Yes, Ukraine Meddled in Our 2016 Election. That's Not a Baseless 'Conspiracy.'

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Posted: Dec 09, 2019 10:25 AM
Yes, Ukraine Meddled in Our 2016 Election. That's Not a Baseless 'Conspiracy.'

On yesterday's edition of Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd tangled with Sen. Ted Cruz on the issue of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election.  During their exchange, Todd asked Cruz whether he believes Ukraine meddled in that election, and Cruz responds in the affirmative.  Todd reacted with stunned bewilderment, as if Cruz had just said be believes in Bigfoot.  His eyes grew wide as he exclaimed, "you do?"  Here's the portion of the clip tweeted out by the show's official account:


My response: "Certain conspiracies aside, Ukraine did meddle in 2016. It was small potatoes compared to Russia’s pernicious scheme, and seems to have been less centrally-directed. No equivalency. But evincing shock at its mention, as if it’s totally invented, is...odd."  Let me flesh that out a little bit by making a few points. (1) It is true that the president has internalized and pursued a number of totally baseless conspiracy theories regarding Ukraine, including the 'Crowdstrike' claim that he raised with President Zelensky during their infamous phone call.  It seems clear that the president believes things on this front that are wildly untrue.  (2) It is also true that a number of the president's defenders are citing Ukrainian interference to draw a false equivalence between Ukraine's 2016 machinations and the Russian government's far more wide-reaching, pernicious, and centrally-directed meddling campaign -- or at least to obfuscate and muddy the waters.  (3) And it is also true that Ukrainian officials did, in fact, engage in election-related interventions designed to harm candidate Trump's chances of winning.  On this last assertion, I'll once again direct you to this Politico investigative story published in 2017:

Donald Trump wasn’t the only presidential candidate whose campaign was boosted by officials of a former Soviet bloc country. Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office. They also disseminated documents implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election. And they helped Clinton’s allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers, a Politico investigation found...A Ukrainian-American operative who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee met with top officials in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington in an effort to expose ties between Trump, top campaign aide Paul Manafort and Russia, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation. The Ukrainian efforts had an impact in the race, helping to force Manafort’s resignation and advancing the narrative that Trump’s campaign was deeply connected to Ukraine’s foe to the east, Russia. But they were far less concerted or centrally directed than Russia’s alleged hacking and dissemination of Democratic emails.

It's absolutely fair to say that the scope, severity, and implications of Ukraine's actions were in a totally different ballpark than Russia's wide and undeniable program of subterfuge. It's similarly valid to suggest that mentioning them in the same context, as if they cancel each other out, is extremely misleading. But what is not fair is to ignore the paragraph quoted above, or pretend that it's insane to state the fact that some Ukrainian officials worked both quietly behind the scenes, and out in the open, to undermine Trump's candidacy and help Hillary Clinton's. This wasn't just a foreign government expressing a preference in the election. Active steps were taken -- a meeting with a DNC consultant at the Ukrainian embassy in Washington and the dissemination of documents -- to help make that preference become a reality. Claiming that these actions don't constitute "meddling" or "interference" because they weren't nearly as bad, aggressive, or illegal as the Kremlin's amounts to strained parsing. Both words clearly apply, in my view.  

One can hold that thought in one's mind without denying any of the other relevant facts, from Russia's far worse culpability, to the president's bizarre fixation on meritless theories.  Journalists like Todd would be on much firmer ground if they merely called out "Ukraine interfered, too" arguments as unfair deflections, advanced for the purposes of sowing confusion and distraction.  But by pretending that Ukraine's interference didn't happen at all, or that words' plain meaning somehow don't apply here, they're straying from journalism and misleading their audience.  They may feel as though they're doing so for the greater good, but that's rationalizing advocacy.  I agree with this:

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I'll leave you with another strange question and response from Sunday's Meet the Press:


Excuse me, what?  Despite Russia's intrusions and plots, the United States held a free and fair presidential election in 2016.  The United States will do so again next year.  It is extremely irresponsible to suggest otherwise, and to hint that if President Trump is not removed from office via impeachment, the next election may not be legitimate.  It was a very weird question to ask, especially with no follow-up or pushback, and Chairman Nadler's bad answer was indicative of his hyperbolic partisanship.  The Left and their media allies talk a lot about the damage Trump is inflicting on our norms and institutions, sometimes with good reason.  But they're doing a lot of that themselves, and this is just the latest example of it.