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Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and the Rise of the 'Shallow State'

Pompeo nauseates me almost more than any other member of the president's inner circle, even though there are far more despicable characters to be found there.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House June 20, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House June 20, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The unhealthy over-valorization of the military in the United States is a phenomenon that began in earnest with the 1991 Gulf War as a kind of belated, guilt-ridden collective penance for the unforgivable treatment of the Vietnam-era GI. It has since become a permanent part of American culture. In fact, it’s only gotten worse over the past 28 years, as the chasm has widened ever further between the tiny sliver of brave Americans who fight our (now endless) wars and the vast majority of the citizenry who benefit from that sacrifice while being asked to make little to none of their own.

But as the old maxim goes, only those within a family are allowed to criticize it. So as someone with the profession of arms in my marrow, I’m here to tell you that just being a veteran does not make one honorable. In my time in and around the US military I’ve seen the very finest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know, and also some of the worst. No rank, no badge, no diploma, no unit affiliation, no type of service is in and of itself an automatic guarantor of quality or integrity. Shitbirds and cowards come in all ranks and from all branches, just as heroes do. And the past couple weeks have provided the starkest possible example in the form of two points on that spectrum: one represented by the shameful Mike Pompeo, and the other by the courageous Ambassador William Taylor and Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

The Last Days of Mike Pompeo

Being a vet may not confer automatic valor, but here’s one thing that a military record does tell me. It tells me that the person in question has been thoroughly instructed in the rules of engagement. Whether that instruction stuck, I can’t say. But I know that that individual has no grounds on which to claim, “I don’t know the rules, or what constitutes my duty, or what I am sworn to defend.”

That is why Mike Pompeo nauseates me almost more than any other member of Donald Trump’s circle, even though there are far more despicable characters to be found there. But Pompeo offends me more because I know the culture from which he hails, and he knows better.

Pompeo was first in his class at the US Military Academy at West Point. He was just one year group behind me (my own commission was via ROTC), and he and I both served as junior officers in combat arms units in what was then West Germany at the tail end of the Cold War—he in the Armor branch, me in Infantry. Both of us spent about six years on active duty and left as captains in 1991. (Pompeo later went to Harvard Law School, another mucho credentialed institution, association with which is infamously not a guarantor of integrity either. See Alan Dershowitz.)

Let’s be clear. I don’t much like Pompeo’s smarmy, evangelical right wing politics. In fact, I don’t like them at all. But that is a difference of policy, about which (once upon a time) reasonable people could disagree. What I am much more offended by, and what I am taking issue with here, is his integrity—or lack thereof—in pursuing those policies.

A shady businessman and venal striver who styles himself a paragon of Christian virtue, Secretary of State Pompeo is neck deep in the Trump administration’s corrupt attempt to extort the Ukrainian government into being an arm of the president’s re-election campaign. (Calling it a “shadow foreign policy” is absurdly generous. It’s more like a Mafia shakedown.)

It was disgusting to watch Pompeo engage in a lawyerly parsing of his words with Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week”, pretending he knew nothing of the July 25th phone call with Zelensky, only to be forced later to admit that he had himself been on the call. We now know not only that Pompeo listened in, but was an active part of the Giuliani-led team of goons that attempted to strongarm the Ukrainian government into smearing Joe Biden for Donald Trump’s personal political gain: the very definition of presidential abuse of power that the Founders feared and for which they created the mechanism of impeachment.

That would all be bad enough in and of itself, but it comes atop a mountain of hypocrisy. As Lara Jakes and David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times:

As a member of Congress, Mike Pompeo drove the Republican inquiry into the killing of a United States ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, and made clear there was no place for politics in American diplomacy. Nor, he said, would he tolerate “dithering” by an Obama administration State Department that he called “deeply obstructive of getting the American people the facts that they needed.” Now, as secretary of state, Mr. Pompeo is facing a political crisis that directly challenges his leadership of the department he once excoriated. He is accused by House Democrats of blocking their impeachment inquiry by resisting the release of information to Congress that may shed light on the Trump administration’s shadow foreign policy with Ukraine.

Famously, the motto of the Military Academy is “duty, honor, country.” Guess Mike was AWOL that day.

A Rubio supporter and harsh critic of Trump during the 2016 primaries, then-Congressman Pompeo was one of those spineless GOP apparatchiks who quickly swallowed his principles and rushed to lick his master’s boots when high level federal office was dangled bait-like before him (first as CIA Director, then as Secretary of State when Rex Tillerson tired of working for a ““fucking moron”). Susan Glasser, writing in the The New Yorker:

Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who keeps an open Bible on his desk, now says it’s possible that God raised up Trump as a modern Queen Esther, the Biblical figure who convinced the King of Persia to spare the Jewish people. He defines his own job as serving the President, whatever the President asks of him…

No matter what Trump has said or done, Pompeo has stood by him. (A former senior White House official told me) that, in private, too, Pompeo is “among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump.” Even more bluntly, a former American ambassador told me, “He’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” Pompeo’s transformation reflects the larger story of how the Republican Party went from disdaining Trump to embracing him with barely a murmur of dissent.

