Michael Weiss on Internal Discord in US and Ukraine's Post-Maidan Transformation
17 November, 2019
Michael Weiss in Kyiv speaking to Oleh Pavliuk, November 13 2019, Kyiv, Ukraine Photo: Hromadske

The United States has seen the start of the impeachment process, with numerous closed depositions going public, as well as the first public hearings in Congress. Meanwhile, Ukraine has tried to shed its corrupt post-Soviet past, but it increasingly seems as if the United States is no longer a reliable partner in this struggle. We spoke to Michael Weiss, editor-at-large at the Daily Beast, to get his view on the internal discord gripping the United States as well as Ukraine's EuroMaidan transformation.

Mr. Weiss, first of all, the public impeachment inquiry began this week. Starting November, 13, we are going to hear a lot of testimony aired live. The first one is going to be by the acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and the Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of State George Kent. And there is going to be a lot of other testimonies over the course of the next few weeks. What are you personally going to be looking for in these testimonies? 

The closed sessions testimonies the full transcripts of which have now been released - 2,500 pages of statements issued by several U.S. diplomats and national security officials. That really kind of sets the agenda for the open proceedings. The most banner, blockbuster lines from those testimonies are going to be interrogated now in front of the Klieg lights for the American public to see.

So I’ll be looking for things like Bill Taylor, for instance, reiterating his objection to doing this incredibly indecorous and possibly even illegal scheme whereby you’re trading in political information in exchange for normal bilateral relations with an American ally, the so-called “quid pro quo”; Fiona Hill who was full of insights as I would expect her to be as one of the best biographers of Putin. Some of the things that she said, in particular, the fact that Donald Trump would have been surveilled by the KGB starting in the late ’70s, given his business ties and also his marriage to Czechoslovakian national — these things are going to come up again and again. 

Also, keep in mind now, the Republicans who have every interest in protecting this president they will have done their oppo homework. And some of the lines that they want to propound here including trying to stand up various conspiracy theories that Giuliani was trafficking in this guy John Solomon, very dodgy “reporter” for the Hill who has now come under scrutiny. I would expect the Republicans to try to legitimize the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine that actually engaged in cyber-espionage against the U.S. in 2016, that the CrowdStrike servers were located somewhere here in Kyiv. And then indeed, you know, Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden joining the board of Burisma was guilty of all kinds of corporate malfeasance or is himself a corrupt individual.

You’ve mentioned that the Democrats and the Republicans will have different strategies regarding the impeachment inquiry. So what will they be sticking to? For example, the Democrats will be doing their best, will be going out of their way to scathe Trump, to show that he is a bad guy. And the Republicans, what are they going to do? How are they going to counteract this?

To me the top line of this whole thing, and you noticed the president is framing this as a witch hunt, as a coup, yet another attempt by the feckless Democrats to delegitimize the results of the 2016 election. That’s been actually strategically savvy of him because his base shows no signs of fracture. The hard-core, sort of MAGA-trumpkins in America are rallying around this president. In fact, that base is arguably even expanding. Any Republican who so much questions the narrative is tossed out on his ear.

There is a case of a congressman in Florida who basically said, “I just want to hear the evidence”. And the constituents ran him out of town on a rail, he’s not seeking re-election.

However, the real issue here and unlike the Mueller investigation, leave aside the fact that it is a Democratic-controlled sub-committees that are pursuing this impeachment inquiry, it’s actually Republicans who are delivering the bare bodkin to this president. Bill Taylor, Republican statesman in good standing going back decades, a foreign service type servant under George W. Bush.

Even [Gordon] Sondland who is basically a partisan hack and a donor who became a diplomat — even he stepped on his own tail by having to retract what he said before Congress because his memory was suddenly refreshed by the testimony of others. He is a Republican! 

I don’t know what party affiliation Fiona Hill has had, but by being willing to serve in this administration she clearly showed that she was at some point okay with Donald Trump's presidency and wanted to do right in terms of guiding America's national security with respect to Russia.

This is not a Democratic conspiracy. It's very honest on its face. You can't make that argument because “the call is coming from inside the house”, as they say in horror films, right? These are former White House officials who are basically making the case that this president was using the status of his office to seek political kompromat on his likely rival in 2020, and was withholding crucial military aid to an American partner and ally as the condition for receiving that kompromat.

