As far as I am aware, not a single important piece of new information emerged out of Thursday’s fourth day of impeachment testimony before the House intelligence committee. What began at a remove of several persons from both the infamous July 25 phone call and the persons of Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky moved closer to relevant events and individuals and passed them by again.
That does not mean that this (so far anyway) final round was free of either substance or interest. Whether Chairman Adam Schiff realized it or not, he saved his best witness for last. Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman was a self-important stooge. George Kent was a minor character from a Booth Tarkington novel. Gordon Sondland was a cornered weasel. What a relief it was to hear from Fiona Hill, the former director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council, easily the cleverest person to appear on Capitol Hill this week.
What Hill managed to do was to bring into focus the increasingly blurry outline of the events discussed by all the previous witnesses. With grace, quiet intelligence, and more than occasional humor, she gave a detailed account of the emergence of a private side-channel meant to operate outside the official limits of American diplomatic efforts in Ukraine. Out of the trees she finally gave us a view of the forest.
Hill was able to do this for the not-so-complicated reason that, unlike her predecessors, she seemed to be totally in command of her facts, her chronology, and her opinions concerning them. She anticipated lines of questioning — especially when they were skeptical — and was not afraid to give substantive answers that went beyond the narrow limits of the queries posed to her, but without pompous editorializing. At one point she was asked for her opinion on, of all things, negative coverage of fracking in the online publication formerly known as Russia Today. She responded with an interesting anecdote about how at a conference she once heard Vladimir Putin lamenting America’s resurgence in the global oil industry. For the first time in these proceedings I felt certain that the witness was someone who was actually qualified for her former position.
Even more striking was the total absence in Hill’s testimony of slavish deference toward the Democratic majority and its agenda shown by all of the other witnesses, including David Holmes, the former Ukrainian embassy staffer who appeared alongside her. When Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) asked whether she had been the target of a conspiracy theory launched by the “convicted felon Roger Stone,” she rather politely observed that at the time that he made the allegations in question — on Infowars, naturally — Mr. Stone was not yet a felon. When she went out of her way to praise Rick Perry, the former energy secretary whom she herself asked to travel to Ukraine in order to promote American interests, I could not but smile at the thought of the former Texas governor being considered an ace diplomat by such a stolid professional. Her refusal to play along did not, I think, betray any special fondness for the GOP. Indeed, I suspect that if she had been asked which candidate she would have preferred to come out on top in November 2016, no one would be surprised by the answer.
But, astonishing as it might seem in 2019, there are certain persons for whom there are more important things than partisanship. Not only large abstract concerns like honor and duty, but simple human ones, like courtesy and decency. I was especially struck by Hill’s story about a meeting in which she was forced to ask her Ukrainian counterparts to step out into the hallway, an unfortunately necessary bit of rudeness that clearly pains her even now.
One thing that came up late in the afternoon that had nothing to do with Ukraine or impeachment confirms these impressions of he character. When Hill was 11 years old, a boy lit her pigtails on fire while she was taking a test. She calmly extinguished the flames and continued taking the test. The unfortunate result was that she was given a bowl cut, which left her bearing, as she put it, more than a slight resemblance to Richard III. It was difficult for me not to see in some of Hill’s interlocutors the sort of ratlike face you would expect to find on a pigtail arsonist. No matter how many times they repeated their antics, she kept going with her test.
This is why by the end of the day Republicans had nothing to ask Hill, or at least nothing that they would have been happy to have her answer. Instead, Ohio Reps. Michael Turner and Brad Wenstrup made speeches that touched upon everything from Saddam Hussein to the shooting attack on members of the congressional baseball team that nearly killed their colleague Steve Scalise. She responded to this by telling them that their stories were all very moving. Jim Jordan repeated nearly word-for-word a speech he had given on Tuesday about Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation and Nancy Pelosi. She said nothing in response.
Was all of this this enough to close the feedback loop that the Democrats’ case for impeachment has become in the last two weeks? I doubt it. On the fourth afternoon of these hearings it might well have been too late for Hill or any other witness to make any impression on the voters Democrats would like most to reach.
Oh well. I have made no secret of my own contempt for these proceedings and my view that Trump’s apparent actions were, if not justifiable, of very little consequence. That doesn’t mean you should let Devin Nunes set your pigtails on fire.
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