Impeachment hearings reveal the extent of the damage Trump's inflicted on our national security

The GOP is trying to use the broken national security system to discredit and undermine the officials who are testifying, rather than fix it.
Image: House Intelligence Committee Continues Open Impeachment Hearings
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, National Security Council Director for European Affairs, and Jennifer Williams, adviser to Vice President Mike Pence for European and Russian Affairs, are sworn in before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.Shawn Thew / Pool via Getty Images
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By Brett Bruen, former director of global engagement in the Obama White House

We are in real danger. There are certainly many conclusions to be drawn from the recent days of detailed testimony by officials on the National Security Council and at the State Department in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. But beyond the political points scored and the possibility of removing a president, there's an even more unsettling feeling that I can’t shake. These hearings have laid bare just how crippled the staff, systems and structures designed to protect our country really are.

The problem with putting down Vindman and other witnesses because they never met Trump is that it shows the president’s gross negligence in handling national security.

This troubling state of insecurity ought to jolt even the most jaded member of Congress into sitting up straight and starting to think about how to straighten it out really fast. But instead of trying to address the damage to our defenses, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the inquiry, opt to exacerbate matters. They are trying to use this broken system to discredit and undermine the witnesses who are testifying to Trump’s bad behavior.

Repeatedly, these members of Congress have asked the public servants testifying— who have information about Trump allegedly pressuring Ukraine into investigating a major political rival, Vice President Joe Biden, and his son in exchange for aid and a White House visit — whether they themselves had ever met the president. The implication they hope will be drawn from their answers that they never once met him is that these individuals lack the stature and direct knowledge to be credible.

Trump himself cast the same aspersion Tuesday, specifically about the top National Security Council expert on Ukraine, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who that day provided devastating testimony about the president’s impropriety in a now-infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Vindman and other staff had listened in on that call from a separate room.

“I don’t know him,” Trump said at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting in response to a question about whether Vindman was credible. “I never saw the man.” It’s worth bearing in mind he said the same thing about Brett McGurk, the former presidential envoy to counter the Islamic State militant group when he left. It just seems to be standard practice for the commander in chief not to meet his most senior advisers.

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At the hearing, Ohio Rep. Michael Turner asked Vindman directly: “You’ve never met the president of the United States, right?” And then followed up with, “So you’ve never advised the president of the United States on Ukraine?”

While Vindman said he advised him “indirectly,” through preparing calls and materials for him without having met him, Walked rejoined: “But you’ve never spoken to the president of the United States and told him advice on Ukraine?” Vindman conceded, “That is correct.”

The problem with putting down Vindman and other witnesses because they never met Trump is that it shows the president’s gross negligence in handling national security rather than the inadequacy of those testifying on impeachment. The lack of contact and communications between the National Security Council and the Oval Office, especially on critical issues such as Ukraine and ISIS, should set off alarm bells; we are precariously close to a catastrophic crash.

When I was on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, the staff interacted fairly regularly with the big boss. Depending on the portfolio, someone at Vinman’s level could see him every week.

It was our job, as advisers on the White House body devoted to gathering information and forming policy on international and security issues, to brief President Barack Obama before key calls and meetings. So even though I wasn’t particularly senior, I occasionally spent up to two and a half hours meeting with him, where there would be opportunities to both present and answer his questions. Obama was notorious for calling on those sitting on the back benches to get different views on key issues.

This president is flying blind. I was struck in listening to the testimony over the past week how few of his advisers are consulted on major policy decisions. Sure, we have long known about his tendency to freelance. Yet, there’s a difference between dismissing or discounting advice and never getting it in the first place. I was shocked that Trump had never spoken to either of our top diplomats in Ukraine prior to halting aid and endangering the country.

There are two primary effects of this disconnect. First, as we have clearly seen in the testimony, our people have no clue what they are supposed to do. They play an elaborate and elusive game of telephone, trying to figure out how the heck they should steer the ship through rough waters. Messages get relayed through multiple layers in the Trump administration, often passed by external, self-interested actors.

The second effect is that those who know national security best are unable to warn the president about potential risks or unintended consequences. Trump’s sudden decision to pull our troops out of northern Syria is a prime example of such impulsive and ill-informed decisions. Without the benefit of GPS, we regularly find ourselves driving far off course, as has been the case with North Korea. There is then the challenge of the president taking counsel directly from unscrupulous actors who often drive him into minefields, such as Rudy Giulliani and Lev Parnas, as they did on Ukraine.

And Trump has gone even further. The president and the White House have tweeted against Vindman and Vice President Mike Pence’s aide on Ukraine, Jennifer Williams. During Vindman’s testimony, Trump tweeted that his boss “had concerns about Vindman’s judgment.” And he slammed Williams as a Never Trumper “who I don’t know.” Attacks like these don’t just shatter the confidence of Williams and Vindaman but also shake the confidence of everyone working on the National Security Council.

Our country is endangered when those responsible for the most serious threats we face have to worry about personal threats from our leaders. And the number of those interested in taking on this difficult if important work will only decrease. Service on this National Security Council was already fairly unpopular these days. I know from speaking with friends that many are already shunning the previously prestigious positions at the White House. The developments of the last few weeks will make it untenable for many of those who are best qualified for those positions.

We will end up in a situation where the most important jobs for protecting our country are going to be occupied by second- and third-string players. Again, this creates massive vulnerabilities that should alarm lawmakers and those responsible for the defense of our country.

Our national security officials now have little contact with an isolated and erratic president. They don’t have clear guidance or even a basic plan for how to execute our foreign policy.

What happens when the next person sees something of concern? After having witnessed the fierce political attacks to which we now subject whistleblowers and those such as Williams and Vindman who reluctantly speak up publicly, many will be simply too afraid to come forward. Instead, they will allow problems to fester and dangerous decisions to go unchallenged. This again places our nation in a very serious situation. Fraud, waste and abuse will spread, eating away at the pillars of stability and security on which our way of life has depended for so long.

Some may argue that I’m overdramatizing the risks. But the testimony has brought to light some of the dark developments of the last several years. Our national security officials now have little contact with an isolated and erratic president. They don’t have clear guidance or even a basic plan for how to execute our foreign policy. Many of them are overly afraid for their jobs, their colleagues and even their safety. It is exceptionally hard to keep America safe when you’re in the dark, alone and afraid.