This week there was an unfortunate blow-up on cable news where Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, one of the witnesses against Donald Trump in the impeachment inquiry, was accused of having loyalty to Ukraine over the United States, since he was born in that country. This argument was unfortunate on two fronts. One, it ironically echoed the absurd and unfair charges that Trump and his supporters — and heck, in the case of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, anyone who doesn’t express complete fealty to Democratic Party elders — must be Putin’s handmaiden.
Two, while antisemitism almost certainly didn’t motivate any of the people who made this argument, the “dual loyalty” canard was unfortunate considering that Vindman and his family were Jewish refugees to the United States escaping Soviet persecution. John Podhoretz wrote a commendable article explaining why this was hurtful to American Jews. So to be clear, I do not call into question Vindman’s service, integrity, or dedication to protecting America.
However, I do think the issue of loyalty to America in a narrow but important sense is at the crux of many of the debates about Donald Trump and his administration. Trump’s presidency has been unfortunately defined by the emergence of senior government officials who are quite open about demonstrating loyalty to the administrative state, up to and including criminal acts and abuses of power, over the imperatives of a democratically elected president.
The people doing these things may even sincerely justify what they’re doing as motivated by patriotism, but that doesn’t mean these abuses aren’t being done at the expense of a vision of America at odds with what the people want. Even if you don’t like Trump, this is a huge threat to the rule of law and the legitimacy of federal governance in the eyes of American citizens.
A Bureaucrat ‘Consensus’ Versus the Elected President
With that in mind, an aspect of Vindman’s testimony against Trump did raise alarm bells. “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,” Vindman said in his opening statement. “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.”
What are the “consensus views of the interagency” in this context? Trump is accused of withholding aid to Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine investigating the (quite obviously shady) business dealings of a political opponent’s son. However, the aid in question was military aid to the Ukraine, including weapons, to help combat Russia.
Trump’s predecessor, Obama, was unwilling to give the Ukraine lethal military aid. In 2015, Sen. John McCain, not exactly a charter member of the Trump fan club, chastised the Obama administration for this. “The Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we’re sending them blankets and meals. Blankets don’t do well against Russian tanks,” he said.
Were federal officials in 2015 sounding the alarm about Obama defying the “interagency consensus”? Or was the interagency consensus different back then because the president sets policy, not the army of federal employees beneath him?
Now in some respects “interagency consensus” is a benign term of art within the federal government and, again, just because Vindman used the term this way does not mean he’s necessarily part of some fifth-column #resistance undermining Trump. But even as rhetorical matter it is very revealing.
Obstructing the President’s Platform that Voters Cosigned
Part of the reason the phrase jumped out at me when I read Vindman’s testimony was that I had seen it just a few weeks before. When Trump abruptly pulled out of Syria in early October, an article in the Washington Post criticized Trump’s decision for having “been announced swiftly, without warning, and in the absence of interagency consensus.”
If you’ve been following the news the last four years, Trump campaigned on getting out of Syria (and foreign military entanglements generally), got elected, got repeatedly stymied by cabinet officials and the bureaucracy on trying to disengage from Syria, and after obvious and not unwarranted frustration, finally pulled out abruptly, to seemingly everyone in Washington’s chagrin.
Lots and lots of reporting bears out that version of events. Trump may bear the costs of a rash decision, but it also seems true that the decision was rash because the “interagency consensus” would not carry out his wishes to create an orderly exit that best preserves our national security interests, and instead saw their duty as unelected Mandarins to be a counterweight to the president himself.
Although a less interventionist foreign policy is broadly popular, the general feeling in Washington is still aptly summed up by this 2017 Newsweek op-ed, “We Should Permanently Post More U.S. Troops Abroad.” How do we go about this? Well, according to the research professor of national security studies and Gen. Douglas MacArthur chair of research at the Strategic Studies Institute, “the Defense Department should strive for a strong interagency consensus on the importance of increased forward presence…” Even now we still have troops in Syria, so it’s mission accomplished for the interagency consensus, I guess.