We’re now told that Pompeo is eyeing a quick exit from the Cabinet—presumably to get out of the blast radius as the hand grenade that is Team Trump cooks off—and mounting a Senate run in his adopted home state of. While I’m not sure it will save him from legal jeopardy, I don’t doubt it’s possible that he will run, or that he might even win. What’s wrong with Kansas indeed.

But if the good people of the Jayhawk State do see fit to send him to the upper chamber of Congress, I hope they realize what kind of immoral criminal they’re getting—and rewarding.

Tinker Taylor Soldier Hero

You know who we don’t hear any about much any more, and with good reason? The whistleblower. Because he is now irrelevant. Because named officials have bravely come forward and confirmed everything the whistleblower alleged, and indeed far worse. (The only people still on about him are Republicans clutching at straws, or like Devin Nunes, trying to get him killed.)

So apropos of those brave individuals, let us now turn away from the US Secretary of State and toward the absolute other pole of moral fortitude among West Point grads, former US Ambassador to the Ukraine Bill Taylor.

William Taylor is a generation older than Mike Pompeo. He graduated from the Military Academy in 1969, during some of the darkest days of the Vietnam War, and spent six years as a US Army infantry officer, including tours with the 82nd Airborne, the 101st Airborne (with whom he served in combat as a rifle company commander), and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He subsequently spent three decades in civilian government service, principally as a diplomat, with assignments ranging from Brussels to Afghanistan to Iraq. Like Pompeo, he also earned a graduate degree from Harvard. Having been US Ambassador to Ukraine once already, from 2006 to 2009, Taylor reluctantly came out of retirement—out of a sheer sense of duty, he has said—and returned to Kiev to serve as chargé d’affaires ad interim after the White House abruptly removed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was an obstacle to its illegal efforts to pressure Ukraine on Trump’s behalf. 

The revelation of Taylor’s blunt text to Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland that it would be “crazy” to withhold Congressionally-allocated military aid to Ukraine for the personal partisan benefit of Donald Trump (and the strategic benefit of Vladimir Putin) gave voice to what everybody with half a brain already was thinking, and thoroughly discredited the “no quid pro quo” snake oil being peddled by Trump’s traveling medicine and salvation show of a presidency. (Mick “Get Over It” Mulvaney had already started that process. And as we all know, a quid pro quo is not even necessary for Trump’s shameless shakedown of Kiev to be both wrong and impeachable.)

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Taylor’s subsequent testimony before Congress was a bangalore torpedo right up Trump’s backside. He not only confirmed the skullduggery we had learned from the Zelensky readout and the whistleblower complaint, but painted a portrait at once granular and expansive of a lengthy, multi-pronged, massively corrupt backchannel campaign to extort Kiev into torching Joe Biden—or else.

Bill Taylor’s willingness to man up, speak the truth, and face down this criminal White House exemplifies exactly the kind of honor and integrity that his education at West Point and service in the US Army are supposed to be about. We have yet to see the full picture of what he had to say, but we will, and even what we already know from his 15-page opening statement ought to be—in a sane world—the end of this presidency. (Let me know if and when anyone finds that sane world, last seen on a milk carton around Fall 2016.)

And that was before Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman appeared on the scene.

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Alexander Vindman’s personal story beggars fiction. In the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes:

Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, were 3 years old when they fled Ukraine with their father and grandmother, Jewish refugees with only their suitcases and $750, hoping for a better life in the United States. In the 40 years since, he has become a scholar, diplomat, decorated lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and Harvard-educated Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council...

[A 2003 combat deployment to Iraq] left him wounded by a roadside bomb, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart. Since 2008, he has been an Army foreign area officer—an expert in political-military operations—specializing in Eurasia. Colonel Vindman has a master’s degree from Harvard in Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asian Studies. He has served in the United States’ embassies in Kiev, Ukraine, and in Moscow, and was the officer specializing in Russia for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before joining the National Security Council in 2018.

LTC Vindman’s twin Yevgeny is also a US Army lieutenant colonel and staffer on the National Security Council, a JAG officer and ETHICS expert, whom his brother brought to a meeting with the NSC’s top lawyer, John Eisenberg, when reporting his concern over Trump’s behavior on the July 25th phone call with Zelensky. 

