Gordon Sondland was in trouble. In the vernacular of the Trump impeachment inquiry that riveted at least part of the nation last week, he had “a Gordon problem” — that is, himself. A multimillionaire hotelier-turned-President-Trump-donor-turned-ambassador-to-the-European-Union, Sondland had not only been implicated as a key figure in a scheme to extort the Ukrainian government, but now he was appearing before the congressional inquiry to clean up past closed-door testimony that (in the vernacular of Watergate) was “no longer operative.”
To save himself, Sondland fell back on the ultimate American story: immigration.
“My parents fled Europe during the Holocaust,” the 62-year-old ambassador said, hot TV lights bouncing off his shaved head. “Escaping the atrocities of that time, my parents left Germany for Uruguay, and then in 1953 emigrated to Seattle, Wash., where I was born and raised. Like so many immigrants, my family was eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity.” Sondland wanted the world to understand his story — away from tyranny toward wealth and a prestigious posting — as the American Dream, not the nightmare now enveloping D.C.
Time will tell whether Sondland’s gambit worked, but the troubled witness was clearly tying his fate to what has emerged as the subliminal theme running through two weeks of impeachment drama. It’s a story about a United States that was a safe haven for refugees fleeing totalitarianism and genocide, and how the people saved by that generosity became zealous defenders of America — only to see a dangerous demagogue threaten to drag their country into a muck that looked much like the faraway lands they’d escaped.
Thursday’s star witness, former top White House Russia analyst Fiona Hill, spoke in her native accent about growing up in England and becoming “an American by choice” after her dad, a coal miner, was too sick to achieve his own dream of immigrating to the United States. She testified that her father “loved America, its culture, its history and its role as a beacon of hope in the world. He always wanted someone in the family to make it to the United States.”
Hill thus echoed earlier witnesses like ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who said she was grateful to America because her parents — who fled both the totalitarian USSR and, in the case of her mother, Nazi Germany — “did not have the good fortune to come of age in a free society.” Sandwiched between them was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, who was born in that country when it was part of the USSR but whose dad brought him and his siblings (including a twin brother, who also became a military officer) to Brooklyn’s “Little Odessa” in 1979, after their mom died.
In 1986, the young Vindman twins were even featured briefly in a Ken Burns documentary on the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty as an enduring symbol of America as an immigration refuge. This week, as Vindman addressed the House Intelligence Committee, he had some moving words for his late father: “Dad, I’m sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected professionals … proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
These testimonials to America as a promised land taking in the world’s refugees “yearning to breathe free” are almost as old as the nation itself, but suddenly they took on brand-new power and import in the willingness of people like Hill, Vindman and Yovanovitch to speak out and risk their careers for what they saw as our founding principles.
The fact that in the current president of the United States and caretaker of the American experiment, Donald Trump, these first- and second-generation patriots saw a reflection of the kind of corruption and abuses of absolute power that their parents once fled has added a layer of poignancy to impeachment that few saw coming.
It’s a powerful subliminal message that can get buried under the high political drama. The third week of November 2019 will be etched in American history as the unfolding of a powerful case that the 45th president was willing to corrupt his office and other levers of government to get political dirt and to encourage foreign election meddling, wrapped up in a bow by Sondland’s damning testimony. Yet the likelihood that most Republican senators will ignore Trump’s abuses of power and keep him in office underscores the political crisis that threatens the democracy that was once shelter from the world’s storms.
The hearings were also a reminder that Russia — Ukraine’s adversary that has loomed like a dark cloud over the current scandal — is yet again an autocratic state with expansionist dreams under Vladimir Putin. But unlike the USSR era when America represented freedom and an escape hatch, the likes of Vindman and Hill seemed stunned to watch the president they worked for cozy up to the Russian dictator. On Thursday, Hill even begged GOP lawmakers to “not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
But the problems run deeper than that. America’s diplomats and public servants have surely cringed as the president branded a free press in his own country as “enemies of the people,” a phrase given currency by USSR despot Joseph Stalin. Trump’s rallies, with hate-filled diatribes toward immigrants and chants to lock up political opponents, might have looked familiar to Yovanovitch’s mom. And Trump’s America has grown brutal and thuggish. Vindman had to watch a Bush-43-era government official, attorney John Yoo, speculate on Fox News that he could be a spy because of his Ukrainian ties. And — despite the lieutenant colonel’s only-in-America declaration — the Army acknowledged it was taking steps to protect Vindman from angry supporters of the president, just in case.
Much of this was a reminder that lurking beneath the surface of Trump’s impeachment is the question that has dogged the United States for all of our 243-year history of independence: What does it mean to be an American? We’ve advertised ourselves as something exceptional, a nation built not on common bloodlines but shared ideals, especially a love of liberty. The reality, from the slave markets of Charleston, S.C., all the way to child detention cages on the border with Mexico, has always been much, much more complicated.
When impeachment witnesses like Hill, Yovanovitch or Vindman spoke stirringly of coming to this country, left unsaid was that Donald Trump’s America might not have let their parents come at all. The administration has set the number of refugees allowed into the United States during the current fiscal year to just 18,000. That’s just a small fraction of the refugee limit of 110,000 when Barack Obama was president, and the least since the current program launched in 1980. It’s also a mockery of the words on the Statue of Liberty that Burns celebrated in that documentary.
On the other hand, maybe Trump’s immigration guru, Stephen Miller — who spent his pre-White House years touting the work of white supremacists — would have OK’d these folks, as he has a preference for Europeans. Without a doubt, Team Trump’s vilest xenophobia targets black and brown people — at the southern border where toddlers are ripped from their parents and thousands are detained in America’s gulag archipelago, or in big-city neighborhoods where Latinx people are afraid of encountering a government goon squad called ICE.
A century ago, people from places like Ukraine or the battered coal towns of Europe had to overcome the kind of discrimination, both official and informal, that people of color face today. The conflict between embracing migrants and pushing them away is the never-fully-resolved dramatic tension in America’s story. We may never know if a would-be American patriot of the latter 21st century — the next Marie Yovanovitch or Alexander Vindman — is instead in a frigid wire cage in Texas, waiting to get sent back to Guatemala.
That’s what’s really at stake inside the Longworth House Office Building this month. This is about so much more than the political future of one Donald John Trump. It’s whether we can keep a republic that’s as good as the people who’ve wanted so desperately to come here for more than two centuries.
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.