In the wake of Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman’s testimony in one of Adam Schiff’s closed-door hearings on Tuesday, something is now clear. Vindman responded to a subpoena not because he had something to add about the 25 July phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky, but because he was willing to express a policy difference with Trump.*
This point is summarized in an astute observation by Joel B. Pollak writing at Breitbart today. Pollak picked up on the following in Vindman’s opening statement:
Vindman says that he became concerned in the spring of 2019 about “outside influencers promoting a false narrative of Ukraine inconsistent with the consensus views of the interagency.”
That concern for the fate of the “consensus views of the interagency” informed Vindman’s approach to the president’s contacts with Zelensky.
“The interagency” refers to the coordinated view on policy matters signed up to by the cabinet departments and agencies relevant to a policy issue. A process of interagency consultation has become standardized in the federal government over the last 40-some years, modeled primarily by the use of the interagency framework in national security policy-making. For the NSC, perched atop that particular summit, “the interagency” is a point of religious orthodoxy.
The disagreement between Vindman and Trump – whom Vindman acknowledges he has never spoken to – is conveyed succinctly in a few excerpts from Vindman’s opening statement, starting here:
When I joined the NSC in July 2018, I began implementing the administration’s policy on Ukraine. In the Spring of 2019, I became aware of outside influencers promoting a false narrative of Ukraine inconsistent with the consensus views of the interagency. This narrative was harmful to U.S. government policy. While my interagency colleagues and I were becoming increasingly optimistic on Ukraine’s prospects, this alternative narrative undermined U.S. government efforts to expand cooperation with Ukraine.
With “outside influencers” presumably starting with Rudy Giuliani, this is about the president using others to execute his policy because the interagency consensus funneled through the NSC calls Trump’s policy a “false narrative.”
Regardless of the president’s name or the content of his policy, we are justified in asking where the interagency consensus gets off doing such a thing. The interagency consultation process works for the president, not the other way around.
But to understand what’s going on, we need to shift focus to what the content of the policy is. The “impeachment” noise-machine wants us to focus on questions of method, as if it’s unconscionable, if not criminal, for the president to make favors to Ukraine conditional on performance by Ukraine.
But this is not about how Trump is making requests of Ukraine; i.e., using carrots and sticks. It’s about what he’s asking of Ukraine.
And there’s a crucial point to the correct definition of what Trump is asking. Accept no substitutes on this.
Trump isn’t asking Ukraine to start investigations. The investigations were already started.
Trump is asking Ukraine to continue with investigations that other Americans have blocked U.S. access to, and/or exerted pressure on Ukrainian prosecutors to drop (as the Obama administration reportedly did in 2016).
Trump is countering pressure that has gone against his policy priority. Any such pressure since January 2017 has been unauthorized because it didn’t come from Trump or any agent of Trump’s actual policy. Pressure from Trump or his agents is authorized, by definition, even if the agents include Rudy Giuliani. That authorization comes from the American people, who made Trump Pressurer-in-Chief on 8 November 2016.
But there’s a reason why the Americans who tried to block information from Ukraine, or pressure Ukraine to drop investigations, wanted the investigations dropped.
That’s the target Trump is over. That’s why he’s taking flak. It’s because there was a reason why some Americans wanted Ukrainian corruption investigations dropped, and the information from them stymied.
To an extent, the Biden angle is something of a distractor in all this, although it looks clearly to warrant investigation. It may or may not have been central to any collusion to interfere in the U.S. 2016 election, of which Ukrainian officials say they have found evidence. What needs follow-up is the reporting that Americans, up to and including the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, pressured Ukraine to not pursue evidence in that regard, or in the potentially related Biden matter.
U.S. authorities can follow up at home in our channels, and we can suppose that William Barr and John Durham are at work on that. But to understand the full scope of what happened, there must be good-faith investigation in Ukraine as well.
That is what some group of Americans apparently doesn’t want Trump to get.
And that’s what matters: that they don’t want Trump to get it.
