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A test of conscience for US officials

US Ambassador to NATO and US special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker is seen here speaking during a press conference in Kiev in July. Volker resigned his post on Sept. 27 and is expected to testify before Congress on Thursday. Sergei SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Kurt D. Volker, Marie L. Yovanovitch, George P. Kent, T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, and Gordon Sondland aren’t exactly household names.

But it may be up to them — and other largely obscure government officials — whether Congress and the American people learn the full extent of the president’s abuse of power.

The five are current or former State Department employees who worked on Ukraine policy, and the House impeachment inquiry wants to hear from them about the president’s effort to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating his political rival, Joe Biden. That incident was a flagrant misuse of the power of the presidency to benefit himself, and it left Congress with little choice but to launch the impeachment inquiry. The administration is already trying to stonewall: Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, didn’t explicitly reject the request to talk to the five officials, but said Tuesday they needed more time to prepare.

As a legal matter, though, nobody needs Mike Pompeo’s permission to walk over to Capitol Hill and answer questions. The five officials, and anyone else who is or becomes ensnared in the impeachment probe, ought to consider whether they want to be guided by the president’s ethical compass — or their own.


Volker resigned his position on Friday, and it is believed he plans to cooperate by testifying on Thursday. Yovanovitch has also scheduled an interview Oct. 11. It is unclear what the other three plan to do.

Individual civil servants, people most Americans have never heard of, face some agonizing personal choices. Keeping a job, and keeping your name out of the news, are totally understandable motivations for staying silent. But the public has a right to know what they know, and know it soon.

The impeachment inquiry was triggered by an unidentified whistle-blower whose conscience moved him to alert the intelligence community inspector general when he got wind of the president’s efforts to use the power of his position for personal gain. The whistle-blower used an established legal process for government officials to raise concerns.


That particular avenue also remains open for other officials. Although the president and his minions have been trying to muddle the issue, there is in fact no requirement for whistle-blowers to directly witness wrongdoing in order to report it. If you’ve seen something corrupt occur in the White House, say something. If you’ve got reliable second-hand information about something — say something then, too.

If Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, the president himself, or other members of the administration seek to obstruct the impeachment inquiry, that in and of itself would constitute an impeachable offense. In the meantime, career officials and national security professionals will have to make their own choices.

There are examples of officials sticking their neck out and doing the right thing. In addition to the whistle-blower, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson showed integrity by investigating and affirming the initial allegations. The State Department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, proactively provided Ukraine-related documents to Congress on Wednesday.

For at least some officials, a moment like this is exactly why they said they were in the Trump administration in the first place.

Three years ago, when Trump came into office, establishment Republicans faced a dilemma: Should they work for a president many of them loathed, hoping to constrain him from the inside, or stay on the sidelines, avoid the moral taint of associating with Trump but also forfeiting the ability to influence him? An anonymous op-ed by a senior official published in The New York Times last year made the case that by serving in the administration, officials could limit the harm the president would inflict on the country.


“Many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” the op-ed said. “Many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

For any political or career official who justified joining or staying in government with that kind of logic: cooperating with Congress is how you “preserve our democratic institutions.”

The Watergate scandal forever sullied the reputation of President Richard Nixon’s apologists and accomplices. But it also produced heroes who obeyed their conscience, like Elliot Richardson, the attorney general who resigned rather than obey an order from Nixon to fire a special prosecutor. For officials in the Trump administration, this is a time to find their own moral courage.