Sean Hannity’s defense of Donald Trump Jr. during his Fox News interview on Tuesday evening began with a lengthy and muddled pastiche of ways in which the Democrats — and Hillary Clinton in particular — had behaved just as badly. Or, maybe, worse.
Hannity revisited one of the points from his introduction later in the show — a point that Trump Jr. himself had made on Twitter on Tuesday morning. What about a Politico report from January, Hannity asked, suggesting that Ukraine was colluding with the Clinton campaign to help her candidacy?
After loosely describing that Politico report, Hannity suggested that the media was ignoring it at their peril.
“I pose this question to everybody in the media that’s forced to tune in tonight,” he asked. “Which is worse?”
The Russia-Trump Jr. issue is worse. Allow us to explain.
Hannity’s argument stems from a January Politico article by Ken Vogel and David Stern, titled, “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump backfire.”
It centers on a woman named Alexandra Chalupa, who worked as a consultant for the Democratic Party throughout the 2016 cycle through her firm, Chalupa & Associates. Her role with the party was outreach to ethnic communities, but, a Ukrainian American herself, Chalupa had been researching Paul Manafort’s work in that country even before he was tapped to serve as Donald Trump’s campaign chairman in March of last year. Chalupa, Politico said, “occasionally shared her findings with officials from the DNC and [Hillary] Clinton’s campaign” — though the timing on this sharing isn’t clear.
When Manafort began his work with Trump, Vogel and Stern write, Chalupa “found herself in high demand.” The day after he was selected, Chalupa briefed the party’s communications staff on Manafort’s background.
More to the point, Chalupa allegedly also worked with the Ukrainian Embassy in researching Manafort and any links between Russia and Trump. In an interview with Politico, she describes the embassy staff as being “helpful” in trying to answer her questions. A former political officer at the embassy told Politico that an aide to the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States had ordered him to help Chalupa in that regard. He described a meeting in which that aide, Oksana Shulyar, asked him to update Chalupa on an investigation into Manafort being conducted by an American media organization.
Vogel and Stern also report that Chalupa introduced reporter Michael Isikoff, who was working on articles about Manafort, to “the Ukrainians.” Chalupa’s work with the party ended in July.
It’s worth noting that Chalupa gained some renown after the election for promulgating an unproven conspiracy theory on Facebook. Promoted by a viral tweet from her sister Andrea, who described Chalupa as having “led Trump/Russia research at DNC,” the Facebook post hinted darkly at Russian meddling directly in vote tallies, speculating about a Justice Department investigation into votes that were “manufactured in favor of Trump in heavily Republican counties in key states.” No evidence of this happening has been demonstrated in any form.
The Politico story also notes another way in which the Ukrainians allegedly submarined Manafort. He left his position with the Trump campaign last summer after a secret ledger detailing nearly $13 million in under-the-table payments to Manafort from the pro-Russia Party of Regions for which he’d been working in Ukraine. The ledger was first reported by the New York Times after being discovered by a Ukrainian government agency and promoted by a journalist who was also a member of the country’s parliament — which some argued meant that the country’s prime minister approved of the leak in order to damage Manafort.
Where it diverges
The short-hand version of this story — Russia helped Trump, but Ukraine helped Clinton! — suffers badly from a collapse of scale.
While the Politico story does detail apparent willingness among embassy staffers to help Chalupa and also more broadly documents ways in which Ukrainian officials appeared to prefer Clinton’s candidacy, what’s missing is evidence of a concerted effort driven by Kiev.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed his intelligence agencies to hack into and release private information from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. That effort included hackers from two different intelligence agencies which spent months inside the DNC network before releasing thousands of pages of documents to the public.
What’s more, they coordinated a widespread campaign to amplifying unflattering stories about Clinton and promote Trump. Russia also repeatedly probed American election systems, prompting an unusual warning to states from the federal government.
American intelligence agencies saw signs that people allied with Trump’s campaign may have been aiding the Russians in that effort. That’s why this is all being discussed right now, of course, since Trump Jr.’s emails draw the clearest line between the Russians and the campaign we’ve yet seen. The FBI began a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s meddling a year ago.
By contrast, Politico’s report details the work of one person who was researching Manafort with help from inside the Ukrainian Embassy and who, at some undetermined point, provided info to the Clinton campaign, though she worked for the DNC as a consultant until shortly before the party conventions. That, coupled with the Manafort ledger revelation, is the full scope of the Ukrainian plot that’s been revealed. A weak link to the Ukrainians and a weaker link to the Clinton campaign.
The legal issues
You don’t have to take our word for it, though.
Lawrence Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, spoke with The Washington Post on Tuesday about how Trump Jr.’s emails might pose a legal risk to him. Over email, he weighed in on the Politico story as well.
“I think the article raises some troubling questions about Ukraine involvement in our elections,” Noble said. “The difference is that there is not clear evidence of the Clinton campaign coordinating with a foreign national or encouraging or accepting their help.”
“If the Ukrainian government did oppo[sitional] research in coordination with the Clinton campaign or the DNC and they knowingly accepted the information,” he added, “there is a possible foreign national contribution. But if Chalupa was gathering the information and passing it on, the question is who did the work and what did the Clinton campaign and DNC know.” That’s not clear from the report.
“If the Ukrainian government did the same with Clinton as the evidence suggests Russia did with Trump,” he said, “it’s just as serious. But we are not there.”
To any objective observer, that’s clearly the case. Neither Trump Jr. nor Hannity meets that description.