August 21, 2018, was a low point in the Trump presidency: On the same day—indeed, in the same hour—the president’s former campaign chairman was found guilty of federal crimes, and his former lawyer pleaded guilty in another case. While the president may have weathered the storm of that summer day, this past Wednesday, November 13, presented a similarly ominous double spectacle. In the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., prosecutors provided their closing arguments against the Trump confidant Roger Stone for obstructing the investigation into Russian election interference. At the same time, less than a mile away, the House of Representatives was in the midst of its first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry against the president of the United States.
The split screen of Stone’s trial alongside impeachment hearings was a vision of the past and present of the investigations into the president. After years of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference, the story has rapidly shifted from Russia to Ukraine and from the special counsel’s office to the halls of Congress. But the Ukraine scandal is a thematic sequel to the Russia investigation, as well as a chronological one: The same man, after all, is at the center of both, and he pulls everything toward him like a black hole. The stories of greed and abuse of power are the same. And so, too, is the stolid sincerity of the civil servants who have found themselves cast opposite the president in this national drama.
The Stone trial received little press compared with the barrage of news coverage that characterized the Mueller probe. As if to drive home how the news cycle had moved on, the Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann—who avoided the press during the two years of the investigation—appeared on MSNBC to provide commentary on the impeachment hearings at the same time prosecutors wrapped up their case against Stone.
The biggest revelation that emerged from the trial came from Rick Gates, the former Trump campaign and transition official who pleaded guilty to tax and bank fraud in connection to his work with the campaign chairman Paul Manafort, now serving seven years in prison. Speaking as a witness for the prosecution, Gates provided detailed testimony on how the campaign viewed Stone as its link to WikiLeaks over the course of the summer and fall of 2016—the matter on which Stone is alleged to have lied to investigators. During a car ride to LaGuardia Airport in July 2016, Gates told the jury, he witnessed then-candidate Donald Trump take a call from Roger Stone. At the end of the call, Trump told Gates that “more information would be coming.”
Trump’s closing comment to Gates, and Gates’s involvement, are set out clearly in the Mueller report itself. But until Gates’s testimony, the question of whom Trump spoke with on the phone remained hidden behind black redaction bars. The testimony is damaging to Trump both because it’s evidence that the candidate himself was aware of and encouraging Stone’s role as an intermediary with WikiLeaks, and because it suggests Trump played very fast and loose with the truth in his written answers to questions from Mueller’s team: As the Mueller report shows, Trump wrote that he had “no recollection” of any conversations with Stone about WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
The bombshell that dropped on Wednesday’s first day of impeachment hearings involved a call, too. Ambassador William Taylor, now serving as the lead U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, informed Congress that a staffer had overheard Trump asking about “the investigations” during a phone call with Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, who has been fingered as one of the main figures in the Ukraine extortion effort. Like Gates’s testimony, Taylor’s links Trump directly to the scandal from which congressional Republicans have sought to exonerate him.
On one level, this is appalling—as Taylor clearly understood it to be. To state the obvious, the president of the United States should not be involved in a shakedown effort with a foreign leader for personal political gain. On another level, though, it’s entirely predictable. This is, as former FBI Director James Comey put it, “the nature of the person.” The president lies and misleads—about his involvement with Stone and WikiLeaks; about what he did or didn’t demand from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; about anything and everything. He uses any weapon he can against his perceived opponents—including material provided by Russian military intelligence, not to mention the apparatus of the American state. He puts his own interests above those of the country—in fact, he may not even understand what it would mean to prioritize the interests of his country over his own. From the Russia investigation to what Representative Devin Nunes called, somewhat rudely, “the low-rent Ukrainian sequel,” the pattern is the same.
Also constant in that pattern are the civil servants drafted, sometimes unwillingly, as Trump’s foils. Their identities change, but their roles remain familiar. To use the language of professional wrestling, they’re the face to Trump’s heel, embodying all the values the president can’t understand: a focus on country over self-interest and a belief in justice, good policy, and careful process. These civil servants are often stern, but they are also, compared with Trump’s gleeful nihilism, sweetly sincere—a comforting throwback in times like these.
