Trump’s Committee to Protect the President
Republicans doing the president’s bidding at the House impeachment hearing were focused less on the truth than on how it got out—like a modern-day version of Richard Nixon’s infamous leak patrol.
Last week’s Republican rallying cry on impeachment was “Hearsay!” By this morning, the focus had turned back to the whistle-blower who started it all.
The consensus GOP retort to the first three public witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry—Ambassadors William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch, and George Kent, a deputy secretary of state—was that none of them had direct, firsthand knowledge of President Donald Trump’s alleged attempt to condition aid to Ukraine on an investigation into his political rival.
When they arrived at the Capitol this morning, however, Republicans could no longer make that complaint. The witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee—Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman of the National Security Council and Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence—were both listening in on the July 25 call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do him “a favor” by pursuing an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
As it turned out, the committee’s top Republican, Representative Devin Nunes of California, wasn’t much interested in that now-infamous call; instead, he most wanted to know who Williams and Vindman had told about it.
For the past three years, Nunes has used his perch on the Intelligence Committee—first as chairman and now as ranking member—to do Trump’s bidding. That continued this morning, as he used his question time to try to get first Williams and then Vindman to publicly identify the whistle-blower whose complaint set off the investigation that has become an impeachment inquiry into the president. Nunes asked both witnesses whether they had spoken with anyone in the press about the call. Both replied that they had not. Nunes then asked who inside or outside the White House each of them had spoken with in the immediate aftermath of the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. Williams replied that she had spoken with no one about it, so Nunes quickly moved on to Vindman, and that’s where it got interesting.
“Yes, I did,” he replied. “My core function is to coordinate U.S. government policy, and I spoke to two individuals with regards to providing some sort of readout of the call.” Both, he explained, were “cleared U.S. government officials with the appropriate need to know.”
Vindman said one of those individuals was Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state who testified last week. The other was “an individual in the intelligence community.”
When Nunes asked him to identify that person, Committee Chairman Adam Schiff interjected. “We need to protect the whistle-blower,” the Democrat said. “Please stop. I want to make sure that there is no effort to out the whistle-blower through these proceedings.”
He advised Vindman to be careful, and Vindman listened. After consulting his lawyer, he said he had been advised “not to answer specific questions about members of the intelligence community.”
After another minute of protest, Nunes moved on, but his ally Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio later took up the same line of questioning, with a similar result.
Both Schiff and Vindman have said they do not know the identity of the whistle-blower, but the exchange left little doubt that the person Vindman spoke with in the intelligence community is the one who ended up filing the initial complaint. The whistle-blower’s employment in the intelligence community was established in the complaint, which also said that the whistle-blower had heard about the July 25 call from multiple officials in the White House.
As of this writing, Nunes and Jordan were not successful in their efforts to out the whistle-blower, but their very public attempt—like the many tweets Trump has sent criticizing the person—could have a chilling effect on future whistle-blowers, who must decide whether to report wrongdoing up the chain of command. Indeed, that may have been the intent of the GOP effort.
Vindman did not file a formal whistle-blower complaint, but he did report his concerns about the Trump-Zelensky call and other meetings involving Ukraine to lawyers in the National Security Council. His appearance and testimony this morning made plain the risks he faced in doing so. Vindman is a decorated military veteran who was wounded serving the nation in Afghanistan, and is still currently serving in the White House even as he testifies against the commander in chief. Conservative loyalists of the president have used Vindman’s Ukrainian heritage—his family fled the Soviet Union for the United States when he was 4 years old—to question his loyalty. Shortly before the hearing began, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Army had made preparations to move Vindman and his family to a military base to secure their physical safety if necessary. And while the hearing was going on, the White House issued a tweet undermining the credibility of one of its own employees. The GOP committee counsel, Steve Castor, pressed Vindman to detail offers he rejected to become Ukraine’s defense minister. “I immediately dismissed these offers, did not entertain them at all,” he replied.
Vindman appeared, as is customary for military officers on Capitol Hill, in his dress uniform, but his nerves showed at the beginning of the hearing. If Taylor, Kent, and Yovanovitch were the polished veteran diplomats easily sharing their stories with Congress, Vindman seemed to represent the rest of us. His hands shook as he read his opening statement, and, speaking quickly, he omitted a few of the more vivid adjectives that were included in the written version he submitted before the committee. But Vindman did not deviate from the most powerful portion of his testimony, when he addressed his father—and by implication, the attacks against him—at the end. He noted that his father had fled a country, the Soviet Union, where he would likely have been killed for doing what his son was doing today. “Dad, do not worry,” Vindman said. “I will be fine telling the truth.”
A Democratic congresswoman, Representative Jackie Speier of California, told him later in the hearing that his testimony had “sent chills up and down my spine.”
Vindman grew more comfortable as the hearing went on. When he was asked what languages he spoke, he drew laughs when he replied, “I speak Russian, Ukrainian, and a little bit of English.” And when Nunes addressed him as “Mr. Vindman,” he corrected him. “Ranking Member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” Vindman told the Republican.
Nunes honored his request, but it did not stop either him or his Republican colleagues from their apparent goal: largely ignoring the substance of Vindman’s testimony and instead using him as a pathway to exposing the whistle-blower. Their pursuit wasn’t so much the truth as it was discovering how the truth got out.
A crucial piece of the Watergate scandal was the revelation that President Richard Nixon, paranoid about disloyalty in the government, had created a “plumbers unit” in the White House—a group charged with plugging leaks that ended up breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters and bringing down his presidency.
In 2019, President Trump seems to have found his own plumbers down the street—right there in the House Republican conference on Capitol Hill.