Impeachment Begins; Trump Panics as Facts Unfold

November 1, 2019

Even though it is becoming clear that Trump violated the Constitution, the partisan divide is only getting deeper.

Even though it is becoming clear that Trump violated the Constitution, the partisan divide is only getting deeper.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Well, as we all know, the impeachment vote is in the House and they are going to move ahead. And I actually can’t believe this is actually the third impeachment process I’ve been watching. This one’s really different in terms of the depth of the partisan warfare. The proceedings will happen now on the Intelligence Committee, then go to the Judiciary Committee, and that all begins shortly. And they allegedly will be open to the public–we’ll talk about what that means. And in the days leading up to this morning’s vote, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman’s testimony was really kind of amazing, in some ways, in tipping the balance in the inquiry for some. And others really attacked him–which we’ll talk about that–in the conservative media as being almost like a traitor, which is attacking his patriotism. We’ll talk a bit about that and the complexity of that with people who have pushed for this idea of an impeachment for a while, and others on the left who did not want to see the impeachment.

Now, though Vindman’s testimony was devastating to Trump, it continues an odd alliance–it seems to me, as I mentioned a moment ago–of progressives in the military and intelligence world. And what does that mean? The White House Republicans are calling this a sham and a partisan warfare is breaking out. And this could be a precursor, in many ways, to the coming election; what could happen there. Polls show us that our nation is deeply divided. We all know that. But swing states now seem to be swinging to opposing the impeachment. What does that mean, and why? How does that portend? If the polls are mixed, it could mean many things. And what just happens, and where will this take us? That’s what we’re going to talk about right now with our guests.

William Rivers Pitt is senior editor and lead columnist at Truthout. His most recent book is The Mass Destruction of Iraq: The Disintegration of a Nation: Why It Is Happening, and Who is Responsible. And we are also joined in our conversation today by Ryan Cooper, who is a national correspondent for The Week and his work has appeared in many publications: The Nation, Current Affairs, The Washington Post. And he joins us once again. And we’re also joined by Jeet Heer once again, who is national affairs correspondent for The Nation, who has appeared in The New Republic, The New Yorker, Boston Globe–too many others to talk about. And he joins us once again here at The Real News. And gentlemen, welcome. Good to have you all with us.

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT: Thank you.

JEET HEER: Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: So here we are. So let me begin. I just want to clear the air a bit about what any of us think about the facts that we’ve seen so far. And let’s open with this kind of Republican response to what happened this morning in this vote.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Because Colonel Vindman emigrated from Ukraine along with his family when he was a child and is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, Ukrainian officials sought advice from him. Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest. And usually they spoke in English. Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle on this story?

JOHN YOO: I find that astounding. And some people might call that espionage.

SEAN HANNITY: The whole thing, what we know, stinks to high heaven. We need to know if the tools of our intelligence community were once again weaponized and turned against the president of the United States of America. Who is the person that started this entire Ukrainian… what we now know to be a real witch hunt?

MARC STEINER: All right. So let me start by saying I apologize; I jumped ahead. But let’s jump into this anyway, this whole Vindman controversy and his testimony yesterday, and we’ll come back to the Republicans themselves. I mean, it seems–not to sound partisan about it–but almost this is kind of an unseemly attack against this guy’s character. What he said was clearly controversial, but that attack, basically calling him a traitor, that he’s working for the Ukrainians. William, let me start with you.

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT: Well, my immediate take when I heard all of that is that it reeks of desperation. There’s an old saying lawyers have that when the facts are on your side, you pound on the facts. When the law is on your side, you pound on the law. When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, you pound on the table. This is them pounding on the table. I don’t see many other avenues for them to take other than smear and innuendo, because neither the facts nor the law are on their side.

