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Monday, November 25, 2019

Giuliani initiative update

I have posted some additional information relevant to the weekend's post at the end of it.  See immediately below, the conclusion.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Giuliani Initiative

In my autobiography, A Life in History, I showed how real history—the study of national and international political events, based upon contemporary primary sources, within some framework of long-term political development—has fallen out of fashion, and how few undergraduates in  √©lite schools get any exposure to it.  That trend relates closely to others:  the decline of serious reading, the use of images rather than words as our prime means of communication, and our increasingly emotional political discourse.  Combined, these and other trends make it almost impossible for anyone—including, or perhaps I should say especially, journalists—to get their arms around complex events that take place on several levels at the same time. Such an event is what I am calling the Giuliani initiative—even though we can see now that this initiative very closely followed the whims of our unstable, fantastical President, Donald Trump.  In Congress, Adam Schiff certainly strikes me as a man who could grasp such a complex event, but he and his staff and colleagues didn’t make much of an effort to present it in all its complexity in the hearings that have just concluded.  They focused on about four months of the story—which in fact has been going on for at least 18 months, and probably longer than that.  Less than half of the scandal’s iceberg, I suspect, is visible today, partly because the Democrats want to move the inquiry forward very quickly, and perhaps because they don’t trust the public to absorb the whole story.

I have written what follows today, November 22, based on research right here at my computer over the past week or so.  As always, I have a number of other projects of various kinds going, and my research hasn’t been exhaustive.  But I think I have been able to understand the basic story and to identify additional that need to be answered—but which probably never will be in a systematic way.

The major players in the drama appear to be Rudy Giuliani, the former U.S. prosecutor [sic!] and mayor of New York who became one of President Trump’s personal attorneys during the Mueller inquiry, and two USSR-born associates of his, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.  Parnas and Fruman are now awaiting trial on serious campaign finance charges growing out of the 2018 midterms, having been arrested at Dulles International Airport about six weeks ago, as they tried to leave the U.S. on one-way tickets.  Parnas and/or Fruman have attended a number of fundraisers for Trump, and ten days ago, the Washington Post reported that at one such meeting, in April 2018, Parnas spoke to Trump and told him that Marie Jovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine, was unfriendly to the President.  One of the recipients of their contributions was Republican representative Pete Sessions of Texas, who in the spring of 2018 faced a difficult re-election fight, one that he eventually lost.  It’s not yet clear exactly when they began working with Giuliani to influence the Ukrainian government, but on May 9, 2018, Parnas posted photos on Facebook showing him posing with Representative Sessions. Just two days later Sessions wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arguing that U.S Ambassador to Ukraine Marie  Yovanovitch should be removed, because, according to sources that Sessions declined to identify, she had spoken negatively about President Trump.  “I have received notice from close companions that Ambassador Yovanovitch has spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current administration,” he said.  Although Yovanovitch didn’t learn about the letter for about nine months, a State Department superior told her after she was fired that Trump had wanted her out since the middle of the summer of 2018.  

Thus began a campaign that heated up over the next year, culminating in Yovanovitch’s removal at the end of April 2019.  Yovanovitch herself still does not understand why they targeted her, and I don’t either.  The campaign that Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman waged to get Ukrainian prosecutors to investigate the Bidens and promote the false idea of Ukrainian intervention in the 2016 elections had not yet begun.  Parnas and Fruman were also trying to arrange some profitable energy deals in Ukraine, and they later said that they thought she might block them, but since she had never heard of them, this claim doesn’t’ make a great deal of sense. In any case, this was the start of something big.   They may already have been in touch with another key figure in the story, Ukrainian prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko.  Lutsenko’s extraordinary political career, including prison time on dubious charges, can be followed in his Wikipedia entry.  In a surprise move in May 2016, the Ukrainian Parliament made him Prosecutor General of Ukraine, even though he has no law degree.  He was an old friend of the current Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, who had won election in 2014 on a reform platform and who according to Ambassador Jovanovitch had a mixed record in carrying out his promises or making major changes in the corrupt politics of Ukraine. And according to a Ukrainian press release, Giuliani had met both Lutsenko and President Poroshenko at an event in Ukraine in June of 2017. (Yovanovitch deposition p. 179.)