The national security perspective
As an adjunct to that clear point, let’s add the following. What Trump has done in the big picture here is choose to set a national priority higher than the one the interagency consensus is assuming. The interagency consensus would say our priority is papering over any differences with Ukraine – no matter what they are – in order to make public shows of solidarity.
Trump is in effect saying the U.S. national priority is getting to the bottom of U.S.-involved corruption in Ukraine, starting with its connection to meddling in the 2016 election, but not necessarily ending there.
Trump can say that with perfect legitimacy, regardless of his interest as the candidate affected by the 2016 election shenanigans. If that kind of foreign collusion is going on, papered over and unaddressed, it is a national security emergency for the United States. It cannot be ignored in favor of what the interagency consensus prefers.
The counterargument of the interagency consensus is that if we don’t make specific shows of solidarity, our policy of supporting Ukrainian ties to the EU and independence from Russia will be undermined. Russia, it is said, will receive the wrong signal from our refusal to paper over evidence of corruption that extended even to our own national election in 2016.
But there are other ways to impress Russia. There are better ones, in fact, than looking like a passel of chumps, short-sheeted by the collusion of American and Ukrainian actors in 2016 and then railroaded into ignoring that.
For example, addressing ourselves directly to Russia when we want Russia to understand something is a bracing tonic. Trump hasn’t feared to use it, in matters from NATO security in Northern Europe to encroachments by Russian-backed forces in Syria, to missile and missile defense policy, Russia’s support for Iran, and – yes – sanctions on Russia related to Russian predation in Ukraine.
We can also do a lot with Ukraine – as we have continued to do – without bestowing the particular signs of untroubled solidarity demanded by the interagency consensus. We know, in spite of the media’s best efforts, that military aid has actually been delivered, without negative impact on Ukraine’s defense. We also know that it was made subject to review at a couple of separate points in 2019, based partly on concerns about corruption in Ukraine, and partly on defense-related policy issues.
Meanwhile, in overemphasizing the strategic significance of holding a presidential meeting with Ukraine – something there are impressive substitutes for, if the concern is sending signals to Russia – the “interagency consensus” is revealing itself as an institutional excuse to get around Trump’s policy.
There’s more than one solution to the problem of signaling Russia that the U.S. wants an independent Ukraine. The interagency consensus – which by now is sounding more like an oracle in occult than a policy product – seems to have ingeniously found a solution that mainly justifies blowing off certain corruption investigations in Ukraine. With “the interagency,” maneuvering desperately against those Ukrainian investigations looks like what’s really going on.
Trump’s not buying it. He’s over their high-payoff target. And he’s taking flak.
* For additional points of interest about this, on which I’d have to write a whole separate article, please consider the following:
- Others have noted that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn is an Army officer of sterling reputation and background, like Vindman. Vindman’s military status, apparently unblemished, is being used by the media to military-wash his testimony. The same media have relentlessly dismissed that as a factor in Flynn’s favor.
- Vindman’s boss at the NSC staff, where he arrived, according to his opening statement, after John Bolton had taken over as the national security adviser (in 2018), was Fiona Hill until she left in July 2019. That puts Vindman’s loyalty to “the interagency” in some useful perspective.
- Separately, other reporters have highlighted that Vindman’s testimony changed nothing for us in terms of the information from the transcript of the 25 July phone call. Examples below. Vindman acknowledged in his opening statement that that was the case.
Why we need interview transcripts: NYT, citing 'three people familiar,' said Vindman testified rough transcript 'omitted crucial words and phrases' from Trump-Zelensky call. Later said 'phrases do not fundamentally change lawmakers’ understanding of call.'https://t.co/UKfEgs73PG
— Byron York (@ByronYork) October 30, 2019
Stewart said Vindnam was actually wrong + had to be corrected in the deposition yesterday once bc something he thought was left out was 3 lines later. “He's not a court stenographer, and he didn't have a recording he's just taking notes, and he was comparing what he had written” https://t.co/151DjPCRDB
— Alex Moe (@AlexNBCNews) October 30, 2019