The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The worst Ukraine take yet

Journalist Maria Bartiromo, center, appears before President Donald Trump speaks at the Economic Club of New York on Nov. 12, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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It’s not clear whether Russia will invade Ukraine. It is clear that it is ready, with sufficient forces positioned close enough to Ukraine’s borders to quickly strike should it choose to do so. That is obvious not just from government reports but also from on-the-ground social media posts showing the extent of Russian preparations.

What is clear, though, is that the U.S. government is not talking about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine because it is trying to protect a former Cabinet official from a scandal that exists almost entirely in the imagination of Fox News and the American political right.

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On Wednesday morning, this was nonetheless the theory posited by Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo during an interview with Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). Bartiromo’s once-impressive reputation has been badly if not entirely tarnished in recent years by her willful, energetic embrace of nonsensical conspiracy theories about the 2020 election results and coronavirus vaccines. The question she posed to Tuberville during her show “Mornings With Maria,” though, may take the cake.

After Tuberville suggested that the tensions between Russia and Ukraine could be resolved if the two nations simply “talk it out,” Bartiromo offered her assessment.

“What about this hysteria that the State Department went through all weekend?” she asked. “Because on Friday, you’ve got [national security adviser] Jake Sullivan telling us that Russia would invade Ukraine today. I mean, to be so specific and all the leakers leaking that it was today, Wednesday to be so specific and then Joe Biden telling us, get out of Ukraine immediately.”

“Was this a ruse?” she continued. “Was this whole thing an effort to take everybody’s attention away from what Hillary Clinton did and what we know to be a complete hoax over this Russia investigation?” After all, she continued, Sullivan worked for Clinton, and he had been involved in “peddling this Russia collusion lie.”

If you’re not familiar, the “what Hillary Clinton did” to which Bartiromo refers is the story that has overtaken Fox Business’s sibling network Fox News in recent days. It leverages a court filing from special counsel John Durham to allege that Clinton’s 2016 campaign paid researchers to “exploit data,” including from the White House, to impugn Donald Trump. To call it overheated based on the available evidence is like calling Trump’s claims about election fraud in 2020 slightly exaggerated. There’s no evidence that the Clinton campaign directed the research or even that it paid for the research. The research involved information legally obtained by a technology company and is not shown to have been initiated solely as a political ploy.

In other words, the narrative Fox is promoting doesn’t at this point pose any significant risk to Clinton — much less to President Biden. Sullivan did work with Clinton’s campaign and, while serving in that role, did elevate one quickly debunked allegation that followed from the research. There is no reason to think, though, that the Durham filing poses any significant threat to him, either.

But even if the administration were tearing its hair out about the dangers of Durham’s filing, it’s asinine to suggest that it’s influencing Biden’s Russia-Ukraine position. For one thing, tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been escalating for months. Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in early December about his concerns over Russia’s more aggressive stance. He has spoken with Zelensky and other world leaders about the issue repeatedly since. Over time, Biden’s team has offered more and more narrow projections about when Russia might strike, with officials stating more than a week ago that it could happen before the end of the Olympics — which is to say, before Sunday.

If this was all to muffle a court filing from Durham that came out on Friday, kudos for the administration on doing such extensive prep work — something it has otherwise not always engaged in successfully. If it managed to persuade Russia to move all those troops to its border and into Belarus, it marks an incredible negotiating accomplishment that we might all wish had been better deployed.

Fundamentally, Bartiromo’s line is just lazy. It’s just mashing together two things — distrust of Biden and dislike of Clinton — into one inconsistent allegation. It’s by no means journalism and not even really the opposite of journalism. It’s just pushing the bar in the Skinner box to deliver viewers the dopamine rush of familiar frustrations.

Oh, in case you were wondering, Tuberville agreed that “they’re scrambling, there’s no doubt about it.” To his credit, he did not explicitly agree that the Biden administration orchestrated the potential trigger for a global military conflict to avoid having Sean Hannity mention Hillary Clinton on-air a few times.