Alexander Vindman is the first impeachment witness who actually listened in on the Zelensky call. So much for the dishonest Republican mantra that “it’s all hearsay.” (Read his opening statement here.) Among the revelations in his testimony, evidently, are a cinematic blowup at the White House on July 10, in which John Bolton was cast as the unlikely hero (!) objecting to the “drug deal” the administration was blatantly proposing to a visiting Ukrainian delegation. Apparently Colonel Vindman also exposed Gordon Sondland as having likely perjured himself in his own Congressional testimony when he claimed he knew of no quid pro quo with Kiev. And oh by the way: as many predicted, Colonel Vindman revealed that there were crucial omissions in the White House’s rough readout (apparently very rough indeed) of the “perfect” Zelensky call. Quelle surprise! Rose Mary Woods found!

With its flimsy “hearsay” defense obliterated, the GOP now has no other option than to attack the honesty and credibility of Colonel Vindman and others who may follow him. And attack they did.

Various right wingers, from the batshit Rudy Giuliani to torture enthusiast John Yoo to “MTV Real World” vet Sean P. Duffy questioned Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, given that he is a refugee from Ukraine. One does not have to sniff very hard to detect the ancient stink of anti-Semitism. 

It was rich to watch these miserable chickenhawks try to malign the integrity of a valiant career soldier and decorated combat veteran like Colonel Vindman. John Yoo, one of the principal architects and legal defenders of the Bush administration’s torture policy, long ago lost any credibility he might have had. But even so, for him to recklessly use the word “espionage” about LTC Vindman’s motives—without even the tiniest shred of evidence—is an unconscionable offense. It’s one thing for an ignorant cretin like Trump to throw allegations like that around: he’s a D-list game show host-cum-con man who swims in that kind of sewer as readily as he breathes. But Yoo is a credentialed veteran of the national security apparatus at the highest level (even if it was mostly in the service of evil) and now, unaccountably, a law professor at UC Berkeley of all places. For him to do so is truly shameful.

It means little that there was quick pushback, even among some Republicans. Yoo scrambled to do damage control, but his walkback didn’t jibe with the verbatim comments he made on Fox, nor with their context. Duffy made a similar attempt at “clarification” of his statements to CNN. But the mere fact that Trump’s defenders reflexively sought to smear the messenger as their very first go-to move is a measure of how much Trump has debased our political dialogue and obliterated what little honor remained in the conservative movement. 

If Kellyanne Conway will forgive me for presuming to know the contents of another human heart, the attempt at walkback was surely motivated as much or more by the recognition of a grievous tactical error on the PR front as by any kind of principle or genuine regret over maligning a patriot. In any case, the eagerness of the Republican Party and its media handmaidens to viciously attack this eminently honorable man may mark the lowest point yet in this Marianas Trench of a presidency.

Hey America, are we at our Joe Welch “At long last have you no sense of decency” moment yet? We bloody well oughta be.

Cowards Bend the Kneee

It was ironic that LTC Vindman testified just days after we learned of the daring raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So we saw two stellar examples of military courage and professionalism in the space of a week, one in Idlib Province, Syria, the other on Capitol Hill.

The juvenile bloodthirstiness and unearned braggadocio of Trump’s subsequent football-spiking has been widely reported and ridiculed, and rightly so. His is the sadism of the schoolyard bully who is actually a quivering coward—an armchair warrior unwilling to actually put his own life on the line (darned bone spurs!), or even to interrupt his well-feathered little life to serve his country, but who readily wants to piggyback on the bravery and valor of far better men and women than himself.

But every time you hear Trump brag about how “he” got al-Baghdadi—which is gonna be a lot over the coming year—you can skip right past the eyerolling absurdity of that, and his hypocrisy over Obama and the Bin Laden raid, and all the other attendant lies and ironies contained therein, and just focus on this: the bold US military operation of last week was only possible because of crucial human intelligence (i.e., a spy deep inside al-Baghdadi’s inner circle) provided by the Kurdish intelligence service: the very people Trump just abandoned and betrayed.

I wouldn’t count on a lot of cooperation from them going forward.

Of course it is infuriating the Trump gets any credit at all for the al-Baghdadi mission, given that this carefully cultivated operation had to be rushed into action due to his precipitous and unconscionable withdrawal from northern Syria. Speaking privately, Pentagon sources bluntly reported that the raid succeeded “despite Trump, not because of him.” It astonishes me that any military professional or anyone else interested in national security could support this fake president and the wanton damage he continues to do to the same, despite the yogi-like contortions of his defenders to find a way.

Active duty military officers are required by law to stay out of politics, but they are also required by law to disobey unlawful orders, a mandate that also demands that they not remain silent when they see illegal acts committed by others, even those above them in the chain of command. Men like Bill Taylor and Alexander Vindman make me proud to have worn the uniform, and everything it is supposed to stand for—which is most welcome given how much the likes of Mike Pompeo have dishonored it.

Robert Edwards

Robert Edwards

Robert Edwards is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. Previously he was an infantry and intelligence officer in the US Army and served with a parachute infantry regiment in Iraq during the first Gulf war.

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