On Tuesday, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council staffer, gave his public testimony in the House's impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Unlike the witnesses who appeared before House investigators last week, Vindman listened in on Trump's extortionate phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this year, which made his account of the president's crimes especially compelling—and prompted Republicans in attendance to twist themselves into conspiracy-theorizing pretzels while attempting to discredit him.
Last month, Vindman made news after revealing that the White House's "transcript" omitted critical aspects of the conversation, including that Zelensky had specifically named Burisma, the company for which former vice president Joe Biden's son worked, and that Trump's references to "recordings" of Biden were conspicuously replaced by an ellipsis. At the time, Vindman attempted to flag these as errors that required correction. Instead, the White House placed the record of what Trump insisted was a "perfect call" on an ultra-classified system to ensure that as few people as possible would have access to its contents.
After House Democrats opened an impeachment inquiry into the Trump-Ukraine scandal in late September, they began taking testimony from Vindman and other key witnesses in a series of closed-door hearings. Immediately, outraged Republicans began deploying a variety of strident defenses of their party's leader. A gaggle of lawmakers led by Florida congressman Matt Gaetz argued that Democrats were using a secret process to undo an election, and even barged into a secure hearing room in the U.S. Capitol in order to make their point, even though many of them were on the committees running those hearings. Others pointed out that the people offering allegedly damning testimony in fact had only secondhand information about Trump's misconduct. Taking cues from the White House, still others insisted that the call record contains no evidence of impeachable conduct, and that this was all a giant waste of legislative time and taxpayer dollars.
With the inquiry's public phase now underway, though, Vindman's testimony about specific incriminating omissions of which he had personal knowledge disposed of all three of these lines of argument in short order. As a result, Republicans were forced to roll out a battery of new attacks during Tuesday's hearing—and to repackage some old standbys, too, to see if they'd still stick. Here are the highlights.
A "favor" isn't an "order"
Who said it: Utah congressman and U.S. Air Force veteran Chris Stewart
What he said: "Much has been talked about as we discussed between President Trump and President Zelensky and the word 'favor' being interpreted as a basis for impeachment," Stewart began. "You said in the military culture, which we're both familiar with, when a superior officer asks for a 'favor' of a subordinate, they interpret that as a demand...Your interpretation of a 'favor' as a demand is based on your military experience." After establishing that neither Trump nor Zelensky had served in the military, he concluded: "Would it be fair, then, to take a person who has never served in the military, and to take your evaluation of their words based on your military experience?"
What's going on here: Stewart is arguing that Trump's request for a "favor" could not have been a "demand" of Zelensky because Zelensky, who is not Trump's military subordinate, would not have interpreted Trump's ask for an investigation as an order. This bit of semantic gymnastics ignores the fact that Ukraine relies heavily on U.S. military assistance during its ongoing armed conflict with Russia. Similarly, when a mafia boss dangles a suspected informant from a penthouse balcony and tells the informant to do him a "favor" and never talk to a police officer again or else, no one involved believes non-compliance is a meaningful option.
Did it work? Three minutes later, Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley helped re-establish the obvious distinction between "favor" and "unlawful diplomatic coercion" that Stewart sought to eliminate. "It's one thing to ask somebody a favor, like, 'Hey, go pick up my dry cleaning,'" he said. "It's another when the commander-in-chief of the most powerful army in the world asks an ally who is in a vulnerable position to do him a favor."
The witnesses haven't used enough legal jargon
Who said it: Texas congressman John Ratcliffe
What he said: "The number of times that witnesses have been asked any question about whether or not President Trump's conduct constituted bribery—before Ambassador Yovanovitch was asked by my colleague, Congressman [Chris] Stewart, last Thursday—is zero," he said, gesturing to a stack of printed-out transcripts for maximum effect. "The number of times witnesses have used the word 'bribery' or 'bribe' to describe President Trump's conduct in the last six weeks of this inquiry zero."
What's going on here: Because fact witnesses have not drawn legal conclusions about Trump's specific crimes during their testimonies, Trump must not have committed crimes in the first place. Case closed!
Did it work? The role of fact witnesses, as the name suggests, is to share information about facts they witnessed. In an impeachment inquiry, lawmakers are the ones who decide whether impeachable conduct took place. Ratcliffe, who is a lawyer and briefly served as a federal prosecutor, just mixed the two up and hoped no one would notice. California Democrat Eric Swalwell illustrated the argument's silliness with a hypothetical in which a shooting victim identifies his assailant, but does not describe the shooting as an "attempted murder," and so the police let the assailant go. "Is that how it works in our justice system?" he asked. "That unless witnesses identify a legal part of the case, we just let them off the hook?" Vindman replied that although he is not an attorney, that is not is understanding of the law. His understanding of the law is correct.
