I have said this more times than I care to count, but it bears repeating after another gruesome day in Washington, D.C.: One of the great strengths of the modern conservative movement has always been its utter and complete lack of shame. Its adherents will say anything, no matter how contradictory or concocted or vile, if they think it will gain them an inch of tactical advantage.
Yet this axiomatic truth got dropped into a wood-chipper when desperate defenders of Donald Trump hauled out the slime buckets to prepare Trump’s Fox News fan base for the damning congressional testimony of Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. Vindman.
Fox News’s Trump-inspired attacks on Vindman’s character and patriotism inspired a notable backlash from congressional Republicans. The fact that several GOP officials clapped back at the propaganda wing of their own party is yet another bright, flashing warning light for the Trump administration: Being shameless just might not do the trick this time.
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Lt. Col. Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, was on the now-infamous July 25th call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that prompted the whistleblower report which got the impeachment ball rolling. Vindman testified on Tuesday that he was sufficiently disturbed by the content of that call that he repeatedly warned his superiors about it.
After the call, Vindman attempted to add key details of the call to the official transcript, but was rebuffed by the White House, which tried to hide the very existence of the call on a top-secret computer server (despite the fact that, according to Trump on Twitter, the call was “perfect”).
According to Vindman’s testimony, the crisis over Trump’s attempts to leverage Ukraine into investigating his political rivals by withholding military aid and an official meeting — the quid pro quo at the heart of the matter — was simmering well before his phone call with Zelensky.
On July 10, two Ukrainian officials arrived at the White House looking for their country’s missing aid money. What they found was a clown show, starring European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland and then-national security adviser John Bolton. Sondland was vigorously pursuing Trump’s quid pro quo “shadow diplomacy,” while Bolton was pushing back hard against it, and the whole thing erupted into a farcical shouting match in the halls of the White House.
Sondland “persisted in pressing Ukraine to commit to Trump’s demands, convening a second meeting even after a spectacular blowup in the West Wing,” according to New York Times reporting on Vindman’s testimony. “All of this played out before the confused officials from Ukraine, who came seeking to strengthen their standing with Trump and ended up witnessing events that are now at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry.”
When John “I Drink The Blood Of Corpses” Bolton is the hero of a story, that story is just awful, but here we are. Gordon Sondland was one of many Trump officials who took it in the teeth during Vindman’s testimony on Tuesday. One hopes he knows a lawyer with experience in perjury cases. Sondland needs to have that cat on speed-dial.
Little wonder that Trump’s media collaborators were in such a froth, especially after Trump himself gave them the green light to go for Vindman’s jugular. Before Vindman even arrived at Congress, Trump was tweeting about “today’s Never Trumper witness” without a lick of evidence or standing to question Vindman’s motives.
The assault began on Monday night after Vindman’s prepared opening statement went public. “Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest,” said Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “And, usually, they spoke in English. Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle on this story?” Not to be outdone, Bush administration torture architect John Yoo replied, “You know, some people might call that espionage.”
CNN got into the fun the following morning when one of their hired conservative commentators, former Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, smeared Vindman’s patriotism because he was born in Ukraine. “It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense,” said Duffy. “I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy, but his main mission was to ensure that the Ukraine got those weapons. We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from. He has an affinity for the Ukraine. He speaks Ukrainian. He came from the country.”
Never mind that “concern” over Ukraine’s defense is stated U.S. policy. Going after Vindman for being a Ukrainian immigrant bends the concept of shamelessness into bold new shapes. His biography is the kind of thing they build museums around. When he was a kid, Vindman and his twin brother were interviewed for a Ken Burns biography on the Statue of Liberty and the history of immigration in the U.S. The only thing missing from the footage is little Vindman holding a baseball while eating a slice of apple pie.
“I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America,” reads Vindman’s opening statement. “For more than two decades, it has been my honor to serve as an officer in the United States Army. As an infantry officer, I served multiple overseas tours, including South Korea and Germany, and a deployment to Iraq for combat operations. In Iraq, I was wounded in an IED attack and awarded a Purple Heart. I sit here, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army, an immigrant.”
Wham and splatter.
Hero-worshipping military personnel is often a sloppy and dangerous exercise in this day and age, but it is difficult to deny that Alexander Vindman is a pretty goddamn good advertisement for the very narrow sliver of immigration that even Republicans usually praise. The same conservatives who slandered him can be found groveling at the feet of anyone in uniform when it is politically expedient.
It is difficult to decide what is more surprising: The fact that Trump’s cable news ghouls went after Vindman in such a ridiculous fashion, or the fact that a slew of Republican officeholders actually summoned a splinter of integrity and pushed back.
Sen. Mitt Romney, Sen. John Thune, Rep. Liz Cheney, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and a clutch of other conservative notables defended Vindman’s patriotism against the vitriol pouring forth from Trump and his media supporters. Without doubt, they could have been more vigorous about it, but the fact that they did it at all is a sign that there may be limits to “mainstream” Republicans’ tolerance of Trump.
“Will Republicans on Capitol Hill trash an Iraqi War hero who was awarded the Purple Heart, when he shared concerns about America’s national security?” asked conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough via Twitter. “Is the Trump Personality Cult more powerful to them now than a war hero’s patriotism?”
There is a deep irony threaded through all this fluffy outrage — because of course there is — in that many if not most of these aghast Republicans were all too happy to attack the patriotism of veterans like Max Cleland and John Kerry when an election was on the line.
That, right there, is the blinking warning light which should make Donald Trump deeply nervous. Conservatives have proven themselves perfectly willing to slag military veterans when it has suited their purposes, as it did in 2002 with Cleland in Georgia and 2004 with Kerry and the swiftboaters. Alexander Vindman’s testimony on Tuesday was extraordinarily damaging to Trump — and when Trump and his network news defenders revved up the smear machine, some elected Republicans refused to toe the line.
Doing so did not suit their purposes. They call that a “tell” at the poker table. Has the power of unrestrained shamelessness finally found its limits? If so, that would be bad news indeed for the White House. There are, after all, many more witnesses to come.