The impeachment of the republic

Over the last week or so amidst some illness, which led me to convalesce in bed for four days, listening to podcasts and watching youtube, and some insomnia, which led me to wake anywhere between two and six am, I have tuned into many hours of the impeachment hearings being conducted in Washington.

There appears to be no real case to impeach Donald Tump, however flawed or abrasive a character he may be. By contrast there appears to be clear evidence of corruption involving the Bidens and Burisma, and outrageous conduct by USA FBI, CIA and other officials, including, it is being reported, tampering with the evidence that initiated the whole Russia-Gate fiasco.

The impeachment hearings themselves are a travesty of a legal process. Distinguished constitutional scholars like Jonathon Turley and Alan Dershowitz have stated clearly that the impeachment case is narrow, has a poor evidentiary basis, has been rushed, and simply does not establish a crime. Turley says contemptible needs to be distinguished from impeachable. Dershowitz pleads for an end to the criminalisation of political differences. Dershowitz says:

“I’m a liberal Democrat. “And I’m on the side of Donald Trump on this issue… There’s no crime there. You can argue that maybe there is an abuse of the foreign policy, but there is no crime there.”

Alan Dershowitz, November 2019

Moreover, Dershowitz goes on to lament the descent of political discussion into a partisan chorus. Speaking of the various political commentators who misrepresent this poor legal process as clear legal verdicts, he says:

“They’re just partisan political operatives or spokespeople who just make the law come out the way they want it to. I’ve become very unpopular among my liberal friends because I’m telling it the way I’ve always told it.”

Alan Dershowitz, November 2019

It seems indeed the impeachment process is backfiring badly against its proponents and zealots. There has been a stunning loss of support in opinion polls for impeachment coinciding with the hearings, notwithstanding the extraordinarily biassed reporting from outlets like CNN. Indeed, support for Trump has increased, and Trump has come out fighting, urging a trial in the Senate. That removal trial, presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, will not be conducted as a show trial. It will not give credibility, as Adam Schiff ludicrously did, to the idea that hearsay evidence is superior to direct evidence. It will not be a platform for grandstanding pseudo-bureaucrats. It will almost certainly test the motives for the so-called whistleblower claim, the validity of concerns about the corruption associated with Hunter Biden, questionable conduct of officials loyal to the resistance to redirection of American foreign policy, and apparent collusion of numerous witnesses to the impeachment hearing in the cover-up of those apparent misdeeds. It could turn out very badly indeed: people in glass houses should not throw stones.

My impressions on the assessment of guilt or predictions about the ultimate political and legal outcomes from the impeachment process are not the only observations I have made on this impeachment hearing. In many ways, the Congress has set out to impeach the President, and accidentally found itself impeaching the republic.

It struck me that at the heart of the impeachment hearings is a breakdown in the institutional role and professional conduct of the public service, or the bureaucracy, in its relationship to elected government and the professional political class.

The Democrats sought to present witnesses who were true public servants, patriots, wrapped up in moving back stories. As the Washington Post put it in a headline following Dr Fiona Hill’s testimony: “Public servants use impeachment hearings to offer lessons of history and military service in rejoinder to Trump.” On the other hand, many conservative commentators cried that these witnesses are just resentful bureaucrats who mistakenly believe they set foreign policy, and bristle at direction by the legitimate authority – indeed, on foreign policy, sole authority – of the President. The weak evocation of the “interagency policy consensus” only confirms this judgement of the bureaucrats. It tends to support the argument that this impeachment hearing really is a response to a dispute over foreign policy within the foreign policy establishment. It may not be as conspiratorial as deep state theories, but it is certainly not high-minded principle.

There were some true public servants among those who gave testimony, and the most impressive was Kurt Volker. But not all of them. Too many betrayed weaknesses of personal ambition, status obsession, and intellectual vanity that can lead officials astray when they only mix among themselves, and begin to believe they are heroes of a Resistance. There was clearly much of this toxic personalisation of integrity, a strange fusion of conviction and presumption, belief in the high-mindedness of your own views and the low-rent nature of dirty politicians. Nowhere was this seen more clearly than in Dr Fiona Hill’s testimony – where “it became clear to her” from the hearings that she and her colleagues were pursuing the national interest and the President and others were pursuing a “domestic political errand.”

