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A White House Now ‘Cannibalizing Itself’

The New York Times

A White House Now ‘Cannibalizing Itself’

Peter Baker         November 20, 2019
Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine, adjusts his microphone as he and Timothy Morrison, the former head of Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, right, testify at an impeachment inquiry hearing in Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

 

WASHINGTON — As Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman sat in a stately chamber testifying Tuesday, the White House posted on its official Twitter account a message denouncing his judgment. His fellow witness, Jennifer Williams, had barely left the room when the White House issued a statement challenging her credibility.

In President Donald Trump’s Washington, where attacks on his enemies real or perceived have become so routine that they now often pass unnoticed, that might not seem all that remarkable — but for the fact that Vindman and Williams both still work for the very same White House that was publicly assailing them.

With the president’s allies joining in, the two aides found themselves condemned as nobodies, as plotting bureaucrats, as traitors within and, in Vindman’s case, as an immigrant with dual loyalties. Even for a president who rarely spares the rhetorical howitzer, that represents a new level of bombardment.

Trump has publicly disparaged Cabinet secretaries, former aides and career officials working elsewhere in the government, but now he is taking aim at people still working for him inside the White House complex by name.

“This White House appears to be cannibalizing itself,” said William C. Inboden, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush. “While many previous White House staffs have feuded with each other and leaked against each other, this is the first time in history I am aware of a White House openly attacking its own staff — especially for merely upholding their constitutional duties.”

In part, that reflects the challenge for a president facing an impeachment inquiry in which every witness called so far either currently or previously worked in the government over which he presides. To defend against potential charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, Trump evidently feels he must undercut the believability of the witnesses testifying about his pressure campaign on Ukraine for help against his domestic rivals.

It also reflects the president’s long-standing distrust of the career professionals who populate his White House, just as they have every other. While such officials characterize their work as nonpartisan in service of presidents of either party, Trump has felt burned since the early days of his administration when internal documents were leaked, including transcripts of two of his phone calls with foreign leaders.

“Nothing is the same anymore,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for Bush. “Clearly, when the staff leaks presidential phone calls with foreign leaders the first week of the president’s job, the staff is not what the staff used to be. It taints everyone, even good and loyal staffers.”

All three witnesses who testified publicly last week still work for the State Department, and Trump directly denigrated one of them, Marie L. Yovanovitch, who was recalled as ambassador to Ukraine. But Vindman, the top Ukraine policy official on the National Security Council staff, and Williams, a national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence, were the first to appear before the House Intelligence Committee while still working in the White House.

Even before raising his hand to take the oath Tuesday, Vindman had come under particularly sharp fire. Trump’s allies on Fox News and elsewhere have questioned his patriotism by noting that he was born in Ukraine, a critique the naturalized citizen rebutted by showing up Tuesday in his Army dress uniform with Combat Infantry Badge and a Purple Heart from his service in Iraq.

Vindman opened his testimony by deploring smears on government officials who have been subpoenaed to testify in the inquiry. “The vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible,” he said.

Amid the threats, the Army has been assessing potential security threats to Vindman and his brother Yevgeny, who also works at the National Security Council. There have also been discussions about moving the Vindmans and their families onto a military base for their protection, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions.

The committee’s Republican counsel Tuesday questioned Vindman about an offer from Ukraine’s new government to become defense minister, a proposal he said he dismissed out of hand and reported to his superiors and counterintelligence officials. Fox News quickly picked up on the issue, sending out a news alert moments later: “Vindman says Ukrainian official offered him the job of Ukrainian defense minister.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, grilled Vindman about comments by two former bosses at the National Security Council, Tim Morrison and Fiona Hill, raising questions about his judgment.

Vindman replied by pulling out a copy of a performance evaluation that Hill wrote in July and read it aloud. “Alex is a top 1% military officer and the best Army officer I have worked with in my 15 years of government service,” Vindman read.

The White House nonetheless posted a Twitter message: “Tim Morrison, Alexander Vindman’s former boss, testified in his deposition that he had concerns about Vindman’s judgment.”

Speaking with reporters, Trump seemed to scorn Vindman for appearing in uniform. “I never saw the man,” the president said. “I understand now he wears his uniform when goes in. No, I don’t know Vindman at all.”

Democratic lawmakers responded angrily to attacks on Vindman. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., accused Republicans of trying to “air out some allegations with no basis and proof, but they just want to get them out there and hope maybe some of those strands of spaghetti I guess will stick on the wall if they keep throwing them.”

As for Williams, the president tweeted about her over the weekend. “Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls, & see the just released statement from Ukraine,” he wrote, misspelling “statement.” “Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!”