MARC STEINER: Ryan, when you look at what happened this morning with this, one of the things that this whole montage we just saw … I know a lot of men and women in the military­­… And I don’t know what Vindman’s politics are, where he stands on any of the issues–but picking up what Will just said, this really is kind of pounding on the table here. I mean, attacking a man whose family fled the Soviet Union because, as I’ve read from other people who knew them, because they were Jews fleeing antisemitism, they said, and came to this country. And then to be attacked like this. I mean, it didn’t seem like a very bright move on their part, at least in terms of how they want to influence global politics in America. Unless, of course, they’re speaking to the converted.

RYAN COOPER: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this is a guy who is a career national security professional, for whatever that means. Clearly a guy who has not ever previously evinced anything but loyalty to the kind of security apparatus. And in fact, actually appeared in a Ken Burns documentary with his twin brother about the Statue of Liberty, about how much immigrants love America because they get a second chance. I mean, it’s just the absolute, most preposterous attack, and of course validates a lot of antisemitic narratives about Jews not having real loyalty to the countries they live in. And the idea that it’s somehow suspicious that this guy from Ukraine who works in Ukrainian affairs for the government speaks Ukrainian is a mark against him. I mean, this sort of pathological American nativism and xenophobia, as if the slightest bit of knowledge about other countries or knowledge of even other languages, just how to speak them, is a mark against you. I mean, jeez.

MARC STEINER: Yeah, I know. It’s just very strange. Jeet, do you want to jump in on this at all? I mean, all three of you have kind of touched on this in some of your writings.

JEET HEER: Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I think it’s also important to understand there’s a long history of this. And for the American right-wing, party loyalty always trumps military service and patriotism. And it’s based on the idea that the political right, they’re the real Americans. And so, if you have a soldier, no matter how heroic, if they go against the political right, then they are a traitor. And it goes back to Joseph McCarthy attacking George Marshall, who planned the D-Day invasion and author of the Marshall Plan, and insinuated that he’s a communist. Or people will remember John Kerry and how he was swift-boated in 2004. Or Trump’s attacks on John McCain, and on the family, the Khan family. So it’s always a case that, for the political right, you’re an American if you’re lsoyal to them, and military service really doesn’t count.

MARC STEINER: Before we turn … Go ahead, go ahead, were you going to say something, Will? Was that you?

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT: I was just going to add Max Cleland in 2002 in Georgia to the list of casualties of this particular feted brand of Republican nativism. Yeah.

MARC STEINER: So before we jump into this Republican clip I want to show everybody so we can talk about that, I want to talk a bit about… Because this kind of picks up on… There’s a little bit of a theme here, that what’s happening in our country now when you have Vindman’s testimony, people like Vindman, and others who are career diplomats, people in the military, who seem to be coming out, ready to testify in this particular instance, and it is, clearly the military establishment and the intelligence establishment, the center of this country in some ways, in terms of politics, the political center, are really freaked out by Trump and are worried about what he represents. Way before this happened publicly, most people on the progressive side and many liberals were saying, “This guy has to go. And we need to investigate him, and impeachment is the way to go.” But now there’s this very strange confluence taking place in our country. And so, what does that mean? I mean, what’s the politics of that? And what is this seeming alliance–if, in fact, there is one–between progressive, and military and intelligence establishment? What the hell is going on here? What do we think? Jeet, why don’t you start?

JEET HEER: Well, I think one way to think about this is that we have to realize, when we’re dealing with whistleblowers, their motives don’t matter. What matters is if they’re telling the truth. In Watergate, the whistleblower, Deep Throat, was Mark Felt, who was not only a J. Edgar Hoover henchman, but was involved with some of the worst abuses of the FBI and the attacks on the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. And he was miffed at Nixon because Nixon gave the job of FBI head to someone he didn’t like. But that doesn’t matter. What matters was that Mark Felt was giving accurate information to Woodward and Bernstein. So I think it’s important to keep our eyes on the prize. I can imagine that there are people inside the CIA and the national security apparatus who have kind of dubious motives. They’re against Trump because they want to keep troops in Syria. But for the purposes of impeachment, what’s important is actually, is what they’re saying accurate? And if what they’re saying is accurate about what Trump did in Ukraine, then he should be impeached.