In the late spring of 2018, the Mueller investigation was still in full swing, and seemed very likely to end badly for President Trump.  Giuliani, representing the President, had evidently decided that the best defense might turn out to be a good offense.  Lacking to date a thorough investigation of any kind, we don’t know all the details of the campaign he waged with Parnas and Fruman to get prosecutor Lutsenko to announce, and open, investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden and into false stories of Ukrainian intervention in the 2016 election.  According to Ambassador  Yovanovitch’s deposition, however—which is much longer and more detailed than her public testimony—she eventually learned from a Lutsenko deputy that Lutsenko had met Giuliani for the first time in June 2018, just a month or so after the Sessions letter. Here, at the very latest, began a campaign to get Ukrainian authorities to announce the investigations that Giuliani wanted.  What the House Committee and the press seem to have lost sight of is that by March of 2019 that campaign had succeeded.  Only the defeat of President Poroshenko in two rounds of presidential elections in that month and in April forced Trump, Giuliani, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, working through some of the men and women who testified last week, to get the same commitment from the new President, Volodymyr Zelensky.  And that effort, we now know, would have succeeded but for the courageous acts of the anonymous whistleblower, whose complaint became public just in time.

In addition to the purported June 2018 meeting between Lutsenko and Giuliani,  Yovanovitch learned later that Giuliani had come to Kyiv to meet Lutsenko in January 2019, and that during their conversation, President Trump had spoken to them on the telephone.  (Deposition, p. 134.)  A recent Wall Street Journal article reports that Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman met Giuliani in New York in late January, and in Warsaw in mid-February.  Then, late in February, Giuliani came to Kyiv with Parnas and Fruman and met both Lutsenko and President Poroshenko, then facing a tough re-election fight.   In that meeting, sources told the Journal, they talked about Poroshenko visiting Washington, meeting Donald Trump, and announcing that he was opening investigations of Joe and Hunter Biden, and of supposed Ukrainian election meddling in 2016.  This was, of course, exactly what the administration later demanded from Poroshenko’s successor, but for some reason, nothing came of this idea.  Perhaps Giuliani knew that Poroshenko’s chances in the election were not terribly good, and that his commitment to help might backfire if he lost.  Meanwhile, in February 2019, Jovanovitch heard from the Ukrainian Interior Minister, Avakov, that Parnas and Fruman—whom she had never heard of—were working with Giuliani to get her replaced.  Giuliani had made contact with Avakov personally, but Avakov explained that he had cut the contact short because he did not want to become involved in American politics.  (Deposition, pp. 41-4.) He appears to be one of the few Ukrainian heroes of the story, and he is still in office.

The Giuliani initiative broke into the open in early March, with the first of a long series of articles by a journalist, John Solomon, on the conservative web site The Hill.  The frequently garrulous Giuliani recently gave more details of what was happening to the New York Times.  When Lutsenko met him in January 29 Giuliani refused a request to represent him, but put him together with “a professional investigator who works for my company,” who wrote a series of memos laying out Lutsenko’s claims against Biden, Yovanovitch, and others.  Giuliani said he gave them to Secretary Pompeo, who should certainly be questioned about this, and that he later heard that State had given them to the F.B.I.  Giuliani also admitted that he had given the same memos to John Solomon, a journalist who has worked for the conservative Washington Times, and was then writing for the web site The Hill.  Solomon is now a contributor to Fox News.  Postscript: On November 24, the New York Times reported that Congressional investigators have also secured a copy of the Giuliani memos.

