Their conversation was urgent: The price tag of impeachment.
Thursday’s cocktail reception for former colleagues and friends of nine-term Democrat Stephen Solarz, held at the home of his widow, Nina, raised thousands of dollars for a cause they hold as dear as the republic — the livelihood of the career Foreign Service officers embroiled in the House impeachment inquiry.
Several of those officers, accompanied by their personal lawyers, gave depositions and testified recently before the House Intelligence Committee. Their testimony and that of other career government employees will be at the heart of the debate Monday in the House Judiciary Committee.
With the House hurtling toward a full chamber vote before Christmas, the diplomatic community is gearing up for Phase Two of potential testimony.
The White House has announced that President Trump plans to bring forward “serious witnesses” in his likely trial early next year in the Republican-led Senate. That could mean more questioning of witnesses from Senate Democrats, or cross-
examination by Republicans — and with it more steep legal fees.
“A few weeks ago I was hoping we wouldn’t need to raise more money,” Eric Rubin, a former ambassador to Bulgaria who is now president of the American Foreign Service Association, told the group.
“But as of now,” Rubin said, “we have a very clear statement that the White House will call witnesses, and that includes our colleagues.”
His association, a union that represents Foreign Service officers, made an appeal as the impeachment inquiry began this fall and its members were subpoenaed. The group has raised more than $250,000 for a legal-defense fund for nine of the 17 witnesses who testified about whether Trump and the White House pressured Ukraine to investigate the president’s political opponents.
Thursday’s reception netted another $10,000 — from those who attended and others who sent checks — and more goodwill toward the career government employees who, for many Americans, have become unlikely folk heroes in the Ukraine drama.
The broad outpouring of financial support, from some 1,500 donors across the country writing checks for $175 on average, will join a $300 hourly subsidy from the State Department to cover the witnesses’ attorneys’ fees through the fall, Rubin said.
But that money won’t cover the cost of testimony in a Senate trial. And the Foreign Service officers face potential new roadblocks. Anyone receiving representation pro bono is not eligible for government help — and several attorneys have told their clients they can’t continue to represent them for free, Rubin said. If the State Department provides its own attorneys at a Senate trial, the government will not pay for private ones.
“So we’re looking at significant additional expense,” Rubin said, leaning forward on the edge of a yellow upholstered chair in front of the fireplace in the Solarz home. Washington superlawyers of the caliber required for an impeachment proceeding charge upward of $800 an hour — but their associates, who have helped the witnesses prepare their testimony, can increase the fees to $1,200 an hour.
The Northern Virginia gathering, in a 1960s home set on six acres and appointed with artwork from the couple’s world travels, drew former aides who learned the ropes of foreign policy in the grueling life of a congressional staffer — then went on to serve in the State Department or other corners of the federal government.
The scene was a relic of a long-lamented era when bipartisan cooperation on foreign policy was the norm. Today, few House members buy homes near the Capitol as did Solarz, who represented Brooklyn.
“Our president is big on branding,” said Dan Ertel, who joined Solarz’s staff as a young George Washington University graduate, then spent a career in administrative roles for the House. “But our federal employees have been branded poorly.”
His wife, Carol, who worked for Solarz for two decades and retired from Congress in January as a financial administrator for multiple members, nodded in agreement.
“You’re just doing your job, and all of a sudden you’re testifying before Congress in an impeachment investigation,” she said. “How do you pay for that?”
All but one of the 13 career Foreign Service staff, military officers and Pentagon officials who have testified in the Ukraine inquiry are still in government.
They’re not the only ones facing legal fees. A handful of current and former White House political appointees also have hired lawyers because of possible legal exposure in the Ukraine case, even though they have refused to testify before House lawmakers.
Bob Driscoll, who represents acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and whose past clients include multiple political and career employees, said the Trump appointees either are paying out of pocket, paying reduced attorney’s fees or are covered by legal insurance policies.
Nina Solarz, now 87, said she was moved to hold the fundraiser out of a long kinship with diplomats. Her husband, who died in 2010, became an influential member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and visited about 100 countries after his election in 1974.
“I developed an incredible attitude of respect and gratitude toward our Foreign Service officers,” she said. Watching the witnesses’ testimony on television — as the president and his allies lashed out at them for being “deep state,” “unelected bureaucrats” itching to bring down the president — “just hit a chord,” she said.
Republicans who issued the House Intelligence Committee’s minority report took a less flattering view of the career officials who raised alarms.
“From the very first days of the Trump Administration — indeed even before it began — the unelected bureaucracy rejected President Trump and his policies,” the report said.
On Thursday, those in the gathering of about 15 people joked that the risk-averse government culture doesn’t tend to attract radicals. They also recognized the possibility that the attention the Ukraine matter has brought the diplomatic community might help to reinvigorate the Foreign Service, battered in the Trump era by poor morale and staff vacancies. Just 9,400 applicants took the Foreign Service exam this year, down from 22,000 in 2010, Rubin said.
Rubin says it’s impossible to know if the legal defense fund has attracted Republican support. The Foreign Service Association is nonpartisan and does not ask about political affiliation. The Solarz family reached out to friends and acquaintances in both parties, but those in attendance last week were Democrats.
For now, the fund is distributing its donations to Foreign Service officers. But Rubin said that if he hears from attorneys for the other government witnesses, the association will consider their requests.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council who heard Trump’s July phone call with the Ukrainian president, is being represented pro bono and will continue to be, his lawyer said.
Michael Volkov said that he has received multiple requests from the public to donate to Vindman’s legal fees but that setting up a charitable organization to collect money is complicated.
“So the bottom line is, this has all been pro bono,” Volkov said, “but Alex is a terrific person and it has been an honor to represent him.”