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Public servants use impeachment hearings to offer lessons of history and military service in rejoinder to Trump

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Fiona Hill, former top Russia adviser to the White House, provides testimony in the impeachment inquiry on Thursday.
Fiona Hill, former top Russia adviser to the White House, provides testimony in the impeachment inquiry on Thursday. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

As President Trump’s former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill has provided crucial details of a White House meeting in July that is a key element of the impeachment inquiry against him. But on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Hill felt compelled to open her public testimony with a broader frame of reference — starting 100 years ago.

In a prepared statement, Hill sketched out her personal history, telling lawmakers of her paternal grandfather, who was “shot, shelled and gassed” while serving for the British in World War I. Other family members, she said, “fought to defend the free world from fascism” of the Nazis in World War II.

As Hill defined it, her decision to join government service was hard-won over generations, a byproduct of the sweep of history in a century defined by the great struggle between fascist regimes and the democratic values of the West.

“My father loved America — its culture, its history and its role as a beacon of hope in the world,” said Hill, who emigrated from England as a college student and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2002.

Hill is not the only witness who has struck these notes over five days of public impeachment hearings before the House Intelligence Committee. State Department official George Kent, Defense Department official Laura Cooper, former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and National Security Council expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman have used their opening remarks to describe personal and family connections to serving in the military or fleeing oppressive regimes in Europe to explain the roots of their public service and the depths of their American patriotism.

To a degree, the declarations may have been intended to help shield the witnesses from attacks from Trump and his allies over their motives in providing public testimony. The president’s surrogates have questioned the national loyalties of Vindman, who was born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and immigrated to the United States with his family as a young child four decades ago, as well as the foreign backgrounds of other witnesses.

“A lot of Americans have to be watching this all asking, ‘Why are there so many non-US-born people working in our Intel and State Department?’ ” Jack Posobiec, a correspondent for the pro-Trump One America News Network, tweeted during Hill’s testimony Thursday.

But the nods to history from the public servants testifying as part of the impeachment inquiry also stand as a rejoinder to the worldview of a president who rarely speaks extemporaneously about American or world history and has exhibited open disdain for the U.S.-led liberal global order that was constructed after World War II.

“Up until Trump, every president to one degree or another saw himself as a link in a long chain of American history — not just history but certain ideals that animate history,” said Peter Wehner, who served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “Trump doesn’t do that. For him, history begins and ends with Donald Trump. And that’s why he does not have any connection to not just American history but also America’s national interest. It’s why he’s constantly conflating his interest with America’s. His view is, ‘I am the state.’ ”

The question at the heart of the impeachment probe is what lengths Trump sought to advance his political interests over the national interest in leveraging financial aid and a White House meeting to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a political rival.

Trump has explained his actions as part of a broader effort to force the Ukrainians to reform a long-corrupt government that had squandered U.S. financial aid aimed at countering Russian aggression.

As several senior U.S. officials have provided testimony in recent weeks that undercuts his narrative and paints the president and his associates as acting in self-interest, Trump has sought to defame them as members of a “deep state” conspiracy out to undermine his presidency or as “Never Trumpers” — establishment Republicans who opposed his candidacy for the White House from the start.

Vindman, an Army officer on temporary assignment as the Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, has presented credentials that appear unassailable. In his opening remarks to the House committee this week, he talked of his two decades of military service, including overseas tours in South Korea and Germany and in Iraq for combat operations.

His decision to serve came from a desire to repay a nation “that gave my family refuge from authoritarian oppression,” he told lawmakers. His father was 47 when he fled the Soviet Union “so that his three sons could have better, safer lives,” and all three sons joined the U.S. military.

Likewise, Kent, the deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, emphasized his family’s military service during his testimony last week. He noted that his father graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and that five great-uncles served in World War II. One of them, Kent said, survived the Bataan Death March as a Japanese prisoner of war in the Philippines.

William B. Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Ukraine, described for lawmakers the pride he took in serving in government for more than 50 years, including as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, an infantry officer in Vietnam and a diplomat in posts around the world.

And Yovanovitch — who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine before Trump recalled her in May as a prelude to the pressure campaign on Zelensky — spoke of her father escaping the Soviet Union and her mother, whose own family fled the U.S.S.R. after the Bolshevik Revolution, growing up stateless in Nazi Germany.

“Their personal histories — my personal history — gave me both deep gratitude toward the United States and great empathy for others, like the Ukrainian people, who want to be free,” she testified this week.

“What we’ve seen over the last couple of days is a whole assortment of personal and compelling reasons why people chose the career path of public service,” said Julie Smith, a Europe expert who served as deputy national security adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden. “Outside of Washington, the image of public service has become a bad word — a bunch of dark suits who are there for the wrong reasons. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Most are idealists who want to make a difference and feel that way because they have a personal history or personal attachment to a set of issues.”

Cooper, a Russia and Ukraine expert at the Defense Department, told lawmakers of her experience taking a policy job at the Pentagon in 2001 in an office that was preparing to move into a part of the building that was destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That catastrophic event prompted her to volunteer to work on Afghanistan policy for four years, she said.

Such experiences stand in contrast to a president who as a young man received five deferments and avoided military service during the height of the Vietnam War. Reporters have found little evidence to buttress Trump’s repeated claims that he rushed to the site of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks and played a central role in the city’s cleanup and recovery efforts.

Trump has even misstated his own family’s history in Europe, publicly declaring three times that his father was born in Germany. In fact, Friedrich Trump was born in New York, and it was the president’s grandfather who was a German immigrant.

On Thursday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) asked Hill to respond to those who have questioned Vindman’s loyalty to the United States. She called it “deeply unfair.”

“This is my country, and the country that I serve,” she said. “And I know for a fact that every single one of my colleagues — and there were many naturalized citizens in my office and across the National Security Council — feel exactly the same way.”