On July 25, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted an unusual accusation: that Ukraine had worked to sabotage his electoral campaign and boost his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But Ukraine’s meddling, he implied, had not provoked a scandal anywhere as large as Russian hacking and electoral interference in his favor.
That claim was not new, but it had seldom received such a high-level endorsement.
Trump’s tweet came at a difficult moment for his White House. The president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, had just testified before Senate investigators and denied accusations that he or anyone in the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia. And Trump’s own son had disclosed over Twitter a series of emails that appeared to show him expressing interest in receiving damaging information on Hillary Clinton provided by the Russian government.
Trump is following one of his most common strategies, says Franklin Foer, a journalist at The Atlantic who has extensively covered the president and his former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, a political consultant who previously worked for ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
“Every time Trump faces an accusation he tries to find a counter accusation,” Foer says. The American journalist believes that these accusations “will catch on...and become an important part of the narrative” coming out of the White House.
Hromadske sat down with Franklin Foer to discuss Trump’s accusations against Ukraine.
You’ve written about Manafort for The Atlantic, you are following the story, and we’ve just received the news about the American President Trump tweeting about the [alleged] Ukrainian sabotage of the US elections. Of course, this must be connected to the fact that Ukrainian politicians were digging into the Manafort story because it would have been helpful for Hillary Clinton. How big could this story really be? Because we understand this to be a counterargument to the Russian meddling.
Franklin Foer: Exactly. Every time Trump faces an accusation, he tries to find a counter accusation. You say Trump is corrupt, well there’s crooked Hillary and she’s just as bad or worse. He has faced the worst week of his presidency, where it seems like his son has been caught, almost red-handed, collaborating with the Russians, and so he’s never been more desperate to find a new narrative, a new storyline. He’s looking for whatever he can find, so he points to Ukraine. “Russia interfered? Well Ukraine interfered. Everybody interferes and this is what happened, I’m being unfairly targeted as the victim.” Politically, it’s very important for Trump to find something. And it will catch on, it’s going to become an important part of the narrative. Fox News, Breitbart, the American right are just going to build and build this story.It might be a little bit uncomfortable for Ukraine now, but it’s going to get worse because Trump does not let go of a storyline.
What do we know about the Ukrainian meddling? What are the grounds for it? We’ve had the story about Alexandra Chalupa, who used to work for the Hillary Clinton campaign. She is an American citizen with Ukrainian roots. There was talk that she was speaking to the Ukrainian ambassador. There was also a Ukrainian MP handing over information about Manafort. You’ve looked at that, you know the story, what can you confirm? What was Ukraine’s role in this?
Franklin Foer: Almost nothing. I mean, it is nothing - to say the ‘Ukrainian role’. You have a couple of actors, who are disconnected, who aren’t part of a master plan to subvert American democracy. You have people who are freelancing, who are working on their own because they wanted to see Donald Trump lose, or Hillary Clinton win, or they had information that looked like it was going to be newsworthy and relevant, but it wasn’t a conspiracy that started at the seat of Ukrainian power to try to affect the election. It’s a bunch of scattered pieces of evidence that don’t connect into an important narrative. It’s hardly anything like what the Russians tried to do to the American election, where every single part of the American intelligence community has concluded that Vladimir Putin himself directed an effort to try to influence the election, to elect Donald Trump and to sow paranoia and chaos in American democracy.
If you look at the bits and pieces of the story about the Ukrainian interference, those pieces of evidence more or less said that the Ukrainians — some politicians, some officials, some people connected to the Ukrainian community — said that Manafort used to work for the Ukrainian dictator, who is responsible for the massacre here.
Franklin Foer: That’s the complaint — it’s that the Ukrainians were supposedly selling opposition research, negative information, about Paul Manafort, which is, first of all, a legitimate story, it’s an important story because Paul Manafort helped install a dictator in this country, he helped promote him, polish his image, and that’s an objectively very important and good story. Then, if you add the information that we’ve learned over the course of the last year about all the illicit, illegal money he received and that he was laundering - that in itself is an important story. So, I don’t really understand what the accusation that Donald Trump is trying to make. He’s saying that the story about Paul Manafort is illegitimate because a couple of Ukrainians were talking about it. It doesn’t make any sense but, it’s not important for Donald Trump’s story to make sense. What’s important for him is to have anything that he can say that tries to change the subject.
