The Impeachment Hearings Have Shown the Policy Costs of Trump’s Narcissism

A man who can think only of himself cannot understand his place in the world.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump talks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday. Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images

We’re closing in on the second full week of public impeachment hearings, during which diplomats and administration officials have delivered compelling testimony that has largely obliterated nearly every Republican defense of Trump’s Ukraine conduct. The theory, for example, that this was all hearsay has collapsed—several witnesses with direct knowledge of the events have testified despite the White House’s astounding claim that staff should not comply with congressional subpoenas. The theory that Ukrainians didn’t even know aid was being withheld, and therefore couldn’t have felt extorted, collapsed Wednesday, with Department of Defense official Laura Cooper’s testimony, which referenced previously undisclosed emails showing that Ukrainians were both aware and concerned on July 25, the day of the infamous call. Trump’s “no quid pro quo” defense has always been unbelievable—Mick Mulvaney having already confessed to it on live television—but EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland also testified Wednesday that the arrangement Trump sought was unequivocally a quid pro quo.

In other words, the hearings have served the purpose for which they were intended: They have worked to establish, on the record and on television, the timeline and details of the president’s alleged misconduct. That narrative is now public and clear. But in bringing so many career government workers in to testify, they have also inadvertently served another purpose: They have helped to paint a broader picture, beyond the minutia of what exactly happened over the course of the past few months in Ukraine, of how the federal government works under President Donald Trump. Their testimony has incidentally illustrated how Trump’s incessant, unrelenting narcissism warps his ability to execute the duties of his office and the extent to which that dysfunction has spread, hobbling institutions that we need intact.

The hearings have demonstrated in detail the extent to which Trump conflates his personal grudges with America’s interests, even when the former harms the latter, and how he allows those private grudges to dictate foreign policy decisions that impact multiple countries. “L’etat, c’est moi,” is his operating theory—in fact, this somehow applies retroactively to the 2016 election, when he was merely a candidate. Republican senators have adopted this mindset as legitimate and proper. They’ve spent a good chunk of their time defending Trump’s actions in Ukraine as perfectly acceptable on the grounds that Trump had every right to impose petty conditions that would punish his political opponent—and withhold aid from a nation at war unless he got what he wanted—because he had reason to believe that some Ukrainians didn’t like him. This last detail, they seriously claim, was reason enough for the United States’ executive branch to withhold (taxpayer) money allocated by Congress.

It’s worth understanding what made Trump think that the Ukrainians didn’t like him. One incident Republicans have repeatedly raised concerns over is an op-ed for the Hill written by then–Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Valeriy Chaly in August of 2016, in which Chaly corrects Trump’s mischaracterization of how Ukrainians felt about the Russian invasion of Crimea. GOP lawyer Steve Castor tried to rationalize Trump’s paranoia on this point by characterizing that correction as a sinister symptom of dark forces arrayed against him. Here’s how he put it during former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s testimony: “But you can understand the president, at least from his perspective, looking at these facts, certainly it is reasonable to conclude that there are elements of the Ukrainian establishment that are—are advocating against him at this point in time, correct?”

That conclusion is not remotely reasonable—unless one’s position is that Ukrainians ought not to express any opinions about a Russian invasion on their soil. Or publish investigations of corruption in their midst, if Americans Trump hired happen to be involved. Here, for reference, is what Trump said about Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea. “I’m gonna take a look at it,” Trump told ABC’s This Week. “But you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also.” This was shocking; the Russian takeover was widely condemned by the international community. And yet, the fact that the Ukrainian ambassador dared to observe that what Trump heard about “the people of Crimea” was incorrect and dangerous was framed not just as an attack on Trump, but as electoral interference in an American election.

I invite you to read the Ukrainian ambassador’s op-ed. It mentions Trump a grand total of three times. Ukraine (or Ukrainians) get 19 mentions and Russia (and Russians) 18. Could anyone with any sense of proportion—or a sound understanding of the world—possibly describe such a document as being an attack on Trump? It simply isn’t. It’s a refresher on Ukraine’s situation, certainly, and it’s meant to alert the candidate as to how out of step he is with declared American and Republican foreign policy priorities and with realities on the ground in Ukraine. Chaley writes that Trump’s comments “raised serious concerns” and notes that “many in Ukraine are unsure what to think, since Trump’s comments stand in sharp contrast to the Republican party platform.” He adds that Trump’s comments “call for appeasement of an aggressor [Russia] and support the violation of a sovereign country’s territorial integrity and another’s breach of international law. In the eyes of the world, such comments seem alien to a country seen by partners as a strong defender of democracy and international order.” The rest is about Russia and Ukraine.

To hear Castor or Jim Jordan tell it, this diplomatic and true account was vicious, unwarranted, and—a Jordan put it—an effort to “try to influence host country elections.” He lists this among several other “attacks on the president.” Note how Republicans are now echoing Trump’s tendency to confuse criticism of something incorrect he demonstrably said with an attack on not just the president but on United States elections. The Republican position appears to be that a Ukrainian ambassador—whose job it is to represent Ukraine’s interests and clarify the extent to which they align with the United States’—should have shut up or agreed with Trump that his country was better off invaded. This is an insane expectation. But it’s where we are. Prior to this period, it would have been hard to imagine a person egomaniacal enough to think that their irritation at being corrected matters more than the people fighting off an aggressor who has been proven to have attacked our elections too. Harder still to imagine that a party apparatus would unite around such a person to agree that, indeed, anything but glowing praise should be received as an attack. But these concessions to a narcissist’s wounded feelings have consequences, and here they are: A party that once uniformly supported Ukraine now contends that that ally’s effort to represent the country’s actual situation is an attack on American democracy.

