This is a time of high drama in Washington, as Democrats and Republicans battle over perhaps the most contentious issue of all: the possible impeachment of the president of the United States.
They are coming to blows in an ornate congressional hearing room, where they are listening to testimony about Donald Trump’s alleged efforts to pressure the government of Ukraine to launch an investigation into a political rival.
Basically, it is a search for the truth about a president who deals mostly in lies.
But look closely and go beyond the political theatrics. There is a story behind the story.
It is the story of a group of dedicated public servants — career diplomats and military experts — who have been denigrated by Donald Trump since the start of his presidency.
These hearings have given them an opportunity to remove their cloak of anonymity and speak out. And by so doing, they are issuing a stern warning that all of us need to take very seriously.
They began to deliver this message at the very start of the public hearing process.
The first three witnesses were all lifelong career diplomats. William Taylor, who is currently heading the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, and George Kent, the senior State Department official for Ukraine, opened the hearings. Two days later, the panel heard from Marie Yovanovitch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until last May when she was removed by President Trump after a smear campaign orchestrated by his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
All three spoke in even, measured tones as they told the committee what they had seen and heard from their various vantage points. All three testified against the wishes of the White House.
Elizabeth Drew — a veteran journalist who covered the Watergate scandal of the 1970’s — described what happened in the hearing room this way in an essay for the New York Times:
“While the three witnesses came across as unusually admirable, they’re not atypical of their breed. They will endure only so much abuse or see only so much scandal around them before rising up in some way.”
The strongest words came from the witness with the softest voice.
Over the course of a long career in the foreign service, Marie Yovanovitch has served in some of the most difficult posts of all. She has braved bullets and violence in places like Somalia and Uzbekistan. But as one observer put it, her greatest service to her country may have been her appearance before the House Intelligence Committee.
Yovanovitch used the occasion to speak out on behalf of all the professionals in the foreign service and to make an emotional plea to the nation to understand and support American diplomacy.
Not the stuff of vindictiveness and political survival practiced by President Trump… but the real diplomacy that for so many generations has made this country a guiding light for the world.
Her message was blunt. She warned of a State Department “in crisis,” and an Ukraine policy “thrown into disarray” by the president.
“The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage,” Yovanovitch said. She then called on its top leadership — without mentioning Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by name – to “stand by the institution and the individuals who make that institution the most effective diplomatic force in the world.”
As she testified, Trump posted a tweet attacking her record as a diplomat, saying that “everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.”
Congressman Adam Schiff of California, the Democrat chairing the hearing, read the tweet back to her almost instantly. She listened to every word and then said the president’s words were “very intimidating.”
Intimidating, but not surprising.
From the very beginning of the congressional inquiry into his dealings with Ukraine, Trump has been on an almost constant Twitter rant, claiming that anyone who provided testimony that might add to the case against him was a “never-Trumper” — someone who would do anything to see him forced out of office. He has also talked about a so-called “deep state” — a cadre of career professionals within the Departments of State, Justice and the intelligence community that conspiracy theorists claim is working against him.
Morale is low at these agencies. In some quarters, concern about the fate of our nation is high.
That may be music to the ears of the president, who apparently listens only to those who say exactly what he wants to hear and do exactly what he wants them to do — no matter the cost to our nation’s security and reputation.
Those who stand in his way — like Marie Yovanovitch — become collateral damage.
And then there is this.
On the first day of the hearings, William Taylor — who was a soldier and military hero before joining the foreign service where he served in places like Kabul and Baghdad before Kyiv — noted that several of the other public servants that would be testifying were foreign-born.
“We are — and our national security is —better for it,” he told the panel.
One of these witnesses was Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman — a career military officer and an expert on Ukraine who was on detail to the White House National Security Council. He was born in Ukraine back in the days of the Soviet Union and brought by his parents to the United States as a child.
An Iraqi War veteran, Vindman appeared before the committee in his Army uniform, reminding the panel that “My simple act of appearing here today… would not be tolerated in many places around the world.”
The other naturalized American citizen to testify was Marie Yovanovitch — the Canadian-born daughter of parents who fled Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. As she was being bad-mouthed by the president on Twitter, she was speaking with love of her adopted home.
“My service is an expression of gratitude for all that this country has given my family and me,” she said.
Secretary of State Pompeo has refused to talk about the impeachment proceedings or the warnings coming from these career diplomats.
At a news conference, Pompeo said he was not going to “get into issues surrounding the Democrat impeachment inquiry” but added he was “proud of what this administration has done toward Ukraine.”
When asked about Trump’s tweet attacking Yovanovitch, he said “I have nothing to say.”
But others do… and sometimes their actions speak louder than words.
Consider the final image from Ambassador Yovanovitch’s day on Capital Hill.
As her testimony came to an end, members of the public who had packed that massive hearing room for a glimpse of history in the making, did something seldom seen at a congressional inquiry.
One by one, they rose to their feet and gave her a standing ovation.