You mentioned Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union who suddenly took up the Ukraine portfolio and started acting as if he were, in fact, the chargé d'affaires interim to Ukraine from the U.S. What struck me most as I read his evidence was that it really was so easy for a person not actually engaged with the Ukrainian topic to be engaged in the Ukraine in topic by the behest of the president of the United States because he referred to those words. Is this a new normal in U.S. foreign policy that just on a whim of the president of the United States, someone can take up really crucial issues like the Ukrainian one?

I hope it's not the new normal. But look, we've been talking about two tracks of diplomacy — and I use “diplomacy” very-very loosely, in inverted commas here. What you're really talking about is the official state department relationship with Ukraine led by people such as William Taylor, the former Ambassador [Marie] Yovanovitch.

And the second track is essentially officials who have been seconded into the Trump 2020 re-election campaign. Namely: Rudy Giuliani, but also former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Ambassador Sondland. To some lesser extent, and I can get into why I consider this to be one of the main tragedies of this whole affair — Kurt Volker who is very widely respected, was very widely respected, but seem to think that he could sort of walk this knife edge of saving and in fact bolstering U.S.-Ukrainian relations, whilst at the same time appeasing a volatile, mercurial and frankly idiotic president by playing to some of his sort of notorious weaknesses: his sort of art of the deal style, businessman negotiating sensibility. And I think Volker, unfortunately, does not come away covered in glory, given that he was sort of party to this conspiracy.

Bill Taylor, on the other hand, pumps the brakes at every opportunity, said this is completely untoward, this is borderline, illegal behavior, “I want nothing to do with it”. You essentially have professional diplomats, patriots, foreign service types who put country before party, going up against, as I say either loyalists of the president or those who thought they could somehow manage that dichotomy. And the latter I think are going to come away deeply scandalized, embarrassed.

And somebody like Rudy Giuliani … Frankly, you know, I don't know if any crimes have been committed here. He certainly seems to be associated with now alleged criminals, namely Mr. [Lev] Parnas and Mr. [Igor] Fruman. But you talk about a complete about-face and national stature and reputation, America’s mayor, the former federal prosecutor who put away gangsters, is now seen as kind of a water-carrier for not just gangsters, but the worst that the Ukrainian political establishment had offered up, and in fact the kind of corrupt official that EuroMaidan, and the subsequent reforms, and elections, and plebiscites that have taken place was designed to kind of expunge from this political system. It's sort of the crisis.

America for years lectures Ukraine on cleaning up its act, becoming a transparent liberal democracy, getting rid of sort of the crony kleptocratic mechanisms that have been in place since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, what do you see — you see America behaving like a post-Soviet kleptocracy, deeply compromised and with massive conflicts of interest at all levels of government. And not only that, but then elevating, particularly in the form of two former prosecutors general of this country who were tossed out because of their poor performance and their dodgy behavior — elevating those officials, and at the same time defaming the exact element that we want in the United States to foster in this country — the kind of civil society actors, investigative journalists like Sergii Leshshenko, tearing them down and saying, “these guys are essentially spies”, or “foreign operatives”, or “people who are meddling in American democracy”.

This is a complete and utter scandal for the United States. What worries me is that this is not the way I want Ukraine to be reported on or talked about in America. The good name of this country is being dragged through the mud courtesy of a domestic presidential scandal, which is the worst possible outcome you could have for Kyiv at the moment.

You may remember those words from Marie Yovanovitch testimony when she said that effectively the State Department has been hollowed out by all these official irregular policy efforts towards Ukraine. In your opinion and in the regard to what you've already said does it mean that the State Department has effectively become subjected to the whims or for the White House and its current occupant Donald Trump, if I may say so?