Another charge the Republican counsel levied was that an investigative journalist named Serhiy Leshchenko “publicized some information in a pretty—pretty grand way in August of 2016 and almost immediately coincided with Mr. Manafort leaving the Trump campaign.” This argument is even stranger. While championing Trump as the scourge of corruption, Castor appears to be criticizing an investigative journalist for exposing Manafort’s … corruption. Leshchenko revealed a “black ledger” of secret payments Manafort and others received from a pro-Russian, anti-Western party that Manafort worked for as a consultant for almost a decade. It showed that Manafort had concealed several large payments from American authorities. Manafort is in prison partly because of what this journalist discovered.

Rather than heretically suggest that perhaps Donald Trump shouldn’t have hired a notoriously corrupt henchman like Manafort to be his campaign chair, the Republican position is now that for Ukrainians to have revealed Manafort’s wrongdoing was (you guessed it) an attack. Not on Manafort, not on corruption. On then-candidate Donald Trump. This is what bending backward to a narcissist does: It trains sycophants to center him the way he centers himself. So egregious was it for a Ukrainian journalist to investigate corruption in his country, apparently, that the U.S. Embassy should have taken notice and perhaps gotten involved. “Was there anything about that issue, when it was occurring, that concerned you?” Castor asked Yovanovitch.

Yovanovitch points out that investigative journalists exposing corruption are doing their job, not “targeting” a presidential candidate who chose one of the corrupt agents as his campaign manager. (Trump—who characterizes any journalism that doesn’t praise him as “corrupt” itself—would disagree.) She gently but persistently reminded the audience that while Donald Trump is obsessed with himself, Ukrainians—being citizens of a country that is not the United States—had some concerns of their own that weren’t actually about him: “From a Ukrainian perspective, I think that what Mr. Leshchenko and others who were looking into the black ledger were most concerned about was actually not Mr. Manafort, but former President [Viktor] Yanukovych and his political party and the amount of money that they allegedly stole and where it went and so forth. I mean, I think there’s just a difference in perspective depending on which country you’re in.”

Here’s the truth: Manafort worked as a consultant for a corrupt pro-Russian and anti-Western political party in Ukraine for almost a decade. His mandate, per a leaked State Department cable at the time, was to change that party’s image from “a haven for mobsters into that of a legitimate political party.” He perfected their anti-NATO rhetoric, and he profited handsomely—to the tune of $12.7 million, in fact, per the “black ledger.” He was a horrifying choice for an American presidential candidate to designate as campaign chair: corrupt to the core, with a long history of pro-Russian positions and connections, and a known habit of laundering the images of dictators like Ferdinand Marcos.

Trump didn’t care about that, of course. Indeed, he may have found Manafort’s experience doing image management for mobsters appealing. We know, too, that he didn’t care about Ukraine’s corruption. As Gordon Sondland put it to David Holmes, in a quote that has been repeated throughout these hearings, Trump “didn’t give a shit” about Ukraine and only cared about so-called big stuff. The “big stuff” turned out to be code not for American interests but for private favors that could benefit him, like investigating Hunter Biden for political purposes. As Fiona Hill put it Thursday, she eventually realized (as have most of us) what people who work near Donald Trump eventually discover. Namely, that despite Trump’s conflation between himself and the state, those interests eventually split. And if you don’t choose the right fork in that path—the personal channel, the one that gets the narcissist what he wants—you don’t last long. In describing her frustrations with Sondland, who wasn’t coordinating with her, Hill said she finally realized why it was happening: They’d reached the fork and chosen different paths. “He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy,” Hill said. “And those two things had just diverged.” When a narcissist is in charge, the only people who are allowed to stay are those who prioritize his feelings and needs above all else—including the interests of the country.

What Yovanovitch, George Kent, Bill Taylor and other witnesses have helped drive home is that there are perspectives beyond what Trump felt and thought. And that those perspectives might in fact matter as much or more as Trump’s anger over mythical Ukrainian sabotage of a presidential election he won with proven Russian help. There is an entire world outside the bounds of Trump’s grubby personal interests. Again, Ukrainians are real people with real concerns of their own. And while many who resented having their territory invaded and their people killed by Russia probably disliked Trump’s suggestion that Russia’s illegal invasion was fine, not everything they did or thought revolved around a then–presidential candidate. Objecting to an ally’s careless dismissal of the illegal actions of an invader is not attacking American elections. But Trump didn’t care about Ukraine or Russia’s invasion. He just cared, enormously, when they wrote and said about him. That says it all.

A foreign policy driven by a person unwilling to govern his feelings, subordinate his grudges, or follow rules is not a policy at all. It’s a puff of air, a set of whims. It’s a vague hunch his yay-sayers must interpret and try to execute, and apologize for when he changes his mind and blames them for getting it wrong. This has implications. Every time Castor asks a witness to sympathize with Trump’s plight—surely you can understand why he’d feel attacked, he asks, parsing the tender feelings of a man with more power than anyone else on Earth—think about whom that focus subtracts from. If you consider who isn’t receiving sympathy, whose perspectives and interests are being annihilated in the service of coddling one man, the list of casualties is long. It includes Ukrainians slaughtered by Russia. It includes immigrant children permanently separated from their parents. And it includes American interests that—when it comes time to choose between national security and Trump’s latest revenge plot—will end up betrayed.

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