AP Top 25 Reality Check: Pouring caution on that optimism

OP-ED: First round of Trump impeachment hearings was goons versus diplomats

Virginia Heffernan
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The current administration, it seems, has privatized statecraft in Ukraine. But don’t worry, my anti-corporate friends: This high-stakes diplomacy isn’t run by some monstrous global oligopoly like Ford Motor Co. or even Facebook.

It’s actually way, way worse than that.

Taking the wheel in Ukraine has been, no joke, the motley crew of that creepy little pop-and-pop, Fraud Guarantee. That’s the dubious outfit — even if you let the name pass — run by a ridiculous couple of goony Soviet-born flimflammers, now indicted, and the equally ridiculous Rudolph Giuliani, President Trump’s TV lawyer and fixer-breaker.

Let that sink in. Close your eyes like an om-ing yogi and, as they say, just be present to that truth.

It was bracing on Wednesday to see this whole nefarious cartoon through the eyes of actual statesmen: William B. Taylor Jr., acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, a top State Department official who oversees American Ukraine policy.

These men testified before the House Intelligence Committee on the first day of public hearings in the impeachment probe. Their dignified comportment, book-length CVs and decades of public service suggested that they don’t spend much time with the likes of Giuliani, whose negotiations former national security adviser John Bolton likened to a “drug deal,” according to a former Bolton aide.

Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is sworn in before a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/REUTERS/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

In spite of their patrician poker faces, Taylor and Kent couldn’t conceal the fact that they found Giuliani and Trump’s sleazy and dangerous shenanigans rather — unsavory.

As Kent put it, “It was unexpected, and most unfortunate, to watch some Americans — including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas — launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine.”

He went on: “In my opinion, those attacks undermined U.S. and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship.”

“Irregular” was the word Kent and Taylor settled on to describe the channel by which “some Americans” — Giuliani and Trump, with the Fraud Guarantee goons — circumvented existing foreign policy and tried to broker their own far-fetched and dirty deals.

But when Taylor and Kent got into detail, the channel seemed more like “rogue.” Or even “immoral.”

When Kent chronicled how the Fraud G crew (charged in federal court, remember) tried character assassination on his colleagues, he sounded incredulous. And it is hard to believe there was “an effort by Rudy Giuliani and others, including his associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, to run a campaign to smear Ambassador (to Ukraine Marie) Yovanovitch and other officials at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.”

In Kent’s telling, this caper sounded like a couple of dim-bulb bouncers at Scores trying to smear Tom Hanks.

The day offered plenty such occasions for incredulity. Indeed, disbelief inflected Taylor’s voice as he described learning from a staffer that Trump’s inner circle knew the president’s first priority was not Ukraine and U.S. national security but the ruination of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Like so many of the rest of us, Taylor seems perpetually startled that this country is led by a man who puts his narrowest and most venal self-interest above all else. In addition to the inhumanity of suspending military support for Ukraine as it tries to counter Russia’s occupation — which Trump and company apparently did in hopes of digging up something on Biden and the Democrats — it’s also injurious to the interests of the United States, all its citizens and our allies in Europe.

As he has in the past, Taylor made it plain how absolutely crucial he considers Ukraine in the effort to check the Kremlin’s expansionism. And the attempts by Giuliani to “gin up politically motivated investigations,” as Kent put it, have been “infecting” that sensible, strategic and humane Ukraine policy that Taylor helped architect.

While Taylor and Kent both seemed blessedly ignorant of the pinwheel-eyed conspiracy theories some of the Republicans on the committee tried to advance, they are not naifs. They chronicled in lucid, unsparing terms what’s now being called a presidential extortion scheme in pursuit of a personal vendetta. There was just no way to see their testimony as anything other than “very damaging” to Trump, as Chris Wallace said on Fox News.

And while Taylor and Kent seemed legitimately baffled by twisted GOP folklore about Ukraine and the 2016 election, they were also unflappable.

When, for example, they faced ranters like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee’s ranking minority member, each behaved like a professor confronted by a bellowing freshman: “Yeah, sure,” the ranters might as well have shouted, “so you have 50 years of experience in the foreign service between you, but have you seen this CrowdStrike subreddit!?”

That is to say, Taylor and Kent were by turns annoyed, amused and eminently tolerant. Like diplomats.