I am back from a trip by river from Paris to Normandy, back to Paris, a train ride to Dijon and another river boat down to Arles. The beauty and history of France is a wonder to behold. Nice to be back. With all the wine flowing for tasting, I believe that the French have a deep devotion to history and protection to their grapes and wine, but I do believe that the California and all West Coast USA wines are more accessible and just as good, or better. While trying to keep up with some tid-bits of political drama, it really has been a momentous week for Individual 1 and his GeeOpie chums. The operations of a political mob boss are coming to light. This article goes to the heart of why things are changing. There are people, solid public servants, who are devoted and compassionate in their work, and are coming forth to speak truth to power. Should be an interesting road from here on out, as we see a semblance of Watergate play out.
The opening hearings on the Ukraine scandal demonstrated that mundane government processes and seemingly colorless bureaucrats are what keep our country going. It was these sorts of unknown public servants who maintained the executive branch functioning during Watergate — and are doing so now while our distracted president and his acolytes try to circumvent the rules.
The witnesses in the first week of open hearings were three lifelong career diplomats — on Wednesday, William Taylor, currently the chargé d'affaires in Ukraine, and George Kent, the senior State Department official on Ukraine; and on Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the career diplomat whom President Trump fired as ambassador to Ukraine because she got in the way of his private schemes.
While the three witnesses came across as unusually admirable, they're not atypical of their breed. They will endure only so much abuse or see only so much scandal around them before rising up in some way. All three testified in defiance of the president.
Mr. Trump cannot fathom such people, because they're not interested in big money or fame. The "bureaucracy" may seem sluggish, stubborn and unimaginative at times, but it also can stand as a bulwark against assaults on the laws and the Constitution by the passers-through who inhabit the administration of the moment. Mr. Trump made a big mistake by demeaning civil servants from the outset (his awkward, self-reverential speech to the C.I.A. on his first full day in office was an embarrassment and also an omen) and then setting about trying to make them irrelevant.
The problem for presidents who, in their frustration over the limits on their power, empower extragovernmental groups to carry out their extragovernmental policies, is that it usually comes a cropper. If Richard Nixon's "plumbers" hadn't been such stumblebums, botching every wayward project they took on, the Nixon presidency just might have survived its attempts to determine the opposition party's candidate for the next election.
In the case of the current scandal, the "three amigos" — Kurt Volker, a foreign policy expert who signed on as a special envoy to Ukraine; Rick Perry, the departing energy secretary who has close ties to the energy industry; and Gordon Sondland, a hotel magnate whose donations to the Trump inaugural committee helped him secure his job as ambassador to the European Union — usurped Ukraine policy from normal State Department channels, setting Mr. Trump's private whims against the stated policies of his government. Mr. Sondland appears to have known even less about Ukraine than he did about Europe before taking that job.
The three men seem to have reported to Rudolph Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer and a freelance provocateur. Mr. Giuliani, now under federal investigation in New York, has had his own business interests in Ukraine's natural gas industry. Under arrest are a couple of his sidekicks, Soviet-born Americans known by their first names, Lev and Igor, with substantial Ukraine interests.
Mr. Giuliani and the three amigos were reportedly part of the president's scheme to hold up $391 million in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine in order to wring from the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, a public announcement that he would order an investigation of Joe Biden and Mr. Biden's surviving son, Hunter, who took an ill-advised membership on the board of one of Ukraine's largest natural gas companies while his father was managing Ukraine policy for the Obama administration. (Numerous press investigations have turned up no actual misbehavior on the Bidens' part.) The fragile Hunter, who lost his brother, to whom he was very close, to brain cancer and has struggled with addiction, remains a Republican political target.
Mr. Sondland inadvertently provided the only real news on the first day of the hearings, when Mr. Taylor testified that a member of his staff overheard the president talking to Mr. Sondland when the latter called him on his cellphone from a restaurant in Kiev. Mr. Trump volubly asked how things were going in getting President Zelensky to announce an investigation of the Bidens. This linked Mr. Trump directly to the pressure on Ukraine. Later, it was learned that a second person also overheard the call. Mr. Trump's allies have also pushed Mr. Zelensky to look into the fantasy that the foreign interference in the 2016 election involved Ukraine, and not Russia.
