“Ukraine blatantly interfered in our election,” the senator continued. “The sitting ambassador from Ukraine wrote an op-ed blasting Donald Trump during the election season. That is unusual."
“I’ll tell you a Ukrainian parliamentarian —” he began, but Todd was pressing him on the point about the op-ed, taking issue with Cruz seeming to draw an equivalence between that and Russian interference in the election.
“You know, it's hysterical,” Cruz concluded. “Two years ago, there was article after article after article, in the mainstream media, about Ukrainian interference in the elections. But now, the Democrats have no evidence of a crime, no evidence of violating the law. And so suddenly, Ukrainian interference is treated as the media clutches their pearls."
It's important to put as fine a point on this as possible, so I will: Cruz's argument is demonstrably shoddy and its individual components already disproved.
The “parliamentarian” thing he was going to talk about is undoubtedly a reference to social media posts by two Ukrainian officials taking issue with Trump’s candidacy in sharp terms during the 2016 election. The opinion piece was a reference to an August 2016 essay by Ambassador Valeriy Chaly, criticizing comments by Trump suggesting he might recognize Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. Each of those purported examples of Ukrainian “interference” was cited in the only major news article to raise the specter of Ukraine trying to exert influence, a 2017 article in Politico that’s become the central reference document for the claim that Ukraine did something untoward.
The ridiculousness of these claims can be dispatched quickly. The opinion piece has been shared only a few hundred times as of writing — three years after its publication — suggesting it was perhaps not much of an influence on voters. (It was shared zero times on Twitter.)
Those social media posts were similarly unpopular. Former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk offered criticism of Trump’s comments on Crimea, lamenting that Trump had “challenged the very values of the free world” despite vying to serve as the leader of it. It has been shared 76 times as of writing; most of the comments are from individuals with Cyrillic last names. Then-minister of internal affairs Arsen Avakov for his part bashed Trump as dangerous — or, at least, that’s how it was translated. Avakov’s effort to interfere in the U.S. election was hampered more than a little bit by having been offered in his native tongue.
Either Ukraine’s interference effort suffered from a remarkable lack of interest in earning attention — sort of defeating the purpose — or what Cruz presented as definitive wasn’t an actual interference effort at all. Unless, of course, we count any criticism of Trump during 2016 as being an attempt to “interfere.” Which is sort of what Cruz implied to Todd, when Todd noted that the ambassador’s article was a response to Trump’s Crimea comments.
“So you’re saying they had disagreements with Donald Trump and they wanted Hillary Clinton to get elected,” Cruz said, intentionally attributing Chaly’s essay to the broader “they” of the Ukrainian government. This is the nut of his argument: Elements within the government concerned about Trump’s election meant Ukraine itself wanted to help Trump lose. That, by extension, warranted Trump’s later asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to … investigate Trump’s theory that perhaps Ukraine helped mislead the public about Russia having hacked the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.
That jump from “Ukraine interfered” (which is, again, unfounded) to what Trump actually requested would stymie Evel Knievel, but it’s also somewhat beside the point. More to the point is that extrapolating from “officials in a country were flummoxed by Trump” to “that country interfered” is itself ridiculous.
Former National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill made that point in her testimony as part of the impeachment inquiry last month.
“We found disparaging remarks made by pretty much every world leader and official at different points about the president,” she said in a closed-door deposition. In the public hearing, she noted that officials even from allied governments had said “hurtful things” about Trump as a candidate.
“The difference here, however, is that hasn’t had any major impact on his feelings towards those countries,” Hill said. “Not that I have seen. But I’ve heard the president say, and he said it in public so I’m not revealing any kind of executive privilege here, that ‘Ukraine tried to take me down.’"
The reason for the distinction between the actions of Ukrainians and those officials in other countries stems in part from the active advocacy of Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and in part from his need to rationalize his interactions with Zelensky. But it’s important to highlight Hill’s point: Yatseniuk and Avakov in particular weren’t alone.
After Trump called for a ban on Muslims coming to the United States four years ago this month, there was an extended debate in British Parliament about whether to ban Trump from the country. He was called “ridiculous,” “repellent” and a “buffoon.” One member argued that Trump should be allowed to come so he could be challenged directly.
This was done publicly and picked up by the media. Therefore, under the Cruz standard: Interference!
Elliott Abrams, who went on to join the Trump administration, wrote in July 2016 that allies around the world were similarly flummoxed by Trump's candidacy.
“There are no Trump supporters among officials in Tokyo, and it seems reasonable to say there are none in any other allied or just plain friendly capital: Seoul, Taipei, or Canberra (or for that matter New Delhi) facing China, Jerusalem or Riyadh or Amman or Abu Dhabi facing Iran, Warsaw or Vilnius or Prague or Kiev facing Russia,” he wrote. He was writing from Japan, where one official told him that “we listen to the speeches and watch the Trump campaign, and we just don’t know."
Said to an American? Interference!
What’s particularly cynical on the part of Trump and Cruz here is that Trump’s political identity is predicated on offending and contradicting existing institutions and leaders. Trump’s insistence the United States must be more politically incorrect and President Barack Obama was too friendly with foreign principals was foundational to what he offered Republican voters. He would take on the “globalists!” He would rouse the elites from their positions of comfort! That this took the form of doubting or rejecting established American policy and that it therefore frustrated our allies necessarily meant he would be considered with skepticism overseas. It was what he pledged to do, after all.
Now, this is the defense. Because Trump shrugged at the Russian annexation of Crimea and because Ukrainian officials understandably reacted with alarm, Trump's effort to leverage his position to push Zelensky to launch investigations of political use to him personally is framed as a considered response to that Ukrainian reaction. Despite, again, Trump's actual request having had nothing at all to do with the incidents Cruz mentioned.
Imagine where this slippery slope ends. If we accept Cruz's argument, it would therefore be acceptable in the future for any president to demand any investigation even tangentially related to the prior election from any country where any official had made any comment of disparagement about the president's candidacy. No matter the request and no matter the outcome.
If this is what Cruz believes, fair enough. Todd’s incredulity, however, seems warranted.