November 16, 2019

Republicans and ‘Anonymous’ Get It Wrong

GOP panelists didn’t know what to do at the hearings, and the author seems not to be playing it straight.

A young foreign-affairs professional asked last week if the coming impeachment didn’t feel like Watergate. He was a child during that scandal, I in college. I said no, Watergate had the feeling of real drama, it was a reckoning with who we were as a people; it felt grave. This is more like the Clinton impeachment, grubby and small.

But watching the first day of hearings I thought that wasn’t quite right. There was something grave in it, and a kind of reckoning. This was due to the dignity and professionalism of the career diplomats who calmly and methodically told what they had seen and experienced. They were believable. It didn’t feel embarrassing to have faith in them.

Republicans on the panel didn’t know what to do. They know what this story is, and I believe they absolutely know the president muscled an ally, holding public money over its head to get a personal political favor. But they’re his party, they didn’t want to look weak, they had to show the base they had his back. In their interruptions and chaos-strewing they attempted to do some of what the Democrats did during the Kavanaugh hearings, only without the screaming meemies of Code Pink.

The Democrats were disciplined in their questioning and not bullying and theatrical, which was a surprise and unusual for them.

But the juxtaposition of the witnesses, the men of America’s diplomatic class, with the sullen, squirrelly, off-point Republicans, was what gave the hearing shape.

William B. Taylor Jr., acting ambassador to Ukraine, 72, was fifth in his class of 800 at West Point, where he was cadet battalion commander. Bronze Star, Vietnam, 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, 506th Infantry, Second Cavalry. After that, government work and diplomacy. He’s known for his modesty. You couldn’t be more impressive. Testifying along with him George P. Kent, younger and a different sort — studied Russian history and literature at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, speaks Ukrainian and Russian, 27 years in the foreign service.

They seemed to have capability and integrity. They weren’t deep state; they were old school, old style, not some big dope of a political donor, as all administrations have among their ambassadors, but the people who make it work, who maintain the standards, who keep it all up and running.

This is what I saw: the old America reasserting itself, under subpoena. They were American diplomats, with stature and command of their subject matter.

And the world was seeing it, and maybe thinking, “I remember them.” Older prime ministers and presidents in foreign capitals could be thinking, “I remember those pros, the bland Midwestern tough guys who knew their stuff. Good that they still exist.”

Quietly, smoothly, brick by brick, they gave their testimony and painted a picture that supports the charge that yes, Donald Trump muscled Ukraine.

* * *

To the week’s other attempt to make a case against the president:

I don’t like to beat up books, because they’re books; you can’t have enough data and argumentation and art; if you don’t like it, don’t read it. But “A Warning,” the White House insider exposé by “Anonymous,” is a poor piece of work, and something false at its heart shows a deep disrespect for the reader.

What we especially need in the political world now is guts, brains and sincerity. Anonymous does not offer them.

There’s nothing here that hasn’t already been said in a dozen books and a thousand articles. There is little first-person testimony telling us what the author saw, what was said, what happened, what it meant.

Halfway through I realized: Anonymous isn’t really hiding his identity, he’s hiding the major fact of that identity, which is that he is not a significant figure. The premise of the original article in the New York Times, of which this book is an expansion, was that he was a major player — a “senior official of the Trump administration” — who’s giving you what history needs, eyewitness testimony. But you get the impression the author wasn’t actually in the room where it happened, or not often. Not having new, first-person information he relies on high-class padding (thoughts on Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, the role of Congress) and style. The style is midlevel ad agency, clean but with no ballast. It is by the end irritating — shallow yet haughty, common yet pretentious, and full of clichés. His Trump “takes no prisoners” and “behind closed doors” damages “the fabric of our republic.” The president is historically and politically uninformed, inattentive in briefings, vengeful and dangerous, gets harebrained ideas, and says stupid things. Yes, we know. But you have to do more than assert.

Anonymous suggests he can’t be specific because it would blow his cover. But without specificity the work becomes contentless and devolves into mere rhetoric and polemic. And why not be specific and let people know who you are? It would make the truths you feel demand urgent expression more credible and concrete. There’s nothing dishonorable about thinking you are witnessing a catastrophe and telling the American people. But you have to look history in the face and take its punishments.

And in this case what punishments, anyway? You’ll be fired? You hate where you work! You’ll be insulted in tweets? So what? There are two Trump tweet lists in America, one with the names of those who’ve been attacked and the other with those who haven’t. The first is longer, and they’re still alive.

It is all so disguised, self-valorous and creepy.

Why was Anonymous there? He doesn’t really say. Since he saw the emptiness and danger early on, why didn’t he leave? “God knows,” he says, “it would have been easy.” He says he stayed because Mr. Trump is “a mess” and he wanted to help. But he gives no examples of how he helped. The fact is it’s hard to leave a White House. You’re unemployed, your office is gone, your old colleagues cool on you, and the neighbors are no longer impressed. Better to stay and simmer.

He claims “senior advisors and cabinet-level officials pondered a mass resignation, a ‘midnight self-massacre’ ” to draw the public’s attention to the White House disarray. But they didn’t go through with it. Why? “It would shake public confidence.” But diminishing public confidence in the administration was the point, no?

He refers to sensitive conversations that have not been declassified and vows not to speak of them — “such details have been omitted.” But it’s hard not to suspect he didn’t “omit” them, he didn’t know them.

“Trump wanted to use a domestic presidential power to do something absurd overseas, which for security reasons I cannot disclose.” Oh come on.

This book is as edifying as Omarosa’s White House memoir, but without the leavening air of insanity.

At one point Anonymous reports that at a Group of Seven meeting Trump threw some Starburst candies at Angela Merkel and said: “Here, Angela. Don’t say I never gave you anything.” I’d never heard that. That’s news! But I Googled the quote and there it was, rows of citations attributing the anecdote to Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group.

My only advice to Anonymous is for the good of your reputation, stay that way. And if you feel such heavy daily repugnance, leave already.

Republished by permission from

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