Career federal employees take risky and rare role in impeachment drama
By LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: November 13, 2019
WASHINGTON — As diplomats kick off nationally televised impeachment hearings on Wednesday, it is clear how, more than in any political scandal in modern history, career employees have emerged as crucial witnesses.
Rank-and-file bureaucrats who work in the federal agencies that handle national security will defy the directive of the White House to stay quiet, instead describing what they saw as they went about, in their view, just doing their jobs.
Their role in recounting to the public how President Donald Trump and his allies attempted to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rivals will not come without risk. All but one of the 11 career Foreign Service staff, military officers and Pentagon officials who first testified in closed-door depositions in the Capitol basement are still in government.
They're back at work following the extraordinary private testimony they gave starting Oct. 3 in the impeachment inquiry into the president they work for. For now, they've faced no efforts to punish them for telling House investigators that normal diplomacy was bypassed by a rogue foreign policy to benefit Trump politically, their lawyers say. However, former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who is scheduled to testify publicly on Friday, is close to retirement and told House investigators that she felt "threatened" by the president — and worried about her pension and her employment.
Top White House political appointees failed to comply with subpoenas to testify. So the accounts of longtime professional staff have driven the fact-finding by the House Intelligence Committee. Their testimony provides a striking contrast with some aides who have left the Trump administration in frustration — only to keep their observations private.
"The American people do not know the extent to which they now benefit from these anonymous professionals in the federal government," said Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. "The way to understand how the Trump team subverted national security is to understand the experts, the neutral professionals who are describing how foreign policy is supposed to be conducted."
Historian Douglas Brinkley drew a contrast between career officials and departed Trump aides who have largely hesitated to criticize the president: "Here, people just doing their jobs for years took an oath and are executing it."
On Wednesday, William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, will take the microphone in a hearing room in the Capitol after privately describing to lawmakers a shadow foreign policy they said threatened American security.
They're not the first mid-level government officials to offer potent testimony. A career military officer-turned Nixon White House aide named Alexander Butterfield disclosed the existence of a secret recording system to the Senate Watergate committee in 1973, a bombshell revelation that helped seal that president's fate.
But historians say this is the first time in modern history — including in previous impeachments of U.S. presidents — that career public servants are serving en masse as protagonists in a Washington political drama. Political appointees, not bureaucrats, eventually turned on Nixon. The secret informant in the Watergate scandal was a career FBI official, but his role was not revealed for decades.
"There's no exact parallel to these government employees who are going to the committees and testifying," said Chris Whipple, author of "The Gatekeepers," a history of White House chiefs of staff.
The Ukraine matter has underscored the two ecosystems that course through the federal government: its permanent bureaucracy and its political appointees.
All federal employees sign an oath to serve the Constitution. But those in the White House also have a loyalty to the president, a divergence now central to the impeachment question.
The cultures have never been more at odds. Trump has made no secret of his deep suspicion of government workers — a "deep state" his allies have long accused of trying to bring down the president.
The career employees who have corroborated the account of the CIA officer whose whistleblower complaint set off the inquiry cannot be fired for answering a congressional subpoena to testify.
But they could be denied promotions or coveted assignments. Their agencies could block security clearance renewals or remove them from important meetings. They could be reassigned.
"Their lives could be turned upside down because they chose to stand by their principles," said Toby Gati, a former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council. Unlike the whistleblower, who receives certain protections by law, they have fewer safeguards, she said.
"There's enormous potential for retaliation," said Donald Kettl, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "They could be shunted aside. It could destroy someone's career."
The smaller number of political appointees cooperating with the investigation face fewer potential repercussions since most are on their way out of the administration.
Far from the boldfaced names in Trump's White House, the veterans of government are part of the workforce of 2.1 million federal employees who keep Social Security checks flowing, forest fires at bay and budget money flowing. They are park rangers, trade analysts, clerks, food safety inspectors, assistant secretaries.
They work for administrations in both parties. The system is built, in theory, on the good will of the political appointees and career staffers working together.
Until six weeks ago, the impeachment witnesses were anonymous outside Ukraine policy circles. They're used to keeping their heads down. They're used to a national security culture steeped in policy, protocol and chains of command common in government.
But now their expertise has put them close to the action in the Ukraine drama. Trump has often said he has no use for experts. These experts took meticulous notes, with a seat at multiple tables and on many phone calls.
Ronald Reagan attacked "big government" and fired striking air traffic controllers. George W. Bush clashed with federal employee unions. But as he tries to discredit the impeachment investigation, Trump has ushered in a radical shift in presidential rhetoric, denigrating cooperating public servants by name.
The president has derided some witnesses, including Soviet emigre and decorated U.S. Army officer Alexander Vindman, as "Never Trumpers," members of a GOP movement that tried to block Trump from becoming president. Trump referred to ousted ambassador Yovanovitch to Ukraine's president as "bad news" and someone who was "going to go through some things."
The president's allies have tried to unmask the whistleblower whose complaint about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky led to the House's impeachment inquiry. And on Monday, Trump repeated what is now a common demand on Twitter: "Where is the whistleblower who gave so much false information?"
The president's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters in October that "a group of mostly career bureaucrats" are saying, " 'I don't like President Trump's politics, so I'm going to participate in this witch hunt that they are undertaking on the Hill.' "
Trump's effort at public shaming has set off a scramble in the Foreign Service community to raise money for their colleagues' legal defenses and appeals to high-ranking State Department officials to ensure that they are not ostracized.
"They didn't ask to be in this situation," said Eric Rubin, a former ambassador and president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union that represents Foreign Service officers. "Heading into public hearings will be a new chapter. Our people are going to be in the spotlight."
As of last week, the association had raised "tens of thousands of dollars" from current and retired diplomats to cover their members' legal fees, Rubin said, a defense fund that's also drawing checks as small as $50 from the public.
The group is negotiating with the State Department to cover the fees, since the employees, like others testifying from other agencies, are entitled by law to have the government cover costs incurred in the course of their official duties.
Taylor flew to Washington last week from Kyiv, where he has returned to finish his one-year contract. Yovanovitch has returned to her academic fellowship at Georgetown University following the recent death of her mother, whose funeral in a Greek Orthodox church in Northern Virginia was attended by many of her fellow impeachment witnesses.
Vindman, who listened on the now-famous July 25 phone call, is back at the White House National Security Council, where he's serving a two-year detail from the Pentagon as director for European affairs.
Vindman is at work every day, said his lawyer, Michael Volkov. He has been gratified by an outpouring of support he has received from career staff at the White House, said one person familiar with his experience, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about internal White House activities.
Despite the tumult of the past weeks, Vindman's career plans are unchanged, Volkov said. When his detail ends next year, he plans to attend the U.S. Army War College, where he starts an elite program in July 2020 that could lead to advancement to colonel or even general.
Other impeachment witnesses are in various stages of their careers.
Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson, meanwhile, as midcareer Foreign Service officials, could be more vulnerable. Another witness, Philip Reeker, serves in an acting capacity as assistant secretary at the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, a potentially precarious status.
Rubin said he is in "personal touch" with State Department leaders to plead: "Please don't hurt our people when they didn't do anything wrong. Please believe that they are nonpartisan people serving their country."
The Washington Post's Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.