Giuliani also reached into the House Intelligence Committee, and specifically to Devin Nunes, who fell from chairman to ranking Republican when his party lost the House a year ago.  CNN has just reported that Nunes and some aides took a trip to Vienna after the Congressional election and met a Ukrainian prosecutor--not Lutsenko, but Victor Shokin, the notoriously corrupt official whom the Ukrainians had fired at the request of Joe Biden and many other western leaders several years ago.  Parnas's lawyer revealed this meeting.  He also revealed that Parnas, one of Nunes's aides--a former White House staffer--Giuliani, George Solomon and several others had met a number of times in Washington during the winter of 2018-19 to discuss dirt relating to Ukraine.  In another bizarre instance of a media outlet's failure to google and find out what another major outlet has reported, the CNN story doesn't mention what Giuliani told the Times--that he, Giuliani, had given Solomon his information, which in turn had come from Lutsenko.  Nunes, of course, has been repeating the baseless Ukrainian accusations as if they were gospel all last week in the impeachment hearings, moving Fiona Hill to call him out for spreading a false Russian narrative--although not by name--in her testimony.  Nunes has refused to comment to CNN, but Parnas's lawyer has indicated that Parnas is willing to testify in return for certain guarantees.  In an earlier report, CNN said that during a White House Hanukkah Party last December at which Parnas and Fruman were photographed with Trump, Giuliani and Pence, Trump drew him aside and entrusted him with the mission of finding key dirt on Ukraine.  

Beginning on March 20, Solomon published a long series of articles in The Hill relaying various accusations from Lutsenko.  The articles read like interviews with Lutsenko, but Giuliani’s recent revelations raise the question of whether Solomon really spoke to him at all, or just put the words in Giuliani’s memos back into the Ukrainian’s mouth.  Lutsenko claimed that in his first meeting with Yovanovitch, the ambassador had given him a list of Ukrainians that should not be prosecuted. The State Department immediately denied this, flatly and unequivocally.  The same article reported, for the first time, Sessions’s 2018 letter suggesting that Jovanovitch be fired. In another article published on the same day, Solomon quoted Lutsenko to the effect that he was investigating Ukrainian assistance to the Clinton campaign in 2016, and specifically the release of the so-called Black Ledger including accusations against then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was then forced to resign, and eventually sentenced to prison in connection with large payments from Ukrainian interests.  Solomon tried to link this accusation to the origins of the Steele dossier and the Mueller probe.  On March 26, another long article claimed that  had stopped an investigation of a Ukrainian non-profit, The Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), which he claimed had ties to frequent Republican target George Soros.  The Hill on April 2 published a rejoinder by Ukrainian activist Daria Kaleniuk of AntAC, pointing out that the case against her organization had been closed months before  arrived, and that Lutsenko himself, no less, had labeled the prosecution “stupid” and “a shame.”  Then, on March 31, Solomon reported that when Joe Biden (as Biden had admitted) successfully pushed for the removal of a previous Ukrainian prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, in 2016, Shokin had been in the midst of an investigation of Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on its board.  Solomon quoted Lutsenko saying that he would be glad to give information on this episode to Attorney General Barr. Another long article on April 7 quoted another Ukrainian prosecutor, Kostiantyn Kulyk, to the effect that American authorities had refused to take any interest in information on all these subjects and claiming evidence that Joe Biden had put pressure on Ukrainian authorities to stop an investigation of Burisma.  (All Solomon’s articles are linked here.  )

As so often happens with accusations like these, they quickly found their way onto Fox News—most prominently on Sean Hannity’s nightly show—and Donald Trump, Jr., even repeated the accusations against  Yovanovitch in a tweet.  Giuliani seemed to have gotten what he wanted: Ukrainian authorities were reportedly confirming a whole slew of utterly baseless accusations regarding the 2016 campaign and Joe Biden’s role in Ukraine, while discrediting a career ambassador based on at least three completely false accusations.  Yovanovitch, meanwhile, was trying and failing to get high State Department officials to defend her in public.   Meanwhile, however, things went badly in the Ukraine election for Lutsenko and his patron, President Poroshenko.  After coming in a weak first in the first round of the elections on March 31, he lost in a landslide on April 21 to political neophyte Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and television star who played a parody president on a popular series.  Three days later, Ambassador Jovanovitch received orders to return home by the next plane.  When she got to Washington, a superior explained that officials had feared that President Trump might tweet negatively about her if she did not.

