Contrary to a lot of heated rhetoric from Democrats, most Republicans understand that Russia was responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s server in 2016 and other efforts to sow mischief in the electoral process. They’ll even admit it when pressed.
The problem is they want everyone to believe that Ukraine did the same thing. It didn’t.
To make the case, the Ukraine conspiracy theorists take a handful of anecdotes about individual Ukrainians and insinuate or insist this thin gruel amounts to something as sinister as the Russian effort. While the effort is a propaganda gift for Russian President Vladimir Putin, they’re pushing this piffle to show they’ve got the president’s back amid the impeachment drama. They’re trying to legitimize Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, but it takes some huge leaps of faith.
The president subscribes to a fever swamp illusion that goes by the shorthand “CrowdStike.” This potted conspiracy theory holds that the Ukrainians were really the ones to hack the DNC, and the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike somehow colluded in hiding the server somewhere in Ukraine. (It’s not there and there were actually scores of servers.) Before Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, he first asked him to get to the bottom of CrowdStrike.
Trump isn’t pushing this canard because it’s Russian propaganda, but because it’s Trumpian propaganda. He detests the fact that everyone, starting with the CIA and continuing through Robert S. Mueller III, has confirmed Russia’s interference on his behalf because he thinks it robs glory from his victory. It’s his “Achilles’ heel” his former aide Hope Hicks told the FBI in recently released interview notes.
The problem is that no one can take this CrowdStrike craziness seriously. According to Trump’s own theory, Ukraine meddled on behalf of Hillary Clinton. And, to that end, they dealt a devastating blow to her campaign by hacking the DNC server and pinning it on Russia.
Those dots don’t connect. So what the president’s defenders are doing is waving away the actual matter Trump asked about — CrowdStrike — and stitching together enough random bits to claim Ukraine meddled just enough to make the president’s “concerns” seem legitimate. It’s a bait and switch.
Take the dramatic appearance by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Of course Russia interfered in our election,” he said. “Nobody looking at the evidence disputes that.”
The controversial part came when Cruz added: “Because Russia interfered, the media pretends nobody else did. Ukraine blatantly interfered in our election.”
No it didn’t.
Cruz’s best evidence of meddling is an op-ed he cites that was written by the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States in the wake of convoluted remarks by then-candidate Trump about Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Trump himself later tried to walk back the comments, but not before the Ukrainian ambassador wrote that Ukraine was troubled by Trump’s backsliding on the Crimea issue. To bipartisan and worldwide horror, Russia illegally stole Crimea. The ambassador, writing at a time when Ukrainians were being killed by Russia-backed forces, said: “Many in Ukraine are unsure what to think, since Trump’s comments stand in sharp contrast to the Republican Party platform.”
This is outrageous meddling? Who knew an op-ed in the Hill could be so influential?
Trump’s comments stood in contrast to Sen. Cruz’s own position on the annexation. Does Cruz think that an ambassador raising concerns that echo Cruz’s amount to “blatantly” interfering in an election? Is it comparable to Russia’s anonymous purchase of Facebook ads in 2016 designed to exploit political divides and help Trump get elected?
Other examples of Ukrainian meddling thrown around by Trump defenders mostly include random statements by individual Ukrainians or the effort by independent Ukrainian actors to release damaging — and truthful — information about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s corrupt dealings in Ukraine on behalf of pro-Russian politicians. They often mention a Ukrainian court ruling saying the disclosure of that information amounted to meddling in U.S. elections. Less mentioned is the fact that the ruling was overturned. Whatever you make of all that, you could make the case that withholding such information would have amounted to “interference” too.
But the idea that any of this is remotely equivalent to Russia’s clandestine, Putin-ordered interference is preposterous. It’s also irrelevant because there’s no evidence Trump had any of this in mind when he asked Zelensky about CrowdStrike.
Just after the 2016 election, the Soviet-born former chess champion Garry Kasparov tweeted: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
That may be the closest we can come to understanding the president’s Ukraine strategy — and that of his defenders.