I would put it like this: members of the State Department do what they're intended to do as American civil servants. They are not informed, though, by the White House as to what is actually taking place behind the scenes — this kind of "Cloak & Dagger policymaking," that Donald Trump is using his surrogates and emissaries to do. So the State Department is being undermined. I see this not only with respect to Ukraine but also with respect to Syria. This precipitous withdrawal that was announced a month ago, the green lighting of a Turkish invasion in northeast Syria. The last people to know about this were senior State Department officials, the Pentagon including the American servicemen who are stationed in northeast Syria and all of America's allies, some of whom actually have boots on the ground there as well. And this was the result of a phone call between Donald Trump and the President of Turkey. And we also don't know what else is taking place behind the scenes in terms of possible business arrangements or financial streams flowing from Ankara to Washington D.C. This is what you see. You see a kind of a parallel government for lack of a better term, whereby the chief executive of the country is doing whatever he wants and not informing the people who are meant to implement his written and avowed policies. 

This public impeachment inquiry has been going for some time and we've seen that public support for it has reached 50%. The percentage of people supporting Trump's current policy and him personally is relatively stable at 40%. Does it mean that all those things do not affect Trump's core audience, people supporting Trump at all? Does it mean that all these inquiries and public impeachment increase are just a showup for the Democrats? Will they have no effect?

If Republican talking points on this have shifted from "there's no there there" and "there was no quid pro quo" to "okay, there is a quid pro quo but so what? Everybody does it, American presidents have done this in the past." I think where it's going to head now, it's already beginning to two different streams here: The first one is "Many Republicans still believe that the Democratic National Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign went to Russia, dug up dirt on Donald Trump, basically did what they're accusing the Democrats of having done in 2016, what Donald Trump is now proven to have done in 2019. In other words, they're going to draw a moral equivalency between the Steele dossier, all of the conspiracy theories from 2016 about how Donald Trump was investigated and scrutinized by the opposition to what's happened now. And basically in the form of Devin Nunes who is barking mad as a congressman and is really pushing some of the most outlandish sort of counterfactual ideas about what's taking place. This is his line.

You may remember how he said in Sondland's testimony, the European Union is doing effectively the same: conditioning its aid to Ukraine on some anti-corruption efforts.

I think what's going to happen is you're going to see Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh. Eventually, they're going to resign themselves to "okay, yeah, you know, Donald Trump instructed people: go find out what Biden's kid is up to, and if there is any illegality there, until you do that, you're not getting your military aid, but so what?" They're just going to run a campaign saying Biden's kid is the privileged son of an overindulgent and corrupt longtime veteran politician. It's going to be part of the reelection campaign strategy basically. Biden represents the establishment, "the swamp" - the phrase from 2016. Donald Trump has been trying to drain it. And again the reality of what Donald Trump has been doing and what his family have been doing: his son is now on a disastrous book tour trying to promote a text in which he says "driving past Arlington national cemetery reminds him of all the sacrifices the Trump family have made." These things are like out of The Onion but it doesn't register with the space. For somebody like myself it's very difficult to say what I'm about to say because my whole professional life the one thing I tried to avoid as a foreign correspondent, somebody who studies international affairs is drawing a moral equivalence between liberal democracies, particularly my own country and either illiberal non-democracies or shall we say authoritarian regimes. It's become almost impossible now not to make the case that America under this president, or at least a sizable portion of the electorate and the kind of media apparatus that informs that elector are behaving almost like either a kind of Soviet or post-Soviet system, partiinost, this idea that the party makes the reality, it is always correct, it cannot be challenged or criticized or scrutinized — that is taking hold in the GOP. To the point where a party that used to have healthy traditions at odds with each other and tried to come to some consensus, but debate and dissent was encouraged. All of that's gone now. you're an enemy of the people if you don't line up behind this president. It;'s a very terrifying thing and for me, I don't know the answer to the question I'm often asked and we as Americans often ask ourselves: "Is this a temporary phenomenon? Is this just an anomaly because of this man in the White House? Or irreparable damage has been done and this trend is going to be irreversible?" I don't know.

What I'm going to say might sound a bit counterintuitive but sometimes what is happening in the United States, the impeachment inquiry, resembles to me what is happening in the United Kingdom over Brexit. Both countries have become extremely divided over in the case of the United Kingdom over Brexit whether to leave the European Union or not and in the United States first whether to support Trump and now whether to support the public impeachment inquiry or support the impeachment case in general or not. This has come as kind of a tricky question whether the country can become whole again and the case of the United States, what do you think of this?

