To understand the courage that witnesses like Marie Yovanovitch have shown during the Ukraine investigation, it’s worth looking back on a couple of the other signature moments of the Trump era.
One was in the summer of 2016, when James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, faced an uncomfortable choice. He and his colleagues had concluded that Hillary Clinton should not be prosecuted for using a private email account to conduct government business. Her conduct was sloppy and inappropriate, but it was also fairly common and not close to being criminal.
Still, Comey knew that Republicans would vilify him for his decision not to prosecute. They would portray it as partisan, rather than what it was: a straightforward application of the law. And Comey prized his reputation for appearing to be above partisan politics.
So he looked for a way to dilute the criticism. Instead of simply closing the Clinton investigation, he gave a news conference blasting her. Doing so violated Justice Department policy, but also ensured that the subsequent criticism of Comey would come from both Democrats and Republicans. Comey, in short, put a higher priority on avoiding the appearance of partisanship than on doing the right thing.
Three years later, Robert Mueller faced his own uncomfortable choice. As special counsel, he helped uncover evidence that President Trump had repeatedly broken the law, including paying hush money to two women and interfering in the Russia investigation. But Mueller understood that clearly laying out his conclusions would subject him to vicious criticism as a partisan. Like Comey, he prized his reputation for floating above partisan politics.
Conveniently, he found a solution that protected his reputation. Mueller’s final report included a detailed recitation of facts, but its conclusions were deliberately obtuse, which meant they changed almost nobody’s mind. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller cryptically said. Making matters worse, he then allowed the Trump administration to control — and spin — the report’s release.
Mueller, to be fair, has a stronger defense than Comey. Throughout, Mueller interpreted Justice Department guidelines in narrow ways: Those guidelines didn’t compel him to present clear conclusions — as Kenneth Starr had two decades earlier — and so Mueller didn’t do so. It’s possible that Mueller’s mistakes had more to do with naïveté than pride.
Yet the outcome was the same. Both Mueller and Comey preserved their nonpartisan images (only temporarily in Comey’s case, because he later engaged in a full-on fight with Trump), while the country suffered.
Comey’s unprecedented insertion of the F.B.I. into the final stages of a presidential campaign may have decided the outcome. And Mueller’s convoluted report was a gift to Trump. Mueller’s long investigation uncovered extensive evidence of a president who had broken the law and abused his power, but Mueller did almost nothing to hold the president accountable.
Now let’s return to the Ukraine case — and contrast the approach of Comey and Mueller with the very different decisions by Yovanovitch, Alexander Vindman, Bill Taylor, George Kent and, above all, the whistle-blower.
After learning that Trump was pressuring a foreign country to investigate American citizens, the whistle-blower took the extraordinary step of filing a formal complaint against the president. He had to have understood the risks of doing so. He could lose his job and his career. He could become a Fox News boogeyman. Any part of his background could be subjected to public scrutiny. His life might never be the same.
And yet he put a higher priority on doing the right thing than on avoiding accusations of partisanship.
Since then, Yovanovitch, Vindman, Taylor and Kent have made similar decisions. Despite the personal risks, they have testified forthrightly about Trump’s actions. Sure enough, Trump apologists have smeared them. Conservative pundits suggested Vindman was a traitor, and a House Republican lamely tried to link Yovanovitch to a Democratic operative. Trump has publicly insulted the witnesses. They have been portrayed as partisan hacks rather than what they are: Americans willing to pay a price for their country.
The radicalization of the Republican Party means that other people are going to face versions of this dilemma. Not just Trump, but many members of Congress, have chosen to depict anything other than partisan hackery for their own side as partisan hackery for the other side. Just look at Adam Schiff, the House Democrat who — though like every human being makes occasional missteps — has run a fair, rigorous impeachment inquiry and whom Republicans have painted as a vindictive villain.
The situation is even more difficult for people who pride themselves on their nonpartisanship. This group includes Mueller, Comey, diplomats, law enforcement agents, journalists, national security officials, Federal Reserve officials and more. Many of them may be faced with a miserable choice, in which they can’t both do the right thing and preserve their reputation for doing the right thing.
Mueller and Comey are decent men who have served their country honorably for decades. Yet when confronted with this test, even they failed it. Which should make us all the more grateful for Yovanovitch, Vindman, Taylor, Kent and the whistle-blower.