It is not clear who benefited from Jovanovitch’s removal at this point, unless Parnas and Fruman thought that they might more easily proceed with favorable business deals.  Giuliani however had no intention of abandoning his initiative, and even announced plans to visit Ukraine to meet with the new President and ask him to pursue investigations of Democratic malfeasance in the 2016 election and of the Bidens.  An astonished and horrified press reaction persuaded him to back off, but the initiative, we now know, was going into new channels.  Just last week, the Daily Beast reported that ex-Congressman Pete Sessions had been considered as her replacement, but instead, Secretary Pompeo appointed a career diplomat, William Taylor, as charg√© d’affaires.  Pompeo, having sacrificed a fine ambassador to Trump’s obsession, evidently refused to let Giuliani or the White House pick her successor, but this did not matter very much since the President was now turning Ukraine policy over the three amigos, European Union Ambassador (and Trump contributor) Gordon Sondland, special Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who apparently had some energy-related goals in Ukraine himself.  As we learned from Sondland on November 20, Trump told them to take their marching orders from Giuliani, and that is what they did.
The new Ukrainian President, Zelensky, was recently the subject of a long New Yorker profile detailing his television career and his connection to at least one major oligarch.  He had much less political experience even than Donald Trump when elected, and he now faced the problem of putting together a new administration while dealing with a continuing war with the USSR.  He was in no position to resist pressure from a major backer, the United States.  The three amigos immediately began pressuring him to begin investigations of Burisma (and the Bidens) and purported 2016 election interference, after which he might enhance his prestige by coming to Washington to visit President Trump in the White House   There is some evidence, however, that he might have immediately fallen in Trump’s estimation.  Vice President Pence had been scheduled to attend his inauguration in May, but Trump suddenly ordered him not to do so.  It turns out that the President’s calendar that week had included a phone call to Vladimir Putin and a White House visit from Hungarian ruler Victor Orban, neither one a friend of Ukraine or Zelensky.  That increased the pressure on Zelensky to prove himself a friend.

Sundlum, David Holmes, and Fiona Hill, in particular, laid out the key events of the summer over the last few days.  I do not want to rehash them, but merely to note two key points which, once again, have not gotten the attention that I think they deserve.  The first relates to the discussion between Trump and Zelensky in the notorious July 23 phone call.  The passage relating to the Ambassador reads as follows:

(Trump): “The former ambassador from the United States,· the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in .the Ukraine .were bad news, so I just want to let you know that. . . .”

(Zelensky): “. . . with regard to the Ambassador to [sic] the United States from [sic] Ukraine as far as I recall her name was Ivanovich [sic]. It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%.  Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the previous President and she was on his· side. She would not accept me as a new President· well enough.”

Zelensky’s comments look like a blatant attempt to curry favor with Trump, since, once again, they appear to have no basis in fact. Queried at length during her deposition,  Jovanovitch mentioned that the Embassy had opened up contacts with Zelensky, including meetings between him and herself, as soon as he made a strong showing in the first round of the elections so as to lay the foundation for a good relationship.  While her testimony suggested that she would have been glad to see Poroshenko continue in office, she also knew after the first round that he was almost certain to lose.  Meanwhile, however, Zelensky’s phrasing—“it was that great that you were the first person who told me. .”—certainly suggests that this was not the first time that he had heard Trump’s opinion.  Given that he was speaking Ukrainian and that the transcript does not claim to be exact, we cannot be sure, but both Jovanovitch herself and Adam Schiff wondered about this during her deposition (p. 174). She speculated that it might have been during Trump’s first congratulatory call, but the subsequent transcript of that one does not mention her.