Williams, a career official who got her start under Bush and called former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “a personal hero of mine,” denied that she was a “Never Trumper.” So did Vindman. “I’d call myself never partisan,” he said.

Asked her reaction to the president’s tweet, Williams said: “It certainly surprised me. I was not expecting to be called out by name.”

But she would be again before the day was out. Pence’s two most senior aides pushed back against her after she testified that she considered Trump’s July 25 telephone call with Ukraine’s president “unusual” because of the president’s request that the Kyiv government investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats.

“I heard nothing wrong or improper on the call,” retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, the vice president’s national security adviser, said in a written statement released after her testimony. “I had and have no concerns. Ms. Williams was also on the call, and as she testified, she never reported any personal or professional concerns to me, her direct supervisor, regarding the call.”

“In fact,” he added, “she never reported any personal or professional concerns to any other member of the vice president’s staff, including our chief of staff and the vice president.”

Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, went on Fox News to make the same point. “She said she found the call unusual yet she never raised any concerns with her supervisor General Kellogg, she never raised any concerns with the chief of staff, she never raised any concerns with the vice president,” he said.

He added: “We have impeachment in pursuit of a crime.”

Neither Williams nor Vindman weighed in on whether Trump should be impeached. As career officials, they generally stuck to factual accounts of their experiences and gave dispassionate though at times pointed assessments of what they saw while clearly trying to avoid being drawn into the larger political debate about what Congress should do about the situation.

But they presumably will have to return to work at some point, back to the same White House complex where they have served knowing that the president they serve blames them for his political troubles.

Charles A. Kupchan, who was President Barack Obama’s Europe adviser, said it should come as no surprise that Vindman and Williams would be targeted from within. “It is quite unusual for a White House to eat its young,” he said. “But Trump is a president who seems unable to tolerate dissent.”

Andrew Weiss, who was President Bill Clinton’s Russia adviser, said the attacks on Vindman “must be incredibly demoralizing for career people” still at the National Security Council. “During my time at the NSC, there was a bright red line between national security and domestic politics,” he said. “Under Trump, that line has completely disappeared.”

Even some more supportive of Trump suggested Tuesday that he stop going after witnesses. “The president should just ignore this whole thing,” Brian Kilmeade, a host on “Fox and Friends,” one of Trump’s favorite shows, said before the day’s hearings got underway. “Don’t tweet during it. Don’t get outraged over it. It ticks you off.”

That was advice the president did not take.

Trump falsely claims exoneration (again)

The public hearings in the impeachment inquiry have been quite devastating for Donald Trump, but Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony was especially brutal. As former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara explained, Sondland has effectively destroyed every White House defense: “Trump didn’t care about Ukraine; there was a quid pro quo; Trump & Rudy demanded the announcement of investigations; everyone was in the loop; Ukraine knew about the linkage; all was directed by Trump.”

It’s against this backdrop that the president – you guessed it – claimed exoneration.

President Donald Trump claimed that testimony E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland gave in the House impeachment inquiry, exonerated him, saying that “it’s all over.”

Addressing reporters as Sondland publicly testified in front of the House Intelligence Committee, Trump recounted a conversation he had with the ambassador and claimed that, “I just noticed one thing and I would say that means it’s all over.”

The Republican echoed this on Twitter, declaring, “Impeachment Witch Hunt is now OVER!” adding, “This Witch Hunt must end NOW.”

Obviously, no one could seriously believe this, but what I find amazing is the larger pattern: the boy who cried wolf has been replaced with the president who cried exoneration.

As regular readers may recall, this began in earnest in March 2018, when Trump claimed that the House Intelligence Committee had completely exonerated him in the Russia scandal. That wasn’t true.

Trump then said the Justice Department inspector general’s office had “totally” exonerated him in the Russia scandal. That was both wrong and kind of bonkers.

He then claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee had also exonerated him in the Russia scandal. That also wasn’t true.

After Michael Cohen’s public congressional testimony, Trump said his former fixer exonerated him. In reality, what Cohen testified was that he didn’t have any direct evidence of cooperation between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign, though Cohen added that he believes Trump is “capable” of having committed the crime.

The president convinced himself that Judge T.S. Ellis exonerated him, which did not happen. Soon after, he suggested Judge Amy Berman Jackson had done the same thing, and that wasn’t true, either.

Trump later said the Mueller Report “totally” exonerated him, despite the special counsel literally and explicitly saying the report “does not exonerate” the president.

Obviously, it’s impossible to see Sondland’s sworn testimony as being good for the White House, but with a track record like Trump’s, he shouldn’t be disappointed when no one believes him.