Vindman's performance reviews weren't perfect
Who said it: Ohio congressman Jim Jordan
What he said: After thanking Vindman for his service to the country, Jordan read from the transcript of the testimony of Tim Morrison, Vindman's immediate supervisor. "Mr. Morrison said this: 'I had concerns about Lt. Col. Vindman's judgment. Among the discussions I had with Dr. Hill and the transition was our team—its strengths and weaknesses—and Fiona [Hill] and others raised concerns about Alex's judgment.'" Addressing Vindman directly, Jordan continued: "Your boss had concerns about your judgment. Dr. Hill had concerns about your judgment. Your colleagues hard concerns about your judgment. And your colleagues felt there were times when you leaked information. Any idea why they have those impressions?"
Also, the White House chimed in on Twitter, in keeping with its tradition of live-witness-intimidation during the impeachment hearings.
What's going on here: A good-old fashioned smear of Vindman's character that had nothing to do with the substance of his testimony, which is that he heard Trump abuse his power for personal gain, and then watched as the White House covered it up. Also, during the same testimony from which Jordan quoted, Morrison qualified his assessment by stating that he "want[ed] to be clear that" Vindman is "a patriot who has literally bled for this country," and that he simply believed Vindman was not "cut out for the policymaking process." Strangely, this detail from the personnel file did not make it into the GOP's talking point.
Did it work? This time, Vindman brought his own paperwork, reading straight from Hill's evaluation of Vindman from mid-July in his response to Jordan's question. "Alex is a top one-percent military officer and the best I've worked with in my 15 years of government service. He's brilliant, unflappable, and exercises excellent judgment," he said. "So forth and so on—but I think you get the idea."
Vindman didn't even know the president
Who said it: Ohio congressman Mike Turner
What he said: Just that. "You've never met the President of the United States, correct? You've never advised the president on Ukraine? You never spoke to the president and told him advice on Ukraine?" Vindman answered in the affirmative to all three questions, prompting Turner to deliver his punchline: "You do know this impeachment inquiry is about the President of the United States, don't you?"
What's going on here: Since Vindman didn't personally talk to the president, Turner seems to imply, his testimony about something he personally heard Trump say is therefore irrelevant. I say "seems to imply" here because, of course, there is no connection between the proffered evidence and the conclusion Turner draws from it.
Did it work?: To return to crime analogies, this reasoning is roughly the equivalent of arguing that because a witness who watched a murder did not know the person who pulled the trigger, the witness's account of what they saw with their own two eyes cannot be trusted.
Why is the military officer wearing a military uniform?
Who said it: Chris Stewart, again
What he said: Earlier during the hearing, when House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes addressed the witness as "Mr. Vindman," Vindman quickly and politely asked that the congressman use his military rank instead.
Stewart had follow-up questions. "Lt. Col. Vindman, I see you're wearing your dress uniform," he began. "Knowing that's not the suit of the day—you normally wear a suit to the White House....I'm curious, when Ranking Member Nunes referred to you as 'Mr. Vindman,' you quickly corrected him and wanted to be 'Lt. Col. Vindman.' Do you always insist on civilians calling you by your rank?"
What's going on here: Vindman's honorific preferences and sartorial choices might seem like non sequiturs. The insinuation, however, is that Vindman was trying to boost his credibility and inflate his importance by emphasizing his military background. It is part of a larger right-wing effort to denigrate Vindman, a decorated Iraq War veteran whose family immigrated to the U.S. from what is now Ukraine when he was a toddler, by questioning his patriotism and accusing him of harboring dual loyalties—a time-honored anti-Semitic trope. From his testimony, it seemed clear that Vindman had been affected by the vitriol he'd endured over the past several weeks. "Representative Stewart, I'm in uniform wearing my military rank. I thought it was appropriate to stick with that," he replied. "The attacks that I’ve had in the press and on Twitter have marginalized me as a military officer."
Did it work?: A U.S. Army spokesperson confirmed to CNN that Vindman was wearing exactly what they'd expect, since "a Solider performing duties in an official capacity will normally be in uniform." The GOP's performative lionization of all things troops, it seems, does not apply when a person in uniform is saying something they don't like.
Earlier in the morning, Vindman told lawmakers that he had urged his father not to worry about the consequences of testifying in the impeachment inquiry, and that he would "be fine for telling the truth." Shortly before the hearing ended, and after hours of attacks from Republican lawmakers, Democratic congressman Sean Patrick Maloney asked Vindman how he could be so sure. "Congressman, because this is America. It is the country I have served and defended," Vindman answered. "Here, right matters." At that, the spectators in the gallery burst into applause.
Whether it’s Paul Manafort or Hunter Biden and Donald Trump, Ukraine seems to play a disproportionately popular role in our nation’s recent controversies. Julia Ioffe explains why the same small country is increasingly involved in America’s political chaos.
Originally Appeared on GQ