New Scandals for a New Era of Big Government
In this respect, a big reason Trump’s presidency is so scandalous is that Washington has a very simplistic and unenlightened idea of what scandals look like. The size and governing structure of the federal government have changed radically in the last half-century, and yet, we’re still attaching the suffix “gate” to every new scandal 45 years after Nixon’s resignation. It’s easy to imagine a conniving White House villain ordering others to commit crimes for political gain. It’s not so easy for anyone to understand even the benign machinations of the “interagency consensus,” much less how it abuses its power and covers it up.
Recall the IRS scandal from the Obama administration. One of the ways the scandal was repeatedly downplayed was with the claim there was no involvement from the White House. As far as we know, that’s true. But tell me, what scenario scares you more: The president allegedly uses his power to instigate the investigation of a political opponent and immediately gets confronted by whistleblowers from within the government?
Or is it when federal employees with the power to ruin your life launch a broad-based attack on thousands of ordinary participants in the political process who not-at-all-coincidentally happen to be small government advocates, and they do this of their own initiative without having to be told what to do by the president because everyone is marching in ideological lockstep? And they further do this secure in the knowledge the president will defend what they’ve done as “not a smidgen of corruption” and that when they destroy tens of thousands of potentially incriminating emails under congressional subpoena there’s not a thing their victims can do about it?
Working for Government Doesn’t Make You Above Elections
Indeed, at every turn opponents of Trump within the government have been defended, often not because what they’ve done is defensible, but because of the false belief that service in the federal government is automatically ennobling and ipso facto makes someone trustworthy. Indeed, the desperate need to defend an administrative state reads at times like fan fiction.
For example, here’s The New York Times: “They Are Not the Resistance. They Are Not a Cabal. They Are Public Servants. Let us now praise these not-silent heroes.” The media have spent more than a year cooing about the anonymous op-ed writer who bragged “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” even though it’s impossible to determine someone’s credibility without knowing who he is.
You’d think after years of portraying James Comey as the height of moral rectitude only to learn that he and the rest of the senior leadership at the FBI exhibited lots of demonstrably corrupt, even criminal behavior, the media and Trump opposition would disabuse themselves of the notion of the inherently righteous civil servant.
Or the fact that former CIA head John Brennan — a man who lied to Congress about spying on them and played a pivotal role in spreading the defamatory Steele dossier throughout the government to undermine Trump — is openly coordinating efforts to have current government officials undermine the president. And now, the recent revelation of the identity of the whistleblower who set the impeachment inquiry in motion — who was previously fingered for leaks to undermine Trump — raises all manner of questions about his motivations. But the most useful myths are the ones that persist, so precious few questions are being asked of the institutional resistance to Trump.
The Same Standards Should Apply to Everyone
None of this is to say that Vindman and the rest of Trump’s critics are necessarily wrong or Trump is obviously innocent. Even though I have little confidence in the fairness of the process so far, all Americans have a vested interest in the truth and I do hope the real facts come out during the impeachment inquiry. The political chips can then fall where they may.
But it’s also clear that Trump was elected in no small part because tens of millions of Americans do not approve of business as usual in Washington, and specifically the lack of democratic accountability that can be brought to bear on the status quo. And Trump is enough of a natural disruptor that he threatens that status quo in both good and questionable ways. In response, lots of people in D.C. are willing to bend the rules to stop him.
Further, long before Trump arrived there was so much institutional pressure and money sloshing around in the federal government, not mention the trips through the revolving door between already well-compensated federal jobs and even better compensated special interests. Any responsible person ought dispense with the idea that civil servants are always, well, civil. And they ought to apply the same level of appropriate scrutiny and suspicion to federal employees in the news as we do politicians. At least with politicians we have ourselves to blame, but nobody elects an “interagency consensus.”