Glare of Donald Trump's possible impeachment puts faces of American bureaucracy on public view

Washington: They are, in a sense, the permanent, beating, bipartisan heart of the government of the United States.

They are deeply credentialed, polyglot, workaholic and respectful before Congress. They are graduates of Harvard and West Point, and veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. They take meticulous notes, are on key phone calls and give "readouts".

Of the dozen witnesses who have testified in the House impeachment inquiry, 10 are career professionals — members of the "deep state" that President Donald Trump derides — who normally toil far from television. But over the past two weeks of hearings, they have been enduring, if not enjoying, rare turns in the spotlight on Capitol Hill, at times in defiance of the White House.

They have put faces on a Washington bureaucracy often dismissed and disparaged. Their stories are compellingly human, uniquely American, often immigrant.

"I am an American by choice, having become a citizen in 2002," Fiona Hill, the former top Europe and Russia expert at the White House, and one of three immigrants among the 10, told the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. "I was born in the northeast of England, in the same region that George Washington's ancestors came from." As with other witnesses, she was eager to frame her service to the United States in terms of her immigrant experience.

"I can say with confidence that this country has offered me opportunities I never would have had in England," said Hill, the descendant of coal miners. "I grew up poor, with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement."

A similar note of first-generation gratitude came from Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council's Ukraine expert who testified Tuesday. He said he never could have spoken up about his concerns — that a phone call between Trump and the President of Ukraine was inappropriate — had his father not fled the Soviet Union four decades ago. On the contrary, he offered that as a reason he felt compelled to appear.

 Glare of Donald Trumps possible impeachment puts faces of American bureaucracy on public view

Fiona Hill, President Donald Trump’s former advisor on Russia and Europe (seated) takes a break from her testimony on Thursday. By Erin Schaff © 2019 The New York Times

"In Russia, my act of expressing concern to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions," Vindman said. "Offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life."

The theme carried unmistakable subtexts. Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, spoke of how undermined she felt when she learned of a smear campaign against her ostensibly because she was viewed as unhelpful to Trump — "bad news" in his words.

"What US ambassador could be blamed for harbouring the fear that they can't count on our government to support them," Yovanovitch said last week, in an opening statement that also included a chronicle of how her father fled the Soviets and how her mother grew up "stateless" in Nazi Germany. "Their personal histories, my personal history, gave me both deep gratitude toward the United States and great empathy for others like the Ukrainian people who want to be free."

The Republicans were not always impressed. Representative Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, made repeated references to the witnesses "auditioning" for the right to play in "the Democrat’s star chamber".

But an essential part of the witnesses refrain was that they have served multiple presidents, of both parties. Anodyne in some ways, the point makes a statement central to the identity of so many civil servants who populate every administration.

"I take great pride in the fact that I am a nonpartisan foreign policy expert, who has served under three different Republican and Democratic presidents," Hill told the committee.

Laura K Cooper, a career Pentagon official, said on Wednesday, "I have proudly served two Democratic and two Republican presidents."

William B Taylor Jr, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, let people know where he stood last week exactly three paragraphs into his opening statement. "I am nonpartisan and have been appointed to my positions by every president from President [Ronald] Reagan to President Trump," he said.

An uglier subtext questioned their patriotism. Vindman, who was born in Ukraine and came to the United States when he was three, faced doubts about what nation he was actually committed to serving. In that hearing, Steve Castor, the counsel for the panel's Republicans, pressed him about whether he considered accepting a job offer as the defence minister of his birth country.

Vindman said it would have been a great honour but quickly shot down the prospect. "I am an American," he said. "I came here when I was a toddler, and I immediately dismissed these offers."

Although none of the witnesses were angling for cable news gigs, by the close of the last hearing on Thursday, they had become unwilling symbols of the Washington "establishment" — tarred as embedded resistors by a president who is just trying to "shake things up".

In a sense, they have also become proxies inside a larger battle at the heart of the impeachment debate.

Molly Montgomery, a former foreign service officer who did not testify, said the hearings revealed a "huge gap between the reality that is experienced by public servants on the ground and the rhetoric in the political world".

Montgomery, whose last position was as special advisor for Europe and Eurasia to Vice-President Mike Pence, said she was heartened to see so many "everyday Americans" on social media express their appreciation, even awe, over so much of the testimony in recent days.

"The one silver lining here," she said, "is that the American people are getting to see firsthand that there are Americans who serve all over the world, under difficult circumstances. And that they are just as patriotic and just as admirable as anyone who wears a uniform."

Despite the aversion of the witnesses to anything that might suggest grandstanding or partisanship, it did not preclude some of them from expressing points of view. Hill was adamant on Thursday that she would not take part in any "alternative narrative" promoted by Trump and some Republican allies on the committee that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

"These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes," Hill said of these notions.

She issued a broader plea. "When we are consumed by partisan rancour," she said, "we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other."

Mark Leibovich c.2019 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Nov 22, 2019 09:30:26 IST


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