I was struck by the contempt of several of the witnesses. Alex Vindman, who clearly was considered by many of his colleagues as lacking judgement, bristled at the elevated member of Congress who did not use his correct title when questioning. There was the ever smirking David Holmes, who could not sustain his calm in response to the simplest questions. There was the always patronising Dr Hill who would regularly assume her role was not to give evidence about alleged crimes, but to teach the congressional members how to conduct foreign policy by her standards. There was the remarkable moment of vanity from Lt-Colonel Vindman where, he reported, despite his high-minded concern with the ethical behaviour of President Trump, that he was offered three times the role of Defence Minister of Ukraine, which he clearly felt he was entitled to, and his flush of pride in talking about showed clearly his lack of judgement. This surely was the closest any witness at this hearing got to bribery.

The most aggressive advocate of the career service view was Dr Fiona Hill, and perhaps it is right that her motives and ethos be subjected to the most severe testing. The fact is she is not a career civil servant at all. She was dropped in as a political appointee from the Brookings Institution, and lasted not very long. She was an anti-Russia zealot who showed little discernment. Memorably, within a week of the election of President Trump, she published an opinion piece that implied that Trump came to power with the assistance of Putin and with the following remarkable comparison:

The U.S. election came hot on the heels of the 99th anniversary of the Russian revolution (November 7, 1917)—the result was the contemporary American version of a Bolshevik revolution. Donald Trump rode a wave of popular anger against the establishment, promising to bring down the old guard and seize the White House [my emphasis]. Like the Bolsheviks, his campaign was big on slogans and short on content.
Maybe it takes a “Bolshevik” to know one—or rather, someone who knows what a Bolshevik, a revolutionary, thinks like. And among the handful of people who seemed to call this electoral outcome was Russian President Vladimir Putin. The reasons why are instructive.

Fiona Hill “Order from Chaos – Putin and the Kremlin are experts at reading the popular mood. And they were watching America” 11 November 2016

Just to read that back so it is clear – and let us remember this is written by someone with a PhD in Russian history – Fiona Hill just said that Trump seized the White House in the same way as the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. The only problem was there was no election in 1917, and the Bolsheviks closed down the elected Russian chamber with guns and guards when it was clear that had only minority support. Vive la resistance? Yet this coal-miner’s testimony was repeated unquestionably in the media as the views of an impartial and expert public servant.

The fact is she is not. She is another example of the penetration of patronage and partisanship into the ethos of governing. She has made a career out of her expertise and her biases. But she has not humbly served people of differing views. The same point might be made about the so-called whistelblower, Eric Ciaramella, who has had a baby career as an “intelligence analyst”, it would seem full of leaking, questionable dealings and partisan operations. Ciaramella was fired from the National Security Council for leaking, and now his poor conduct is being celebrated by some, and being investigated by the FBI. This is not the ordinary virtues of governing well. This is cowardly sniping by political operatives with no knowledge of institutions that truly matter.

One last observation about the dilemmas of the declining American state that have been exposed by the impeachment hearings: while the long difficult retrenchment of the American Empire proceeds, its foreign policy establishment will need to disentangle itself from a thousand private attachments of its bureaucracy around the world. This will be difficult, as local elites, as dual loyalty Americans, as representatives of institutions built around analysis of one enemy or another. Donald Trump’s historical significance will surely be that he is the first to initiate some retrenchment of American Empire, and he has encountered terrific resistance, perhaps even plots and conspiracies to remove him because of this very purpose. Just as the British Empire formed through multiple entanglements of local interests and political pressures, so too the American Empire will untangle its overextended network by overcoming these local pressures to deploy weapons, to intervene in domestic issues, to advance the interests of American business even if they are exposed to corruption or prosecution, and so on and so on.

In these ways, the most damaging backfire of the impeachment hearings may not been against the Democrats and their co-conspirators – although with the Inspector General and Durham reports that may well be the case. It has become not so much an impeachment of a President, as an impeachment of the institutions of the American republic and the Amercian Empire. When these issues are exposed in the Senate trial and through the criminal investigations of Justice Department officials, the real constitutional crisis will begin.

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