MARC STEINER: Ryan, you’ve been writing about this a bit.

RYAN COOPER: Yeah, no, I definitely agree with Jeet. Matt Taibbi had an article I thought was pretty misguided that was saying that this guy is–the previous whistleblower, who we still don’t know his identity–is sort of a fraud because he’s not being horribly mistreated by the security bureaucracy. But yeah, I think what matters is if what he says is true, as Jeet said. But I think, to your broader point about what this kind of, maybe a tactical alliance between the security bureaucracy and the progressive movement, entails is that there’s a confluence of interests. We could compare this to the Snowden revelations. And that was that the government’s running this Dragnet surveillance program, and they’re trying to collect basically everything on everyone all the time. But that existed, at least ostensibly, for the purposes of securing America.

That was the defense of it. And I think that those security people actually believe that.

But what you see from this guy Vindman’s testimony is that it is just absolutely undeniable that what Trump is doing with this Ukraine stuff is just furthering his own narrow partisan goals and committing tons of crimes. And so, that, for a lot of those folks, is impossible to swallow. And so I think you could just say that, in an ideal world at least, you would just sort of pocket that sort of tactical alliance. And once Trump is gone, then you go back to hashing out whether or not the security, the Dragnet surveillance, and all of that stuff is worth it. And I’m clearly on the Snowden side of that equation. But for the purposes of Trump, I don’t see really any problem with taking your friends where you can find them.

MARC STEINER: Will?

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT: Well, I would defer to Molly Ivins on the progressives inadvertently teaming up with the national security state, you dance with them what brung ya. I concur with everything my fellow hosts have said, but it also occurs to me that we could very… One of the things that I tend to believe is that, in this situation with Trump and just the serial monstrosities that have taken place during this administration, the part of the iceberg that you see above water is only 10% of the iceberg. And I strongly suspect that a lot of people in the national security apparatus of the country, the State Department and the rest of it, know a hell of a lot more than we do, and are compelled to act in this, or with whatever tools that are available, to see that this person is removed from power. Sometimes being an insider is not a bad thing. I would tend to trust their instincts on this.

MARC STEINER: So let’s go to where this partisan battle is going on right now, and let’s go to the clip I was going to show you earlier, which is the clip from Republicans and their response to this impeachment vote.

JIM JORDAN: Trying to put a ribbon on a sham process doesn’t make it any less of a sham.

ROSS SPANO: If we’ve learned anything from the investigation so far, we know the majority does not think due process is necessary. They don’t even think basic fairness is necessary. A yes vote on this resolution today gives a stamp of approval to a process that has been damaged beyond all repair in a blatant and obvious coup to unseat a sitting president of the United States.

DOUG LA MALFA: Instead of voting on and taking up the issues that matters to American people, we continue to chase this witch hunt trying to take down the accomplishments of our president, Donald J. Trump.

STEVE SCALISE: Speaker Pelosi needs to end this infatuation with impeachment and start focusing on the real problems of this country that are not getting addressed–like properly funding our defense, like passing a bill to lower drug prices. But speaker Pelosi won’t bring that package of bills to the floor because she’s infatuated with impeachment.

MARC STEINER: So here we have it. And I think that this is part of the political war that’s taking place at the moment. And you also have what the polls are beginning to tell us about how deeply divided this country is. When the polls are showing that maybe 50% or more of Americans are… around 50% support the impeachment process, a large majority believes that the process should take place but don’t believe in removing the president at this moment. And you can see the polls were also talking about things in the swing states, where most people in those swing states said that they’re focusing on for this coming election, are not supporting the impeachment. But there still is some wiggle room when you look at how they ask the questions and what could happen.