Why do you think this is happening now?
Franklin Foer: Because Trump is desperate and Manafort is testifying this week before the Senate to try and say everything that he knows about this meeting that happened in Trump Tower - the meeting with Russian real estate lawyer and this music producer that was trying to lobby them about the Magnitsky Act. And so, Trump needs anything that he can get and right now he is running out of defences, so where does he turn? He turns to one place where he seems to have some little bit of traction, which is this conspiracy that he has created about Ukraine.
What do you really know about this story about Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law?
Franklin Foer: We don’t know. This is one of the things that’s really annoying about this scandal and this story, is that it’s about a year. This year we’ve been talking about Trump, we’ve been talking about Russia, we’ve been talking about Manafort, we’ve been talking Ukraine and we keep getting fresh pieces of evidence that make it seems like there’s something terrible that happened, but we don’t know exactly what that terrible thing is. So, we learned about this meeting in Trump Tower that I just discussed, and it’s the first time that we have something concrete — you have Russians that are connected to the government who show up, saying that they have evidence that Hillary Clinton did something wrong, and the Trump people accept the meeting. Now, it doesn’t seem like anything came of that meeting and we don’t know why they were do eager to take that meeting, but all the tangible evidence, all the concrete pieces of evidence finally suggests that the Trump campaign was open about wanting to work with the Russians to discredit Hillary.
Especially for those not in the US, new details are always emerging, new allegations about people such as Comey, Jared Kushner, the gossip about Tillerson being fed up with Trump — gossip from reputable media. How serious is this? Could all this evidence on the Russian relations really bring up something big? Because ultimately, we’re losing a sense of how important this is.
Franklin Foer: Donald Trump is unlike anything else in American history. Democrats want to see him removed from office - they’re desperate. You’ve never had a situation like this, where the opposing part is so desperate to see the other guy leave office. You have this story that just keeps getting worse and worse. We don’t know what’s there in the middle, we don’t know what the actual substance of the story is, but we know it looks terrible, Trump acts like he’s guilty, and so they say it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up and Donald Trump and everyone around him keeps covering up. They keep lying, they keep making mistakes, they keep giving fresh energy to an investigation and Democrats are going to continue as they keep getting so much traction with it.
It’s not like people care. If you look at the broad population, they don’t like Donald Trump especially because they think that he is a clown, they think that he tweets too much, they think that he hasn’t done anything in the first couple months of office, which is all true. They don’t care about the Russia scandal. They’re not going to care about whatever he says about Ukraine. But, we’re talking about a legal procedure in the end. The Democrats want Trump to be removed from office by impeachment and so they need to bring charges against him, they need to show that he has committed a crime. Even if Donald Trump didn’t commit a crime at some point in his life, he’s going to have made mistakes here that will mean that he has committed perjury, that he fired people in possibly illegal sorts of ways. It’s too irresistible for the democrats, and, he may have broken the law.
Here in Kyiv, in Ukraine, where Paul Manafort spent years, the question is: why is this story significant? Why does the Manafort story still matter? He was fired...
Franklin Foer: I think part of it has to do with that we don’t know what is at the middle of this scandal and what it’s really about. You look and you say: Okay, the Russians tried to interfere in the American election, we know this is as close to fact now. We know that Paul Manafort worked for a pro-Russian dictator, we know that he worked for oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin, so if you’re trying to complete the narrative, it’s very natural to turn to Paul Manafort and say that he’s there at the centre of the narrative. We don’t know that he was in the centre of the narrative, we don’t know what his role was. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that you have this guy who has all sorts of ties back to the Kremlin, who was working in the middle of a campaign that was supported by the Kremlin. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but it’s very, very suspicious looking. That’s why journalists keep coming back to this story. I would argue that even if Paul Manafort had nothing to do with collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, he’s still a very significant villain in American history because he came to Kyiv, he helped promote a dictatorship, he stole money that came from the Ukrainian people and so, if this is an opportunity to pay attention to that story that Americans usually don’t care about, then that’s an important thing too.