President Trump Has Found His Plumbers

RUSSELL BERMAN,
Last week’s Republican rallying cry on impeachment was “Hearsay!” By this morning, the focus had turned back to the whistle-blower who started it all.

The consensus GOP retort to the first three public witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry—Ambassadors William Taylor and Marie Yovanovich, and George Kent, a deputy secretary of state—was that none of them had direct, firsthand knowledge of President Donald Trump’s alleged attempt to condition aid to Ukraine on an investigation of his political rival.

When they arrived at the Capitol this morning, however, Republicans could no longer make that complaint. The witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee—Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman of the National Security Council and Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence—were both listening in on the July 25 call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do him “a favor” by pursuing an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

As it turned out, the committee’s top Republican, Representative Devin Nunes of California, wasn’t much interested in that now-infamous call; instead, he most wanted to know whom Williams and Vindman told about it.

For the last three years, Nunes has used his perch on the Intelligence Committee—first as chairman and now as ranking member—to do Trump’s bidding. That continued this morning, as he used his question time to try to get first Williams and then Vindman to publicly identify the whistleblower whose complaint set off the investigation that has become an impeachment inquiry against the president. Nunes asked both witnesses whether they had spoken with anyone in the press about the call. Both replied that they had not. Nunes then asked who inside or outside the White House each of them had spoken to in the immediate aftermath of the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. Williams replied that she had spoken to no one about it, so Nunes quickly moved on to Vindman, and that’s where it got interesting.

“Yes, I did,” he replied. “My core function is to coordinate U.S. government policy, and I spoke to two individuals with regards to providing some sort of readout of the call.” Both, he explained, were “cleared U.S. government officials with the appropriate need to know.”

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Vindman said one of those individuals was Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state who testified last week. The other was “an individual in the intelligence community.”

When Nunes asked him to identify that person, Committee Chairman Adam Schiff interjected: “We need to protect the whistleblower,” the Democrat said. “Please stop. I want to make sure that there is no effort to out the whistle-blower through these proceedings.”

He advised Vindman to be careful, and Vindman listened. After consulting his lawyer, he said he had been advised “not to answer specific questions about members of the intelligence community.”

After another minute of protest, Nunes moved on, but his ally, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, later took up the same line of questioning, with a similar result.

Both Schiff and Vindman have said they do not know the identity of the whistleblower, but the exchange left little doubt that the person Vindman spoke to in the intelligence committee was the one who ended up filing the initial complaint. The whistleblower’s employment in the intelligence committee was established in the complaint, which also said that the whistleblower had heard about the July 25 call from multiple officials in the White House.

As of this writing, Nunes and Jordan were not successful in their efforts to out the whistleblower, but their very public attempt—like the many tweets Trump has sent criticizing the person—could have a chilling effect on future whistleblowers who must decide whether to report wrongdoing up the chain of command. Indeed, that may have been the intent of the GOP effort.

Vindman did not file a formal whistleblower complaint, but he did report his concerns about the Trump-Zelensky call and other meetings involving Ukraine to lawyers in the National Security Counsel. His appearance and testimony this morning made the risks he faced in doing so plain. Vindman is a decorated military veteran who was wounded serving the nation in Afghanistan, but conservative loyalists of the president have used his Ukrainian heritage—his family fled the Soviet Union for the United States when he was four years old—to question his loyalty. Shortly before the hearing began, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Army had made preparations to move Vindman and his family to a military to secure their physical safety if necessary. The GOP committee counsel, Steve Castor, pressed Vindman to detail offers he rejected to become Ukraine’s defense minister. “I immediately dismissed these offers, did not entertain them at all,” he replied.

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Vindman appeared, as is customary for military officers on Capitol Hill, in his dress uniform, but his nerves showed at the beginning of the hearing. If Taylor, Kent, and Yovanovitch were the polished veteran diplomats easily sharing their stories with Congress, Vindman seemed to represent the rest of us. His hands shook as he read his opening statement, and, speaking quickly, he omitted a few of the more vivid adjectives that were included in the written version he submitted before the committee. But Vindman did not deviate from the most powerful portion of his testimony, when he addressed his father—and by implication, the attacks against him—at the end. “Dad, do not worry,” Vindman said. “I will be fine telling the truth.”

A Democratic congressman, Representative Jackie Speier of California, told him later in the hearing that his testimony “sent chills up and down my spine.”

Vindman grew more comfortable as the hearing went on. When he was asked what languages he spoke, he drew laughs when he replied, “I speak Russian, Ukrainian, and a little bit of English.” And when Nunes addressed him as “Mr. Vindman,” he corrected him: “Ranking member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” Vindman told the Republican.

Nunes honored his request, but it did not stop either him or his Republican colleagues from their apparent goal—largely ignoring the substance of Vindman’s testimony and instead using him as a pathway to exposing the whistleblower. Their pursuit wasn’t so much the truth as it was in discovering how the truth got out.

A critical piece of the Watergate scandal was the revelation that President Richard Nixon, paranoid about disloyalty in the government, had created a “plumbers unit” in the White House—a group charged with plugging leaks that ended up breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters and bringing down his presidency.

In 2019, President Trump seems to have found his own plumbers down the street—right there in the House Republican conference on Capitol Hill.