Maybe it was President Donald Trump’s mention of the Miss Universe pageant. Or his allegiance to the Kardashians. Or that the Ukrainian President loves his ass.
Whenever it happened, at some point during hours of hearings it became clear this was an impeachment inquiry the Trump era deserves: a high-low juxtaposition of damning testimony from serious people peppered with the absurdist footnotes of a madcap presidency.
In some ways, all impeachment proceedings become mirrors to their time. Bill Clinton’s, with its soap opera details and biological evidence, reflected the moral divide of the late nineties. Two decades before, Richard Nixon’s Watergate signaled a seedy end to golden postwar America.
As historians write their chapters on the country’s fourth impeachment proceeding, perhaps they will omit Trump’s disposition for morning grouchiness, revealed by the American Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
And maybe they will skip over the repeated, unexplained references to nude photos of the President.
If they do, they will fail to capture the essential strangeness of the story unspooling in the stately Ways and Means room, where witnesses have collectively described an untraditional president using his office for political gain.
Indeed, the oddities help get to the heart of what the impeachment proceedings are about: Trump’s distaste for presidential norms, his shunning of career professionals and his embrace of free-radicals the likes of whom have surrounded him for decades. They fill out the portrait of a president whose interests and attention are rarely where those who work for him want them to be.
The clash between those two worlds has fueled much of the public hearings, which concluded on Thursday. The ways they intersected prompted laughter and worry but mostly a combination of the two – itself a clean summation of the Trump presidency.
There was the way David Holmes, a career foreign service officer posted in Kiev, demonstrated with his hands how Sondland recoiled from his unsecured cellphone as Trump screamed his greetings on the other end of the line.
“He sort of winced and held the phone away from his ear, like this,” Holmes said, contorting his face in pain and making the movement over and over.
The story had a point; Holmes was attempting to explain why he could hear Trump mention “the investigations” on another person’s phone call, which was placed in full view of restaurant patrons and probably Russian surveillance agencies. Even those worrying aspects could not obscure the sense of ridiculous.
As Holmes was recounting his follow-up conversation, his voice took on a bemused pique after recalling Sondland’s claim Trump only cared about “big things” in Ukraine. “There was big stuff,” he deadpanned. “Like a war with Russia.”
Humor and the absurd
When Rep. Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, read the entire transcript of Trump’s April phone call with the Ukrainian President, he couldn’t avoid reading the part where Trump tells Volodymyr Zelensky how well his country fared in the beauty pageant he once owned.
“When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people. Ukraine was always very well represented,” Nunes read, quoting the President, before the 33-year veteran of the foreign service that Trump fired from her post in Ukraine began her testimony.
It was during that same phone call Trump’s aides had hoped he would raise the issue of corruption, a pervasive problem in Ukraine on which Republicans insist Trump is laser-focused. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified it was in his talking points.
Trump never raised it.
“The President could choose to use the talking points or not, he’s the president,” Vindman said. “But they were not consistent with what I provided.”
No one embodied the Trump era’s clash of cultures better than Sondland, who testified Wednesday with a perma-grin even as he was implicating Trump and his senior-most aides in a bribery scheme involving stalled US aid to Ukraine.
A rich man who didn’t really try to rebut the suggestion he purchased his ambassadorship with a $1 million contribution to Trump’s inaugural fund, Sondland described having a near-direct line to the President and a mandate to execute his wishes in Ukraine alongside a group he named the “three amigos.”
Their rapport was hardly the stuff of diplomatic cables. At one point, Sondland told Trump he could “tell the Kardashians you tried” securing the release of the rapper A$AP Rocky.
At another, he told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass.”
“Yes, it sounds like something I would say,” he confirmed to laughter. “That’s how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words. In this case, three-letter.” More laughter.
The contrast between Sondland’s testimony and the accounts of the careerists was stark. The foreign service officers, Pentagon officials and senior national security aides all relied on notes they took in real time, a practice instilled in them by trade that made them attractive witnesses for Democrats. Sondland, meanwhile, admitted that wasn’t his style.
“I am not a note-taker or a memo-writer. Never have been,” he told the committee.
The casual approach only seemed to underscore the difference between the presidency Trump is occupying and the government that officials are trying to sustain around it. It’s the difference between the Miss Universe pageant and the “hot war” raging in eastern Ukraine; a promise made to the Kardashians and a strong line on corruption.
The officials who appeared over the past two weeks seemed intent on continuing their serious work, even as it became clear over the course of the hearings that Trump either doesn’t care or pays it little notice.
For Fiona Hill, Trump’s former senior Russia adviser, the realization seemed to come in the very moment she was testifying. Perhaps inured to shock after more than two years in the White House, she appeared neither upset nor surprised about the discovery, which she described matter-of-factly on Thursday.
“It struck me when yesterday, when you put up on the screen Ambassador Sondland’s emails,” she said. “He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged.”
“I had not put my finger on that – at the moment,” she went on. “I did say to him, Ambassador Sondland, ‘Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.’ And here we are.”