I worry about whatever the result of the next presidential election is going to be. If he loses, the best-case scenario given his nature is he decides to be the kind of permanent ex-president that some of his predecessors have wisely chosen not to be, particularly the last two: Obama and Bush, they go off and cultivate their garden or make their gazillions of dollars on the lecture circuit and open their libraries but they're not really regularly on a daily basis intervening in the national conversation, just as a matter of decorum out of respect to their successor in the White House. This is not what Donald Trump is going to do — he will probably found some kind of media empire, aspire to be the next Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch, create a TV channel that will make Fox News look like NPR. He is going to be loud and abrasive, he is going to tweet, defame and come up with petty schoolyard nicknames for the next president and the next class of political officials who were elected to Congress — he won't shut up. That's the best-case scenario. the worst-case scenario is he foments some civil unrest in the United States. He's already flirted with the idea of mob violence sweeping the nation if he doesn't get back in office or he would be impeached and convicted and thrown out of office before his term is up. The worst-case scenario is, I wouldn't go so far as to say "civil war" that has very specific connotation and I don't see the military cleaving in half and actually fighting each other circa the XIX century, but a national social and political crisis that cripples the country — yes, I can see that happening. By the way, it's a little too easy to say that Trump is the original pathogen in American politics, he's very much a symptom of not just what's been happening in the U.S., but what's been happening worldwide. You have a situation in which during the last news cycle the president of France gives an interview to The Economist saying "NATO is braindead." And really kind of comes out as not a continental multilateralist who believes in the Transatlantic relationship, but almost an aspiring unilateralist who doesn't want to ask for bye or leave from Washington or Brussels, wants to pursue his own national policy, is kind of trumpeting sort of the banner concepts of frankly what a Viktor Orbán or Vladimir Putin would say about national sovereignty, and in fact makes admiring mention of both Orbán and Putin kind of in that interview. I think Macron was giving expression to what a lot of European stakeholders and elites are now thinking. I just read an article today about Mr. [Ihor] Kolomoisky saying "it's time to embrace Russia" — the man who single-handedly kept Dnipropetrovsk from falling into the hands of the so-called separatists, right? Controversial in many respects, but the one thing you couldn't say about him was that he was a stooge for Moscow. Now, the West is finished, this kind of seems to be a prevailing notion, and it's on the left hand, it's on the right, and it ties into obviously this kind of populist wave that has swept North America and Europe. In some places, it's receding but in other places, I think, it's only growing.

A question I forgot to ask you about with regard to impeachment inquiries is about the personality of John Bolton, the former national security advisor to President Trump. There was a report in Bloomberg last week saying that it was effectively Bolton who lifted the block on military aid to Ukraine that was supposed to have been provided by the United States, not the President of the United States himself. Later Bolton hinted at having to say more about conversations that have not already been made public. Should he actually turn up before the House of Representatives? Would you expect him to deal a severe blow to Trump's presidency and to be a great boost to Democrats?

Bolton is a traditional conservative Republican hawk, he's not a neocon, he said that many times himself, he doesn't really believe in democracy promotion — he believes in militarism, he believes in advancing America's national interest insofar as he believed in arming Ukraine — it was to deter and contain Russia. He's actually respected in Moscow because he takes such a hard line against the Kremlin, and they quite like that, he's not someone who's easily pushed around. The problem I see with Bolton being the kind of heretic who undoes this presidency is twofold: number one — the Democrats would basically turn him into a martyr if he did that but the Democrats were the ones who howled with rage when he was appointed national security advisor, and he has nothing but contempt for them. This was the man who was going to lead America into war with Iran, he was mocked, he was savaged as somebody who should never come anywhere near the White House. I don't see him taking one for the team or going to bat to mixed metaphors with the Democratic Party. Number two: I think he is savvy enough a political player in his own right that he would understand that if he did stick the knife into the GOP and the president, he wouldn't be allowed back into the good graces of the party and would never occupy a position of power in any administration going forward, so I think Bolton is looking out for Bolton, he's not necessarily concerned with the stature and enduring democracy of the United States. And also there are other things: he's got a book deal, so maybe he's saving his real ammunition for the launch of that book, he's looking to cash in. He actually, believe it or not, comes across as another one of these rare professional officials in the White House. He believed he called it a drug deal what Giuliani was trying to orchestrate. He's never gotten such good press as he has in the last month. I think he's also kind of savoring that and maybe wants to prolong that by keeping everyone in the dark about what he'll do. He also doesn’t want to testify, he says he's going to sue Congress if they subpoena him which is an indication again that he's looking out for number one.