The second piece of news that broke recently relates to the question of why the Trump Administration released aid to Ukraine, and why Zelensky never met the terms that Sondland and others had pressed upon him.  Zelensky had indeed promised to investigate election interference and the Bidens in the July 25 call, but that was not enough.  Sondland and the rest insisted upon a public declaration to that effect, and had even agreed on a venue, a CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria.  On November 21, David Holmes confirmed in public testimony that the Ukrainian government had agreed to do this in early September.  The New York Times had already reported this on November 7, noting that most Ukrainian officials agreed that they had no choice but to give in to keep the support of the US,  but added that the interview didn’t take place because the Trump administration released aid to Ukraine on September 11.  Zakaria, however, now says that he had met Zelensky briefly on September 13—two days later—and that at that time, the interview sill appeared to be on, specifically during Zelensky’s forthcoming visit to the United Nations.  It was the revelation of the whistleblower complaint about July 25 call in the Washington Post on September 18, Zakaria says, that put an end to the interview plans.

To summarize:  in the midst of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections—interference which, as Fiona Hill confirmed, hoped to win the election for Donald Trump—Rudi Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, tried to manufacture new stories about corruption involving the Ukraine, the Democratic campaign of 2016, and Joe and Hunter Biden.  He and his helpers Parnas and Frunan—now under arrest—managed to get prosecutor Lutsenko to announce exactly the investigations he wanted, and Fox News immediately blew this announcement into a major propaganda campaign in the spring of this year.  That also resulted in the dismissal of an Ambassador who had done nothing wrong.  Giuliani did not however manage to get a statement about the investigations from Ukrainian president Poroshenko, for reasons that are not clear, before Poroshenko lost the election to Zelensky.  President Trump promptly set up a new team to handle Ukraine, the “three amigos,” and told them to coordinate their work with Giuliani.  They began pressuring Zelensky to promise and announce the investigations he wanted, and he did promise them privately to Trump on July 25.  They continued to push for a public declaration and by early September Zelensky was evidently prepared to give it.  Only the revelation that a whistleblower had found the July 25th call sufficiently alarming to refer it to an Inspector General spoiled the plan to get a public declaration that would have put Zelensky firmly in Trump’s camp.   Meanwhile, Gordon Sondland made it clear that the whole second stage of the plot, at least, was well known to Acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney, Secretary of State Pompeo, and Vice President Pence.

Donald Trump, working through his attorney Rudy Giuliani, entered into a conspiracy with foreign officials to disseminate false information, first to counteract the Mueller investigation, and then, to help him in his re-election campaign.  They conspired to spread false statements about a career U.S. Ambassador and removed her from office as part of this plan.  They also put a hold on military aid to a nation at war to make sure they got what they wanted.  Gordon Sondland, who seems to have dealt personally with Trump as much as anyone over this issue, reported in the midst of all this that Trump didn’t give a shit about Ukraine, only about his political opponents.  Meanwhile, prominent members of Trump’s government had to go along with all this as well.  This is a story of a foolish, self-serving perversion of our institutions of government, designed to score political points by spreading lies and ensure Trump’s re-election.  It is characteristic of much of what the Trump administration does, and it is exactly the kind of high crime and misdemeanor that the founders put the impeachment clause into the Constitution to deal with.  A Republican failure to convict will tend to confirm that today’s Republican Party doesn’t care how the President operates, as long as he is a Republican, cuts taxes, and continues to staff the federal judiciary with conservative judges.  That is one aspect of the tragedy of our times.

