Chicken Kiev: Misframing the Trump-Ukraine Controversy

It’s remarkable how the Trump-Ukraine story has reflexively been described as a case of Trump’s “courting Ukrainian interference in American politics” rather than as Trump’s interfering in Ukrainian politics, or even more precisely, as Trump’s abortive attempt to make an intervention into the Ukrainian criminal justice system. The latter strikes me as a more straightforward description of what actually happened.

DES MOINES — Allegations that President Trump courted foreign interference from Ukraine to hurt his leading Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., dominated presidential politics on Saturday, as Mr. Biden demanded a House investigation of Mr. Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s leader and as Mr. Trump lashed out, denying wrongdoing without releasing a transcript of the call.

I heard one pundit try to justify the “courting interference” description by claiming that in asking the Ukrainians to investigate Hunter Biden, Trump was legitimizing Ukraine’s sending covert operatives to the United States to circumvent the American criminal justice system–presumably to abduct Biden for trial (or worse) in the way that the Israeli Mossad abducted Adolph Eichmann in 1960. I guess that’s one interpretation–a highly speculative one that involves a gigantic leap beyond any evidence we have, but an interpretation nonetheless.

Another interpretation involving much less of a leap is that the “courting interference” interpretation allows us to focus narrowly on Trump while ignoring the fact that both Biden and Trump have made interventions in Ukrainian “politics.” Naturally, ignoring Biden helps Biden, which in turn facilitates “our” attempts to unseat the Tyrant Trump. It also allows us to avoid the broader question of when it is and when it isn’t legitimate for an American president or vice president to make demands of a foreign country’s judicial officers via demands made to its chief executive.

I can see why someone like Donna Brazile might prefer the narrower perspective that focuses entirely on Trump while relegating Biden’s doings to the margins of consciousness:

“We’re basically creating a political story, which right now is undermining Joe Biden, when I do believe the real focus should be getting the substance of the complaint out to the American people as soon as possible,” she said.

Donna Brazile gets paid to think like that–or put somewhat differently, to avoid the thoughts that permit her to think like that. Those of us who make our living in other ways might have a different focus. We might want to ask broader questions about the conduct of American foreign policy, among them why it is that those who run it, Democrat or Republican, operate on the hubristic premise that American interference in other countries is really foreign interference in America.

Interestingly enough, it isn’t–in case you were wondering.  This fact, both elementary and elemental, serves as a  useful starting point into what, in fairness, ought to be called the Trump-Biden-Ukraine controversy (the Bidens rather obviously being at the center of it). To what extent, if any, ought we to be interfering in the operation of other countries’ political systems? It’s a neutral question consistent with a wide variety of answers. Answering it is about as close as we’re ever going to come to blowing the whistle on American foreign policy–the only whistle in the vicinity worth blowing.

2 thoughts on “Chicken Kiev: Misframing the Trump-Ukraine Controversy

  1. Pingback: Character-Based Voting and Kleptocracy | Policy of Truth

  2. Not sure I could even have invented this conversation to illustrate the point of my post. From a piece in today’s New York Times:

    Concerns about Ukraine Becoming an “Instrument” in U.S. Politics: On July 21, 2019, Ambassador Taylor flagged President Zelensky’s desire for Ukraine not to be used by the Trump Administration for its own domestic political purposes:

    [7/21/19, 1:45:54 AM] Bill Taylor: Gordon, one thing Kurt and I talked about yesterday was Sasha Danyliuk’s point that President Zelenskyy is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.

    [7/21/19, 4:45:44 AM] Gordon Sondland: Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.

    Sondland’s response to Taylor is a classic in the literature of bureaucratic passive-aggression, familiar to anyone who has to had to deal with a bureaucrat of this variety. Here is a rough translation into ordinary English:

    Yes, Bill, I hear what you’re saying, and am making a pro forma attempt to pretend that I care, but ultimately, I’m giving you marching orders from on high that must be carried out, regardless of the honesty or dishonesty of the enterprise. So please just shut up already and be a team player, because it’s axiomatic that we have every right to interfere in Ukrainian law enforcement investigations, if that’s what our boss wants us to do. Ukraine is a half-assed country that needs something from us, and faces destruction if they don’t get it. So the balance of forces is exactly right for us to have our way with them, which is exactly what we’re going to do. What worries me is the idea that there might be something in the world not entirely amenable to our will. I mean, we’ve got $391 million dollars of aid that says that we’re the boss. So are you trying to insinuate that we should act as though we’re not? Whose team are you on, anyway?

    Naturally, Gordon Sondland is a symptom of a certain approach to politics, not the totality of the disease. And there are, no doubt, Democratic versions of Sondland anywhere you care to look–as there are non-partisan versions of Sondland as well. The real issue we face is less whether Trump’s malfeasances are impeachable as whether Sondland’s assumptions are justifiable. Should our relations with other countries be a matter of offering them weapons, then suborning their dependence on us? Is there really no other way of doing business in the world?


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