At first, it was Justice Department officials and prosecutors who grabbed the public’s attention. Now the focus has moved on to the State Department. Silver-haired, dressed in a dark suit while testifying before Congress, Taylor drew comparisons to Mueller from journalists and others on social media. The writer Bess Kalb referred to him as “Super Mueller.” Taylor and his fellow witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, “wore stern stares and were seemingly oblivious to the discord that brought them there,” wrote Mark Liebovich in The New York Times—a sentence that could also have described Mueller’s conduct before Congress. In The New Yorker, Susan Glasser argued that “both Kent and Taylor appeared to have travelled to the hearing in a time machine from America’s recent past. They oozed rectitude and establishment expertise.” Sound familiar?
This dynamic was on display during the last day of Stone’s trial, when his lawyer made explicit the question underlying the entire case: “So what?” It’s the same posture Trump has taken throughout the Mueller investigation and the Ukraine scandal: Who cares what I did? Who says this matters? The prosecutor’s response, delivered while Taylor and Kent testified, could have been written for Jimmy Stewart: “Well, if that’s the state of affairs that we’re in, I’m pretty shocked. Truth still matters … In our institutions, in courts of law and committee hearings, truth still matters.”
This statement, like the blue-and-yellow bow tie that made George Kent a star on social media, is kind of corny. But that’s the point. The whole appeal of these civil servants is how old-school they are, how they seem to represent a set of values that predates the Trumpian insistence that nothing matters.
In 1993, the novelist and critic David Foster Wallace famously proposed what has come to be known as the “new sincerity”: an aesthetic movement opposed to what he saw as the destructive power of irony in American life. Mueller, Taylor, and Kent are today’s representatives of that new sincerity—characterized, as Wallace wrote, by “the childish gall” of “actually … endors[ing] single-entendre values … Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic.” (A Fox commentator suggested that Taylor and Kent “looked like people who sat by themselves at recess.”) As The New York Times television critic James Poniewozik noted, comparisons of Taylor’s “gravelly” voice to the dictation of Walter Cronkite speak, in part, to the desire to return to a past in which truths were relatively undisputed and the president did not casually undermine the ideals of the American state.
Wallace’s argument was that there really is something revolutionary about sincerity: “If anarchy actually wins, if ruthlessness becomes the rule, then protest and change become not just impossible but incoherent.” And there is something to this. Though both Taylor and Mueller took pains to present themselves not as opponents of the president but as professionals brought in to do a difficult job, the conflict between Trump’s nihilism and their institutionalist sincerity seems unavoidable.
But there is also something unavoidably conservative, in the apolitical sense, about the appeal of these new heroes. Mueller and Taylor, both older white men, channel a vision of traditional authority that can be wielded only by a select few. Over the course of the Russia investigation, Mueller was hailed as a hero and a savior, and when the Mueller report failed to turn the political tide, many were disappointed: “Mueller failed us,” went the refrain. That refrain appeared again during the Stone trial as onlookers lambasted Mueller for not making clear the scope of Trump’s knowledge of WikiLeaks’ activities. In casting Taylor as “the witness Democrats hoped Mueller would be but wasn’t,” as the New York Times reporter Peter Baker wrote, there’s a risk of re-creating the same desire for an old-school savior.
Describing Taylor as a new Cronkite, Poniewozik wrote of the man seemingly out of time: “But this was in fact 2019, where there’s no unified audience willing to accept a single way that anything is.” The honesty and goofy sincerity, the flat rejection of the “So what?” of Roger Stone’s defense team—all these qualities are a salve now, and will no doubt continue to be as officials continue to testify in the impeachment hearings over the course of the next week. But they will not break through the wall of propaganda built by Fox News. And whether or not the jury finds Stone guilty, the verdict won’t reaffirm the importance of truth for those who aren’t willing to listen, or prevent Stone from retaining his cult status in martyrdom.
The only answer to these problems is the work of what civil servants such as Mueller and Taylor reject: politics. This is frustrating and unsatisfactory. But it is the only answer there has ever been.