We Need to Hear from the Whistleblower Now
As the latest public spectacle un-ironically displaces daytime soap operas, the picture is starting to become clearer. The people testifying aren’t there to save America. They are a group of neo-somethings inside the administration who disagreed with Trump’s Ukraine policy and decided to derail it.
It wasn’t likely that they meant for their plan to lead to impeachment when things began to move back in May, after then-ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was fired. Contrary to the president’s policy, she came with her own ideas, promoting confrontation with Russia over Ukraine and seeking more military aid. Bill Taylor was then installed as a figurehead in the embassy and Ukraine policy was taken away from hardliners at the State Department and NSC and handed over to America’s favorite knucklehead, Rudy Giuliani, and the inexperienced Trump appointee Gordon Sondland.
The bureaucracy called a Code Red. They were needed on that wall to stand against Russia. It seemed easy enough. Ukraine was off most of the public’s radar, so a few op-eds, maneuvers against Trump’s men, and a mini-coup over Ukraine policy would have worked just fine. John Bolton, who could have stepped in and told everyone to return to their seats or no snack time, was agog at the amateur efforts by Giuliani, and certainly no fan of a less robust Ukraine policy anyway.
Things got out of the group’s hands when Democrats, desperate for something to impeach on after Russiagate imploded, seized on the Ukraine controversy (the alternative was resurrecting the Stormy Daniels sleaze-fest.) An objection over policy and who would run it was transformed into a vague smatter of quid pro quo based on that July 25 phone call, using a whistleblower’s undergrad-level prank “complaint” as the trigger.
And that’s why the whistleblower is very relevant. He knows nothing first-hand (neither does anyone else, but someone had to go first). He is not anonymous; Google “who is the whistleblower” and you too can know everything official Washington and the media already knows about him. So no one needs to fret for his safety; no one needs to ask him any questions about the July 25 call.
Yet the whistleblower must be asked questions, starting with this one: how did this jump from policy disagreements among like-minded people (you, Vindman, Taylor, et al) to claims of an impeachable offense? Who engineered that jump? Was it Adam Schiff’s staffers who first met with you? (Schiff lied about that contact.) Or was it a partisan D.C. attorney who has been trolling Twitter since Trump’s election looking for someone to hand him raw material he’d lawyer into a smoking gun (an organization he is connected with had mobile billboards advertising for whistleblowers circling the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the National Security Agency)?
The answer is very important. How the whistleblower came to be at the ground zero of electoral politics will tell us whether this is a legitimate impeachment or a political assassination. The voters will have to judge that in about a year independent of the partisan decisions taken in the House and Senate (I explained the weakness of the actual impeachment case here).
The popular impression is that men like the whistleblower, Bill Taylor, and Alex Vindman are non-partisan, and there is some truth to that. They came up through a system that strongly emphasized service to the president, whomever that is. But it would be equally wrong to claim that they are policy agnostic; in fact, they are quite the opposite. They see themselves as experts who know better. That’s why they were hired, and under Obama their advice (for better or worse, they wanted to bring us to war with Russia) was generally followed.
They knew the Orange Clown was wrong, and they talked and texted about it among themselves. That’s okay, normal even. But it appears they came to see Trump as not just wrong but dangerous. Add in some taint of self-interest on Trump’s part, and he became evil. They convinced themselves it was a matter of conscience, and wrapped their opposition in the flagged courage of a (created?) whistleblower. Certainly if one hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.
With their televised testimony focused mostly on their disagreements with Trump’s Ukraine policy, and their own intellectual superiority, it seems such proclamations of conscience have more to do with what outcomes and policies the witnesses support and less to do with understanding that without an orderly system of government with a functioning chain of command, all is chaos.
The Trump-deranged public sector is overlooking the dark significance of serving officials undermining the elected president. They hate Trump so much that they are tolerating insubordination, even cheering it. That’ll bite America back soon enough. You don’t join government to do whatever you think is right; you serve under a chain of command. There is no Article 8 in the Constitution saying “but if you really disagree with the president it’s okay to just do what you want.”
I served 24 years in such a system, joining the State Department under Ronald Reagan and leaving during the Obama era. That splay of political ideologies had plenty in it that my colleagues and I disagreed with or even believed dangerous. Same for people in the military, who were told who to kill on America’s behalf, a more significant moral issue than a boorish phone call. But we also understood that the only way for America to function credibly was to follow the boss or resign, that we ultimately worked for those who did the electing.
So let’s hear from the whistleblower and all the witnesses about that—not their second-hand knowledge of Trump’s motivations, but their first-hand knowledge of their own.
Those who serve in government and the military are mostly decent people. Unlike in banana republics, they aren’t about to undermine the president for personal gain. But give them a crusade, tell them they are the heroes Mueller failed to be, and they will convince themselves anything is justified. Those impure motivations are what transformed the witnesses now driving impeachment from dissenters to insubordinates. Vindman gives it away, saying he twice “registered internal objections about how Mr. Trump and his inner circle were treating Ukraine” out of what he called a “sense of duty.” Duty to what? His own ideas on policy?
The not very anonymous whistleblower is only 33 years old, but of the mold. Ivy League, CIA, language guy, a Ukraine specialist who found himself and his knowledge embraced by Obama and Biden until he was cast aside by Trump. Taylor fancies himself the last honest man, shepherding U.S.-Ukrainian policy through rough waters, having been ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. Yovanovitch was a partisan, representing her own vision, not that of the elected leadership, because she was sure she knew better after her years at State. Best and the brightest. They were professional, seasoned—look at their résumés! That uniform!
If they came to be whistleblowers honestly, then were simply side-slipped into becoming pawns, they should be quietly retired, this generation’s Colin Powells. But if they are agent provocateurs, they need to be fired. That’s why we need to talk to the whistleblower, to understand that difference.
If this was all just a hearing on bad policy planning, it would make interesting history. If this was a long-overdue review of U.S. relations with Ukraine, it would be welcome. But as an attempt to impeach the president, it is a sordid, empty, brazen political tactic hardly worthy of the term coup. It sets a terrible example of what we will tolerate from the bureaucracy. It opens the door to political opportunism, and informs real would-be plotters (and Washington is lousy with them) how to proceed more effectively. It signals chaos to our allies and opens opportunity to our enemies.
There’s a fine line between necessary dissent and wicked insubordination, between conscience and disobedience, but that line is there and it appears to have been crossed. The attack is no longer about policy, on which Taylor and Vindman may lay some claim; it is about the president, and only the voters should have that say.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.