So this is actually a political battle taking place. Yes, Trump appears to have broken the laws that violated the Constitution in trying to negotiate with Ukraine to investigate another politician in the course of an election. And you can see that internal battle going on there in the halls of the White House that people have written about and talked about. But talk about this in this political sense. What is this setting up when you can see the deep divide taking place and how it’s being voiced by the Republican leadership? Will, why don’t you jump up on this one first.

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT: Well, I would push back a little bit on the notion that we’re a divided country insofar as, from all the numbers that I’ve seen, the hardcore Republican base is somewhere between 15% to 25% of the country, which leaves a rather large supermajority outside of that particular fence. I find that, I was listening to minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, I think the main talking point you’re going to hear from Republicans going forward is that, “Why don’t you let the people decide? Why are you doing this in an election year,” willfully ignorant of the fact that the reason why we’re all here to begin with is that Donald Trump was messing with people’s ability to have a free and open election process by trying to bring in a foreign power to foul up the process. It is a political process.

And I think the public portion of this exercise is about to begin. And before the public portion of the Watergate process was undertaken, public approval to impeach Richard Nixon was sitting at 19%. When it was done, public approval to impeach him was a 57%. We are, by most of the polls I’ve seen, somewhere around 48%, 47%, 49% in approval before the public process has begun. So I think those numbers are going to rise steadily as more and more people tune into these proceedings as they go forward.

MARC STEINER: So Ryan, let me go to you, and Jeet, please… And to kind of push this a little further. And I hear what you’re saying, Will. I mean, the polls are also talking about that there’s a solid 43% of people in this country that seems fairly unshakeable at this moment, that support Donald Trump and are continuing to do it. And I think that we’re kind of in an era where the partisan world is kind of much more glaring because the top of the government, the government itself, the Congress itself, is no longer just a game, a place for white men to enjoy each other’s company and disagree politically. There’s a real battle, it seems to me, for the soul of America, much like in the late 60s and early 70s. I wonder if, Ryan, pick up on that, and where you see this going.

RYAN COOPER: Yeah, I mean, you raise a good point in that I would certainly guess that the ceiling on impeachment is quite a bit lower than it would have been back in 1974 when the country was much less polarized, when you had a fair number of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. But I also think that you see the tactical benefits in this impeachment process of being confident and going with your feeling that you are doing the right thing, and pushing forward even if some narrow polls, before you start doing anything, are kind of unfavorable. Because Trump is clearly panicking about this. Republicans, as you just showed us, are ginning up these ridiculous excuses, like, “Why won’t Nancy Pelosi pass a bunch of bills,” that have 0% chance of passing the Senate, and, “This is a coup,” to go through the clearly spelled-out constitutional process, which has happened before, and they did it to Bill Clinton.

And it’s not even the trial portion of it, to vote on it in the House. That happens in the Senate. They’re just thinking about the most convincing talking points that they can sort of levy against this process, try to jam it up, because it’s incredibly embarrassing to them. And it makes them look terrible. And as we’re seeing now, it’s shaking loose lots of people from inside the administration who either have serious concerns about what Trump has done, or they’re just as scared of their own necks and they feel like Trump’s not going to be there for them. And so, they’d better get out while the getting is good. And so, I think this is definitely a net plus for Democrats. And that’s why they’ve … It seems to be proceeding quite quickly in terms of its scope and things that they are taking into account.

JEET HEER: Yeah, I agree-

MARC STEINER: This will not … Go ahead, Jeet.

JEET HEER: Yeah, yeah, I agree with that, that this is … I mean, everything that was warned against before the impeachment started has turned out not to be true. And the opinions have really solidified on the Democratic side. And I think intensity also matters a lot. If you look at Trump’s approval rating, the strong disapproval is twice the strong approval. That is to say there’s a lot of Republicans that are sticking with Trump because he’s a Republican. He’s their guy. And so, and that partisanship comes into play. And it’s in Trump’s interest, so that’s why they’re constantly harping on making this into a partisan issue.

