barge in to the secure area where Schiff and the rest of the Intelligence Committee members have been hearing witness testimony—thereby delaying the deposition of a Defense Department official for several hours. They screamed at Democrats to “let us in”; they ordered pizza; and they tweeted and made phone calls from within a facility where, as a matter of security, cellphones are not allowed. Never mind that a dozen of the Republicans who complained that Schiff had barred them from the proceedings actually have been allowed to sit in on all the relevant hearings in their capacity as members of the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees. Live-tweeting one’s reenactment of the Brooks Brothers riot over process is a great deal more fun than sitting in on a witness interrogation in private.
President Trump, too, has process concerns—though in Trump’s case, separating the president’s grievances from one another is always hard. The president’s process concerns are thus mingled with substantive complaints; the impeachment inquiry is a “Witch Hunt!” and the iPhone no longer has a “Button.” But scroll through a few of his tweets, and you’ll see the president reaching for the smelling salts over process matters, too. He’s angry that the committees are no longer seeking to hear testimony from the whistle-blower. He’s angry that the whistle-blower’s identity has not been made public. He’s angry that the “Do Nothing Democrats” are holding depositions “behind closed doors … in the basement of the United States Capitol!” And yes, the president who declares people guilty of treason without indictment or charges or evidence of any kind has discovered “due process”—a matter previously of interest to him only as a shield against allegations of sexual harassment. “Do Nothing Democrats allow Republicans Zero Representation, Zero due process, and Zero Transparency,” he complains.
How does the president express his process concerns? He tweets, of course. According to The Washington Post, he’s tweeted 40 times about the whistle-blower alone. He’s complained, without evidence, that the press is inaccurately reporting on his worry about impeachment—after which the White House announced that it would be canceling its print subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post. He’s suggested that he might sue Schiff and other Democrats “for fraud”—leaving ambiguous what that would actually mean. He’s called Republicans who oppose him “human scum,” a slur that apparently includes both Taylor himself and Taylor’s lawyer, and that has already become a mark of cheerful honor among Never Trumpers. The Post writes that Trump has asked his lawyers why the White House can’t outright stop civil servants from testifying before Congress—even as more and more of them line up for depositions in the weeks to come. And he appears to have taken out his frustrations on Democratic leadership in both the House and the Senate by refusing to notify Democrats ahead of time of the raid on the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while giving Republicans a heads-up.
It is a striking fact that the dignity of each party’s presentation of its process complaints is directly proportional to the merits of those complaints. Taylor has comported himself, as Trump might say, as if he were “from Central Casting” in his role as earnest public servant appalled by something genuinely rotten in U.S. interaction with the state of Ukraine. He lays out facts—a lot of them. Those facts follow logically from one another. He concludes his opening statement by pleading with people to focus on the substance of Ukraine policy, and the values and interests behind that policy.
Republican House members, by contrast, have some, but not a lot of, merit to their complaints—and little or no dignity in their presentation of those complaints. The complaints about the process Democrats are using would carry more weight if Republicans were remotely interested in participating in a serious impeachment inquiry—and if they had not themselves engaged in virtually identical closed-door depositions and marginalizations of the minority when they controlled the House. In any event, some of the most pro-Trump members of Congress announcing on Twitter that they’re “calling from the SCIF on a secure phone” are unlikely to move those members of the public who do not already see the president as a victim here, much less as a victim of a process gone awry.
The president’s own process concerns have, if anything, even less merit. And the flailing anger of the litigation threats and the “human scum” tweet make Trump—in the very hour when he needs to rally support—a subject of mirth and contempt.
At some point, Trump and his allies will have to grapple with the fact that ersatz complaints over process are not an effective response to the concerns Taylor raised. The magnitude of the wrongdoing described by Taylor, and the care and sincerity of his efforts to document that wrongdoing, can’t be drowned out by yelling about the manner in which Schiff chose to interview him.
Such errors have tripped up the president over the course of the Ukraine scandal: He chose to zero in on the whistle-blower’s identity in an effort to impeach the credibility of the complaint, only to see a steady parade of civil servants, and his own ambassador to the European Union, corroborate the majority of the whistle-blower’s account under oath. Trump refuses to let go of his demand, of course, but the point is mostly moot; just as raising questions about the origins of the Russia probe will not change what Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report says, outing the whistle-blower won’t unring the Ukraine bell. And yet Trump makes the same mistake again, moving on to attacking Taylor over his supposed political leanings—which is, of course, not responsive to what Taylor actually alleged.
That these tantrums purport to be about process is as irrelevant as the substance of what any 2-year-old shrieks about while lying on the floor kicking and pounding fists. As Taylor’s own testimony shows, process does matter. It matters very much. But complaints about process, especially meritless ones, cannot obviate the ultimate task before the president—that of mounting a substantive defense of his own efforts to withhold military aid and other assistance to Ukraine in exchange for damaging information on his political rivals. It is precisely because the president and his supporters seem to know, at some level, that the task before them is an impossible one that they are reverting to tantrums instead of taking it on.