When it comes to Russia, I am with what Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman calls the American “policy community.”
Vindman, of course, is one of the House Democrats’ star impeachment witnesses. His haughtiness in proclaiming the policy community and his membership in it grates, throughout his 340-page House deposition transcript. I couldn’t agree more, though, with our experts’ apparent consensus that Moscow is bad, should be challenged on various fronts, and would best be seen as the incorrigible rival it is, not the potential strategic partner some wish it to be — the “some” here known to include the president. Ukraine, for all its deep flaws, is valuable to us as a check on Russia’s aggression, another conclusion about which the president is skeptical.
That is, on the critical matter of America’s interests in the Russia/Ukraine dynamic, I think the policy community is right, and President Trump is wrong. If I were president, while I would resist gratuitous provocations, I would not publicly associate myself with the delusion that stable friendship is possible (or, frankly, desirable) with Putin’s anti-American dictatorship, which runs its country like a Mafia family and is acting on its revanchist ambitions.
But you see, much like the policy community, I am not president. Donald Trump is.
And that’s where the policy community and I part company. It is the president, not the bureaucracy, who was elected by the American people. That puts him — not the National Security Council, the State Department, the intelligence community, the military, and their assorted subject-matter experts — in charge of making policy. If we’re to remain a constitutional republic, that’s how it has to stay.
I have abiding respect for the policy community. As a longtime assistant U.S. attorney who started out in international organized crime and ended up in international terrorism, my docket overflowed with cases steeped in foreign-relations consequences. To get through them, I needed the incredibly impressive human resources of the United States government. We have people whose depth in the history, culture, law, and politics of nations great and small is bottomless. In a matter of a few hours, they could even make a homebody lawyer from the Bronx sound like he actually knew something about the Afghan mujahideen.
Moreover, I believe Donald Trump would be a better president if, in conducting foreign relations, he relied more on the policy community and less on the self-perception of his exceptional skill in sizing up and negotiating with other heads of state.
All that said, though, Donald Trump is the president. It is he whom the American people elected to make foreign policy — a nearly plenary responsibility of the chief executive in our system.
As a candidate, Trump did not hide his inclinations. He wanted to prioritize good relations with Putin, a position to which I objected and about which I still have anxiety — not least because of the reprehensible rhetoric in which it has more than once been framed. Trump was explicitly dubious about NATO, and about our commitment to consider Russian aggression against countries in its claimed sphere of influence as aggression against us. He was determined to pull our forces out of the Middle East (while somehow also vanquishing jihadist safe havens there, and countering Iran). He doubted the value of multilateral pacts and organizations. While it was hyperbole to attach the “isolationist” label to him, he clearly wanted retrenchment, appearing convinced that foreign relations is largely a matter of America being taken for a ruinously expensive ride.
None of this was a secret.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton ran as the seasoned foreign-relations pro, the very embodiment of the policy community. She was going to be tough on Russia, work in unison with our European allies, and champion multilateralism. While no one could question her transnational-progressive leanings, Secretary Clinton’s dreadful record betrayed her pretensions to steel, scruples, and good judgment. The point, however, is that the 2016 election presented the nation with an unusually clear choice between different directions.
And the American people chose Donald Trump.
It is interesting to read the testimony of LTC Vindman (along with such other foreign-relations luminaries as this week’s impeachment witnesses: Bill Taylor, George Kent, and Marie Yovanovitch) at the same time that Nikki Haley is out with a memoir, Will All Due Respect (our Michael Brendan Dougherty reviewed it for NRO on Monday). The president’s former ambassador to the U.N. recounts being pressed by General John Kelly and Rex Tillerson — then, respectively, White House chief of staff and secretary of state — to join what she describes as their scheme to run the country, particularly its foreign policy, in accordance with what they, rather than the president, believed was in America’s interests. Trump was in over his head, as they saw it, so they needed to “save the country” from him.
There is a lot of that thinking going around in the policy community, such that my aversion to scandalizing it as the “deep state” is getting harder to justify.
Last week we learned that, at the start of Trump’s presidency, Mark Zaid, lawyer for the so-called whistleblower who launched the Ukraine controversy, gleefully tweeted that a “coup has started.” At the time, he was celebrating the insubordination of Sally Yates, the acting attorney general who had just been fired for defying the president’s lawful directives on immigration and border enforcement.
Yates thought Trump’s directives were bad policy. Policy is also the principal explanation for much of Vindman’s objection to Trump (as the Washington Examiner’s Byron York explains here). Policy is what created the irreconcilable differences that chased John Bolton and James Mattis from the administration. Policy — not purported extortion, quid pro quo, collusion, etc. — is the bone of contention between the president and the government that thinks it’s running him, not the other way around.
The government’s policy community has gotten so political, it has forgotten that its mission is to implement the president’s policies, not undermine them. It is vital to have a solid policy community because the responsibilities of the presidency are too varied and extensive for any single person to master everything. The president needs the experts’ knowledge and wisdom at the ready. Yet their job is to try to guide the president to good policy, not usurp his role. The president’s decisions carry the day. Bureaucrats are not free to substitute their judgments for the president’s. If they can’t accept that, the honorable thing is to resign, à la Bolton and Mattis. Remaining in place to countermand the elected chief executive is not an option.
We’ve moved way beyond that, though. Democrats are now scheming with fellow progressives in the policy community to achieve their three-year longing to impeach President Trump. Note that when Mark Zaid was applauding Sally Yates, he couldn’t resist adding that a “coup” had been spawned by an internal government “rebellion,” which he took as assurance that “impeachment will follow.”
Never forget: The coup is driven by policy differences.
The Left will tell you it’s not — it’s driven by lawlessness. But the Left treats all disagreement with its policy preferences as lawlessness. And when it can’t pull that off, it slanders the dissenters as outlaws. That’s how, with a Supreme Court slot on the line, a widely admired jurist with a peerless record of mentoring his law clerks, mostly women, into high professional achievements somehow becomes a serial rapist.
We don’t have to agree with the president in order to agree that he is president. We can fight against his policies when they are wrongheaded, but we can’t fight against his authority to make policy. That fight is what elections are for . . . not impeachments. Otherwise, American self-government — the accountability of the policy maker to the voters whose lives are affected — collapses.