Updates, November 25:

Devin Nunes has issued an hysterical statement complaining about the CNN reports that he met with Shokin in Vienna last November--but he did not deny the report.  Meanwhile, the New York Times this morning reports that  Petro Poroshenko, the last Ukrainian President, was indeed prepared to announce the investigations that Giuliani and Trump wanted when he was defeated in a landslide in his re-election bid last April.  At that point, Giuliani sent Parnas and Fruman to Tel Aviv to meet with new President Zelensky's main patron, a Ukrainian oligarch named Ihor Kolomoisky, who figures at length in the New Yorker article about Zelensky that I linked above. Kolomoisky declined to help them meet with Zelensky.  Last but hardly least, the story reports that when Parnas and Fruman were arrested on their way to Vienna last October, they were going to meet the discredited prosecutor Shokin, for whom they had arranged an interview with Sean Hannity.  So far, President Trump has not cited their arrest as an attempt by the Deep State to hurt his administration.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Echoes of an earlier time

Like so many other people, I felt I had gone through a time warp as I watched Ambassador William Taylor and George Kent testify two days ago.  These men had descended directly from the foreign service officers that I had known during my father's diplomatic service in the 1960s and 1970s and my own summer stints in the U.S. State Department.  In calm and measured tones, they put their particular job--encouraging the growth of a democratic Ukraine--into a long-term historical context.  They identified Russian expansionism as a new threat, similar to the cold war threats with which we had grown up. (The hearings also struck a powerful chord with me because Taylor appears to be my exact contemporary.)  Over decades they had accustomed themselves not to worry too much about changes in administrations, because both parties supported the principles behind these policies.   They also obviously believed in facts, and understood the importance of a detailed knowledge of foreign nations and their history, and of a sense of the long-term significance of political events.  They clearly felt very secure in their mission and their place in the world.

The contrast between them and the sycophants that now surround President Trump, such as Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, jumped off the screen.  They belong to the reality based community, and one can't work for Donald Trump without sinking into denial.  Yet I also felt that Taylor, Kent, and their colleagues in the bureaucracy now live in a bubble of their own.  The tradition they represent dates from a completely different era, one in which the American people cared deeply about our role in the world, followed it closely, and made real sacrifices for it.  That era is over, and our national security establishment has lost its connection to society as a whole.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, the American people became focused on war and the threat of war in Asia and Europe.  In September 1937 President Roosevelt warned for the first time that ongoing conflicts, if not stopped, would reach the western hemisphere.  After the fall of France in 1940, when many expected Britain to fall as well, nearly everyone recognized the potential threat to the United States itself, and Congress doubled the size of the Navy and instituted the first peacetime draft.  10 million men joined the military after Pearl Harbor, and in another three years American troops occupied Tokyo and Berlin.  The Truman Administration was determined not to throw away the fruits of victory, and the Marshall Plan, NATO, and even the Korean War strengthened democracies and other friendly states within the territory that the US had liberated and created a system of alliances.  The peacetime draft returned after the Korean outbreak, and for more than twenty years, young American men served all over the world.  Nightly news broadcasts frequently led with stories about conflicts and threats on other continents, as well.

In a great turning point in American history--one that I described in detail two decades ago in American Tragedy--cold war foreign policy led us to the disaster of Vietnam.  That turned a good portion of the Boom generation against US foreign policy, and brought the military draft to an end.  But as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, the post-Vietnam challenge to the principles of US policy never amounted to very much.  The establishment--and particularly the military establishment--learned that it had to defend  America's informal empire and fight Communist advances without large-scale deployments of US troops.  But cold war principles remained in force during the 1970s and 1980s, and seemed to be vindicated by the collapse of Communism in 1989.