But the hearings are less about big disclosures than about building the case, brick by brick, of why the president should be impeached. The Democrats have suggested various terms on which to charge him, and they're not yet united on that. Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested on Thursday that the charge should be bribery, since that's a constitutionally stated reason for impeachment, and it's a crime that people can understand. But this is a disheartening choice, because a more significant ground for impeachment is abuse of power, which isn't in the statute books, and it would apply to Mr. Trump's holding up the arms aid, among other offenses in this instance.
Yet, just a few days ago, Ms. Pelosi and others were talking abuses of power. A House Democrat advised me not to take too seriously the flurry of competing rationales: The Democrats haven't actually met to decide on a unified position, he said; that may wait until the Judiciary Committee draws up the actual articles of impeachment.
The Republican strategy of the moment is apparently to seal off Mr. Trump from Mr. Giuliani and the amigos' activities. Their attempts to engage in their specialty of disrupting hearings was swiftly shut down by the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, who was firm but fair, leaving them little to dispute. They've found it awkward to defend Mr. Trump since they know that squeezing the Ukrainians for desperately needed military aid in their war against Russia for his own political purpose is indefensible. Moreover, Mr. Trump has complained about their focus on process issues, continuing to insist, ridiculously, that his infamous July 25 phone call to Mr. Zelensky was "perfect." Regrettably, he may actually think it was.
Even the bully boy Republican dispatched to serve on the Intelligence Committee at the last minute, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, was of limited effectiveness. Mr. Jordan mainly yelled and spoke rapidly to throw off the witnesses. Nevertheless, some Democrats believe the Republicans managed to muddy the case against Mr. Trump in a couple of instances. The first was their complaint that the Democrats' sources of information were at best secondhand — though that has now been undermined by Mr. Sondland's eagerness to use his cellphone to call the president from a Kiev restaurant. The Democrats also riposted that Mr. Trump had forbidden people with firsthand knowledge from testifying.
A second disingenuous but somewhat effective argument, some Democrats conceded, was that the military aid has been released. This occurred within days of the committee's learning about the unnamed whistle-blower's report revealing Mr. Trump's phone call to Mr. Zelensky. Representative Jim Himes, a Democrat of Connecticut and leading member of the Intelligence Committee, told me, "They stopped doing the crime when they heard the sirens around the corner."
Oddly, Mr. Trump, whose awareness of what had gone on in Washington before he arrived seems quite limited, has in some ways followed Nixon's example, wittingly or not. Like Nixon, Mr. Trump's overriding drive was apparently to guarantee his re-election by trying to undermine the candidacy of his potentially strongest opponent. And a potentially strong opponent was an enemy to be preemptively "destroyed," rather than overcome within the conventional political arena. The two presidents, on the surface so different, were similar in other ways. Both had contempt for constitutional constraints and saw the other branches as nuisances to be overcome. Under both administrations, the very constitutional system of checks and balances was under assault.
My major concern about the current impeachment process is that the target is too small. While the president's constitutional misbehavior in the Ukraine scandal stands as a metaphor for his attitude toward government, it doesn't provide an adequate picture of his long list of abuses of power during his first three years in office. If the Republicans can confuse enough people by saying that the president is being impeached for "a phone call," then the argument for removing him will be like a house on stilts, with the stilts being removed one by one.
The argument of Ms. Pelosi and her allies that the target should be limited in the interest of time and clarity has its merits. But the great danger is that the legacy of this period will be that Mr. Trump got caught doing one bad thing rather than that he abused power across the board and wantonly violated the Constitution. The public is more than capable of understanding, among other things, that the president may have exploited his office to enrich himself, blatantly flouting the Constitution's emoluments clause.
One Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee told me that it would be hard to prove exactly how much money ended up in the president's pocket. But I'm not sure that some actual instances can't be proven. And I worry about the precedent set by focusing solely on Ukraine, an implicit view that other behavior — constant lying, redirecting government funds against Congress's wishes (such as building a phantasmagorical wall), sloppiness with government secrets, using the military for political purposes, encouraging violence against the press, and still more — was acceptable.
All because of the schedule? History is unlikely to remember the schedule.
Elizabeth Drew, a political journalist who for many years covered Washington for The New Yorker, is the author of "Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall."
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
- Kris Kristofferson