From Ellsberg to Vindman, a public servant’s duty to the truth

WASHINGTON — As the process to impeach President Trump officially gets underway and preparation for public hearings begin, it’s hard not to feel that our democracy is coming undone.

Look around the world, and there seems to be a steady rise of populist nationalism and what many fear is a modern, creeping brand of authoritarianism threatening to undo democracies in so many different places. It is as if there’s a pattern, a kind of ‘playbook’ that leaders are following with Trump leading the way for leaders like Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Orbán, Italy’s Salvini, India’s Modi and so many others who seem intent on undercutting the very democracies that elected them.

We’ve been studying this pattern all year, and this week we are proud to launch our new podcast season titled: ‘Democracy Undone: The Authoritarian’s Playbook.’

The project provides a framework of understanding for the divisive times we live in and the perils for democracy, particularly as the impeachment process heats up here in the United States.

One of the turning points of testimony in the impeachment process implicating Trump in his dealings with Ukraine came this week from Alexander Vindman, a highly decorated Lt. Col in the U.S. Army who Trump selected to serve as Director of European Affairs on his National Security Council and as an expert adviser on Ukraine.

Seeing Vindman, dressed in his military uniform with a purple heart pinned to his chest, heading in to testify before a House committee, a whistleblower of sorts, brought to mind Daniel Ellsberg. Last week, I had the great honor to interview Ellsberg, the father of American whistleblowers, who revealed the Pentagon Papers in 1971. It feels as if Vindman is among a growing list of government officials who are stepping forward in the spirit of resistance embodied by Ellsberg nearly 50 years ago.

And this week in Washington, you could feel these historical comparisons. Nearly a half century ago, Ellsberg, a military analyst and former Marine, spoke out against a secret plan that he helped to author to expand the war, a set of revelations and coverups that contributed to President Nixon facing impeachment before he resigned in 1974. And there is the current news cycle with Vindman speaking out against Trump and going on the record to clarify that Trump withheld security aid to Ukraine while requesting a “favor” of the newly elected Ukranian president to launch an investigation into Trump’s political rival, former Vice President Biden.

This week, Republicans reacted to the testimony by turning on Vindman, who was born in Ukraine but came to the US at age 3, received citizenship and served the United States in the military. Some of their comments sounded an awful lot like the words used by Nixon and his henchmen when they turned on Ellsberg. It seemed like history was repeating itself this week as a long list of Republican leaders vilified Vinman despite his valorous service to the country and his courage in openly testifying before the committee to share precisely what he heard on a conference call over the summer in which Trump allegedly put forward the quid pro quo, withholding aid to Ukraine until the investigation was initiated for Trump’s own political gain.

In Washington this week, I had a chance to meet with Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA,) an Iraq war veteran, who praised Vindman’s moral courage and pointed out that as a soldier his duty was to the constitution, not the commander in chief. His duty was to the truth, not Trump.

Moulton said, “In my experience in Iraq, it was always the officers who were willing to speak up against the chain of command, when they felt compelled to do so, who showed great moral courage… Vindman will go down in history as one of the great patriots of our time.”

“That he is being attacked Republicans who never put on a uniform or put themselves in harm’s way, just shows how far the Republian Party has sunk,” Moulton added.

“They are attacking a decorated a veteran, a patriot,” he said, “because they can’t defend the facts, and the facts against the president are damning.”