In general, our national security establishment assumed after 1989 that the US could now pursue the same policies it developed during the Cold War, unhampered by the restraints of powerful adversaries.  We enlarged NATO in Eastern Europe and sponsored democratic movements on every continent.  A new turning point, however, occurred on September 11, 2001.  The Bush Administration self-consciously adopted a new mission parallel, in its eyes, to the struggles against Nazism and Communism:  the democratization of the Muslim world.  For a brief moment in the next couple of years, that mission fired the imagination of the American people, and liberal as well as conservative pundits eagerly signed on.  But the Bush Administration made no effort really to engage the American people at large in this new task, either with higher taxes or a new military draft.  More important, it embarked on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that it could never bring to a successful conclusion, meanwhile wasting trillions of dollars that the nation needed at home.

I have remarked many times here that despite its failures, the new Bush policies survived through the Obama Administration.  The war in Afghanistan continued, the war in Iraq halted but then restarted, and the Administration repeated the Iraq regime change experiment in Libya and tried to do so in Syria, with more disastrous results.   The financial crisis of 2008 did not shift Washington's focus away from these conflicts, but it certainly changed the attitudes of the American people.  And then, the election of 2016 showed that our political establishments no longer commanded enough popular support to elect a new president.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, our foreign policy establishment has soldiered on, trying to create a new American ally on the frontier of Russia.  This has involved Ukraine and the US in a new war--and I must admit that I, too, was surprised to hear that 13,000 Ukrainians have died in that war.  I do not think, though, that the average American knew until very recently that that war was taking place, or felt any personal stake in the outcome.  And even as I listened to Messrs. Taylor and Kent proudly talk about the progress Ukraine had made recently, I couldn't shake my doubts about the project in which they are engaged.  Democracy has not taken firm root in most of the eastern European states of the former Soviet empire, or in much of the former USSR itself.  The new Ukrainian President may, or may not, manage to do something about corruption in his nation.  And meanwhile, it has become much more difficult for the US to promote democracy, simply because our own democracy has fallen into catastrophic disrepair.  Men like Taylor and Kent have maintained a civic spirit and a sense of mission, but I'm not sure we can deploy it usefully in Ukraine at this point in our history.  They are artifacts of an earlier age--a status with which I too am familiar.  Only a genuine national project that engages our resources, our time and our attention can restore some of what that age gave us.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

The Impeachment Debate--a Barometer

Last week I attended a talk by General James Mattis (ret.), the former Secretary of Defense, at the JFK School in Cambridge.  General Mattis is a history buff, and he talked a great deal about how history can enhance your perspective and help you make better decisions.  His host was Prof. Graham Allison, the head of the school's applied history project, whose roots I helped grow myself about 40 years ago.  He also talked about the crisis in our democracy and the problems of tribalism and partisanship.  He did not specifically discuss his tenure as secretary of defense, although he alluded more than once to the great difficulty of making or executing any coherent policy in this administration.

I decided to participate in question time.

I began by introducing myself as a former member of the Strategy and Policy Department in Newport. "General," I said, "I share you concerns about the crisis in our democracy.  Recently it seems to have entered another phase.  During the next year, both the House and Senate and the American people will have to decide whether our President should continue in office.  One critical question bearing on their decision--and I don't think that it should be a partisan political question--relates to his intellectual and managerial competence and whether he is really capable of doing the job.  It seems to me that men like you, and General McMaster, and General Kelly, and Mr. Tillerson have a lot of information bearing on that point.  Whether or not you want to comment on this now, I hope that some of you will take an opportunity in the next year to make the information you have available to the Congress and the public so that they may make a more informed decision."  (That's a paraphrase but it is certainly very close to what I said.)

The general replied emphatically, making clear that he had already settled this question in his own mind.  The American military, he said, has a non-political tradition going back to the Newburgh conspiracy during the Revolutionary War.  It must not set itself up as some kind of Praetorian guard.  I certainly did not think that I was asking him to do that.  I suspect that if Donald Trump were a serving officer commanding a battalion in General Mattis's division, that he would understand that he had to be relieved, but he still feels that his years of military service debar him from exercising his rights as a citizen to pronounce upon his fitness as commander in chief.