But clearly, in terms confidence in what people are doing, the Democrats have the upper hand. And also, I think we shouldn’t just see this as a narrowly political issue. It’s also an issue of constitutional duty. If the president commits a crime as egregiously as Trump has, and Congress doesn’t proceed forward, then you’re basically saying that you’re not a country of laws anymore. A president can get away with crimes. And so, I resist the idea that we should just be looking at the polls. And I think that we have to look at what are the facts of the case?

MARC STEINER: No, if we were looking at polls back in the early 60s, we wouldn’t have sat in, in the South, or marched against the war. So I mean, that’s very true. So let me close with this. A former correspondent for The Real News, Aaron Mate, who also writes for The Nation now–and you and I talked a bit about this, Jeet–had this tweet. Let’s check out this tweet. And it’s talking about, of course, on the progressive side, there were a lot of angst about the whole Russiagate and more.

And Aaron tweets: “Dems want to impeach Trump for freezing military aid (that Obama refused to give) to compel probes of Ukrainian meddling (that did happen) & Biden (whose son did make $50k/month); all based on testimony from hawks who want to fight Russia in Ukraine. I don’t think it’s a winner.” Let’s talk about that for a moment. It’s a clear sentiment from people on the left. And what do we make of that? Where do we go with that, Ryan? Why don’t we start with Jeet this time, because he’s your colleague at The Nation. We’ll start with you, then we’ll jump to Ryan.

JEET HEER: There’s always divisions inside The Nation Magazine on these issues. And I’ll just say, I mean, for me, the key… I mean, one could debate the policy, is it wise to give this money to Ukraine or not? I’m someone who opposed the expansion of NATO in the 90s to include the Eastern bloc. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s happened is, in this case, money was allocated by Congress, and Trump was withholding that money to use it as leverage to get Ukraine to manufacture a case against Biden to say on CNN that there’s an investigation, in order to embarrass Biden. And I just think, if you have a president that does that, that uses the office of the presidency to smear his political enemies and is allowed to get away with it, then do you really have a constitutional republic anymore, or are you a banana republic?

MARC STEINER: Good question. Ryan, I’m sorry, go ahead, I cut you off.

RYAN COOPER: Yeah. I mean, this is a case of slate pitch brain gone completely systemic. Yeah, Jeet’s absolutely right that what matters here… And it’s very telling that Aaron and people like him, like Michael Tracy, they don’t mention the specifics of what Trump did because they’re totally unjustifiable. They bring in a bunch of unrelated stuff that… I mean, it’s related, but it doesn’t bear on what Trump did specifically. It’s about whether the sort of things that he was doing had other objectionable characteristics from a left-wing standpoint. Like is it cool for Hunter Biden to be trading on his father’s name to make $50,000 a month? Clearly not. But that doesn’t give Trump a license to commit crimes and undermine constitutional democracy.

And frankly, it’s fairly similar to the Republicans we heard before, not in terms of the content of the argument, but in terms of they’re just ginning up a lot of obviously loopy excuses to just say that the MSNBC liberals are wrong about everything. And then you just sort of reverse engineer your position from there. And it’s quite tiresome, frankly.

MARC STEINER: William, let me give you the last word for the day.

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT: I agree with my esteemed colleague from The Nation. Trump attempted to meddle with money allocated by Congress, to affect an election by bringing in foreign influence. You stick to the main tent.

MARC STEINER: Well, we have a lot more to cover in the coming months, obviously. I’m really looking forward to the writing you gentlemen will do and getting you back on the air with us. There’s a lot more to talk about. We’re just covering the surface today. But it’s just beginning, and we’ll see where this takes us and our nation. William Rivers Pitt, Ryan Cooper, Jeet Heer, I thank the three of you so much for joining. It’s been great to talk to you.

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT: Thanks, sir.

MARC STEINER: Keep on writing and challenging us. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. I want to thank you all for watching. Let us know what you think: positive, negative–whatever it is, I want to know what it is. Take care.