Last Friday morning a 57-year-old woman named Georgiana Platt was in a middle seat on a Delta flight from New Orleans to Atlanta. The plane took off as Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) gaveled in Day 2 of the inquiry. Platt tuned her tiny television to the testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who says corrupt foreign interests have manipulated the White House. About 20 minutes into the flight, Platt noticed that nearly every passenger in view had also tuned in. Holding up her Android phone, Platt took a seven-second video of the tableau: screen after screen of Yovanovitch, with rows of people listening through earphones.
“Don’t think I have ever been on a flight when EVERYONE is watching the same thing,” Platt tweeted, sharing the clip: a video of video, a small moment within a huge moment. It has since been viewed over 3.2 million times online.
Some Americans showed up to view the process in person, in Room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building.
Matthew Zipple, with a blazer that matched his sandy-colored mustache, was in the front row Tuesday, appraising committee members like warring packs of gorillas. A doctoral student at Duke University, Zipple had left Durham, N.C., at 10:30 p.m. Monday and arrived at the locked doors of Longworth at 3:30 a.m.
These politicians are “fundamentally different from you and I in the way that they make decisions,” said Zipple, a behavioral ecologist. “So they’re totally cold, calculating, rational decision-makers. . . . If that hurts other individuals, that doesn’t matter unless they’re relatives.”
Also in the front row, at one point, was an opinion journalist from California named Ben Bergquam, who was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat to signal support for President Trump through any of the seven C-SPAN cameras. In the hallway, during breaks, Bergquam spoke into his own camera about the “deep state working to undermine our sitting president.”
The deep state, it turns out, was composed of serious public servants with steady voices and practiced poker faces, who spoke of “memcons” and “bilats,” who quickly corrected a “yeah” in their testimony to “yes.”
At 10:32 a.m. last Friday, in a windowless office outside Wichita, a Trump supporter named Aaron Stigall volleyed a tweet about Yovanovitch: “I’m ready to re-hire this ambassador, just so we can fire her for boring everybody. Who cares? End this charade!”
Stigall, the facilities manager for a church, actually felt sympathetic toward Yovanovitch. But he didn’t feel she contributed any facts that supported the Democrats’ inquiry. Still, he kept a browser window tuned to the hearing — because he actually didn’t find it boring.
“I like trying to figure out the point of orders and all that stuff,” Stigall said. “It’s fireworks, so it’s fun to watch.”
The concluding segment of Yovanovitch’s opening statement — “As I close, let me be clear on who we are and how we serve this country” — ricocheted through Facebook feeds of current and former State Department employees. It electrified the weekend’s centennial celebration for the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Laura Kennedy, who was appointed ambassador to Turkmenistan by George W. Bush, was at an arms-control conference last Friday on 18th Street NW. She stole glances at her phone throughout the day as Yovanovitch testified; when Kennedy saw a clip on Twitter of the former ambassador being applauded in the hearing room, she passed it around to fellow attendees. They’d never seen anything like it.
None of us have seen anything exactly like this.
But history offers some relevant testimony.
“He has not yielded to advice, to counsel, to anything but the dictates of his own judgment or the promptings of his own will,” the New York Times wrote in 1868 about Andrew Johnson, the first U.S. president to be impeached.
In May 1973, at the beginning of the impeachment inquiry into Richard M. Nixon, Republican congressmen visited the Oval Office and were “deeply disturbed by Nixonian detachment from the Watergate wreckage,” wrote Rowland Evans and Robert Novak in The Washington Post.
“The American people are being railroaded,” said Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) in 1998, at a similar point in the impeachment inquiry into Bill Clinton.
Now, as the witnesses cycled through Longworth 1100, Watergate fixture John Dean was punditing on CNN. Clinton inquisitor Ken Starr was punditing on Fox News. TV ratings exceeded those of the Benghazi hearings in 2015, but not of the Watergate hearings in 1973. Republicans on the committee described the inquiry into Trump as an attempted coup, presented in theatrical acts, with the title “impeachapalooza.” Democrats used phrases like “continuum of insidiousness.” The Republican counsel, at one point, tried to distinguish between what was “irregular” and what was “outlandish” about the Ukraine affair. That exercise could be applied to other goings-on in Washington this past week:
Exhibit A: Last Friday, a failed Maryland congressional candidate who has publicly compared Black Lives Matter to satanism and yet somehow obtained clearance to be at the White House blew a ram’s horn near the West Wing to lament the felony conviction of Trump confidant Roger Stone.
Exhibit B: On Saturday, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro praised Trump as “almost superhuman” just hours after he was spirited to the hospital for an unannounced medical visit.
Exhibit C: On Sunday, Yovanovitch, whom the president attacked on Twitter during her testimony, received a hero’s welcome at a jazz club in Georgetown — an impromptu public ovation that is rarely, if ever, bestowed on a former ambassador in an informal setting.
Irregular, or outlandish?
Maybe “unbelievable,” according to retired Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli. On Tuesday, in Seattle, Chiarelli watched and listened to Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony over an oatmeal breakfast at his condo, then while driving to an appointment, then during a haircut in the barber’s chair. When Vindman used his opening statement to comfort his worried father, a tear crept into Chiarelli’s eye. When Republicans questioned Vindman’s loyalty and his uniform, Chiarelli’s blood began to boil.
It’s absolutely amazing that we’ve come to this, Chiarelli thought.
Within hours, the White House used Twitter to try to discredit Vindman — who works at the White House.
On Wednesday morning, the public line for the testimony of Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was twice as long as the one Tuesday. A 34-year-old computer scientist in a gray sweatshirt queued so he could take a photo for the Wikipedia page titled “Impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump.” Meanwhile, photojournalist David Burnett, shooting his third impeachment process, stood out among the throngs of photographers because of his camera: a boxy, custom-made Aero-Liberator, which uses the large-format film of Andrew Johnson’s era.
The cameras were trained on Longworth 1100, but elsewhere public servants continued with business as usual — or tried to.
“I am just waiting for this to get wrapped up so we can get our committee hearing room back,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who had chosen the office across the hall from Longworth 1100, which usually belongs to the Ways and Means Committee. The other morning, “I’m trying to juggle my food, a coffee cup being held in my mouth, and I can’t get to my door because there are a bunch of people in front of it.”
On the other side of the Capitol, in the office of a Republican senator, none of the seven televisions were tuned to the hearing.
“We have an appropriations bill to clear, a defense bill to pass, a slate of judges waiting for confirmation,” said a GOP aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “We’re still waiting on the USMCA [trade deal] from the House. And the impeachment trial we’ll get in a few weeks already has a foregone conclusion: to acquit.”
Historian Andrew David listened to Sondland’s testimony in his office at Boston University, then in his Subaru while retrieving his son from day care. He whipped up a lecture on impeachment last month and has asked his students to think about what the presidency has come to represent.
“Is it a person? An institution? Is it everyone who works in the executive branch?” David said. “And that leads to a conversation about responsibility: Where does the buck stop?”
Trump reacted to this week by tweet and by Sharpie, in capital letters and with hysterical punctuation. On Wednesday he emerged from the White House carrying a notepad scrawled with: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO.”
On Thursday, Trump referred to Democrats as “human scum.” He called the media “FAKE & CORRUPT.”
Across town, in Longworth 1100, former White House national-security staffer Fiona Hill had taken the poise of witnesses who had preceded her. She was an American who had seen and heard things during this presidency that are unusual, improper or concerning. She warned that Russia is now going full-bore at the 2020 election, with the goal of sowing rancor in our politics and doubt in our processes.
“We are running out of time to stop them,” Hill said Thursday, as the gears of government groaned.