General Mattis, then, refuses for his own reasons to enter into a discussion of whether Donald J. Trump can adequately perform the duties of President of the United States.  Yet the issue of why that question isn't at the forefront of our political discussion generally, and why it seems very unlikely that it will be the specific basis for an article of impeachment, goes well beyond his personal views of the duties of military officers.  It goes to the question of whether the citizens of the United States now have enough understanding of, or belief in, our government, to make it work effectively.  I feel more and more forced to believe--by evidence--that they do not.

The Constitution grew directly out of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the 18th century that held that human reason could, and should, order human affairs.  It also reflected the experience of the unwritten British constitution, which it incorporated in many ways.  Many of the words used in our constitution--including "impeachment"--can only be understood with reference to British precedents.  It also reflected the experience of Greek city states and the Roman empire, which the founders had studied, and which come up in some of the federalist papers.  Today, only lawyers--not students of history--know anything about British legal and constitutional precedents, and almost no one knows anything about the political history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Our fellow countrymen, I would suggest, do not know about this history of legislative inquiry as a check on executive power. They see only a war between a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican president in which they will take sides.

Our federal government as it evolved during the twentieth century is also a child of the Enlightenment, reflecting the idea that impartial bureaucracies can regulate our economy and provide public services that we all need.  Neither Donald Trump nor the Republican Party, however, still believes in that model of government, and the President does not even believe in the role of the modern foreign policy and defense establishment which has taken on so many responsibilities around the world.  The Republican party has been unraveling the achievement of the Progressive era and the New Deal for the last 40  years, and the Democratic party has joined in this process on crucial occasions.  Bernie Sanders, who must remember Franklin Roosevelt's death, and Elizabeth Warren, who learned about some of the problems the New Deal tried to solve during her legal career, still believe in this model of government, but how many voters do?  How many of them care that the Trump Administration is ignoring much of the bureaucracy and turning some of it--such as the EPA--into obedient servants of the corporate America that they were designed to regulate?  Going further, how many Americans--especially better-off Americans--have a real commitment to the public educational system that Betsy DeVos is trying to dismantle?  And how many of us believe in the interventionist foreign policy that has wasted so much blood and treasure and wreaked so much havoc around the Middle East since 2001?  That last cohort of skeptics includes yours truly.  Those of us who remain devoted to American ideals of politics and government are standing for what was, and what they feel could be again--not for what its.

Last but not least, in the last half century we have lost our belief in the superiority of reason, rather than emotion.  The emotional and moral restraint of the American people struck foreign observers like Tocqueville in the 19th century, and they saw it as critical to our democracy. In the civil war, the passionate, emotional aristocrats of the South lost to the more rational merchants and teachers of the North.  Now the screen has replaced the printed page as the primary medium of the circulation of information, and the educational system--especially at the highest levels--no longer forces young people to learn the experience of spending many hours with books.  Without the right training, few Americans can make sense of our complex government and our complex world. 

Donald Trump would never have won the Republican nomination, much less the general election, if a good majority of Americans still understood and believed in our system of government.  And because we now lack any non-partisan belief in our system of government, the impeachment inquiry will most probably lead to impeachment by the House, followed by trial and acquittal by the Senate.  20 Republican Senators would have to vote to remove him to reach 67 votes, and I do not see how that could happen at this point.  That will leave Donald Trump's fate--and the nation's--in the hands of American voters.  Elizabeth Warren remains my candidate, but I regret that she released a detailed plan for Medicare for all.  I support that policy in principle, but it seems very unlikely, in our current climate, that she can convince more than a small minority of voters, at this point, that she can make this happen and that it will be a good idea.  Some restoration of trust in our system and some sense of common national purpose must come before such a sweeping change, however right and necessary it may be.  The previous great crisis of our national life--the revolutionary and constitutional period, the Civil War, and the era of the Depression and the Second World War--played that role. Our own crisis has completely failed to do so.  We must begin the work of restoration calmly, patiently, and slowly.