Now I want to turn back to the topic of Ukraine. You've mentioned Kolomoisky article you wrote. It seems to me and to many Ukrainian observers that the topic of Ukraine has become really toxic in the United States and U.S. politics especially. There's been this reporting foreign policy saying that the position of the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine is going to be abolished. There's no real indication for that right now but still there are some rumors going on about that. There were also some phrases about the Ukraine fatigue in some of the testimonies and all that sadly points to the fact that there is no one in the U.S. politics to deal with Ukraine, to maintain Ukraine policy, Ukraine case, the Ukraine portfolio anymore. Does that mean that Ukraine has become kind of forever toxic topic now in the United States? Can this situation be somehow alleviated?

I don't think it's become forever toxic but the biggest problem facing President Zelenskyy and I wrote an article right after the whistleblower complaint came out saying his popularity here is still quite high, which is good for him and pushing through whatever reforms he wants to do, advancing this ambitious domestic agenda. But the real problem is: Ukraine cannot afford to lose the bipartisan consensus in the United States that it must be supported both diplomatically, commercially and indeed now militarily against Russia. It's in danger of losing that at least in the short term because for instance when you read in these testimonies that "we were this close from convincing Zelenskyy to go on Fareed Zakaria on CNN and make a statement saying 'we're investigating Burisma'". Democrats are going to see that as "so he was willing to go along with this drug deal."

There was this New York Times report when he actually agreed but when the U.S. military aid was suddenly given and all that just to disappear.

A good chunk of Washington will see him as having been willing to connive in this unconstitutional quid pro quo arrangement with the president — that's bad for Ukraine. Coming back to what I said earlier, I think, Americans unfortunately, being honest with you — I shouldn't be saying this because this is what I do for a living: going to other countries and reporting on what's happening abroad — most Americans don't care about abroad, they don’t really care. They care about Russia because when they turn on cable news, it's the height of the Cold War again. The Russians are up to no good and Putin is this kind of grand puppet master of everything nefarious happening in the world and a lot of that has been sensationalized and turned into a bit of a cartoon and I say this as somebody who's been warning about Kremlin machinations for over a decade now. When I came to Ukraine, I think there was a natural American sympathy, this is a country in Europe, it's had its territory stolen from it, it’s got Russian troops under the guise of being patriots and volunteers occupying its eastern region. But Ukraine wasn’t in the headlines and Americans have kind of gone on with their lives and had to deal with this guy in the White House who makes a tweet and that becomes the news cycle. 

Unfortunately, Ukraine is now in the headlines because it's being pulled into a domestic political scandal and also unfortunately as I said earlier, the worst Ukrainian officials who were essentially seconded into selling disinformation now have their names in lights: [Yuriy] Lutsenko, [Viktor] Shokin, people that you kind of want to have forgotten about are coming back and this is going to leave a sour taste in Americans' mouths. 

You also have the president who may be not tweeting this, but he's been quoted as saying that “he just doesn’t like this country, he thinks it's all corrupt, and it's a burden that America should cast off”. Perhaps he got this from conversations with Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin, perhaps that's just his natural instinct because again he believes Ukraine tried to rob him of the presidency, the way Hillary Clinton believes — with more justification -- that Russia tried to rob her of the presidency. 

So, yes, in the short term I think Ukraine has become a bit radioactive in the American media ecosphere. However, the one thing it's got going for it and I say this as somebody who's been here twice in the last two months, prior to that I'd been here in 2014, so it was a five-year gap. I have noticed  a dramatic transformation in Ukrainian society, just in Kyiv. It's become a global city. It stands a good chance of becoming the next Berlin, if not the next Paris of Eastern Europe. I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that. It seems more dynamic, it seems more at peace with itself encouraged by peaceful political transformations that have happened. 

Bizarrely, we don't like to use the word normalization because that usually means making an accommodation with unpleasant circumstances, but normalization has occurred in as positive a way as it can happen. I was at the YES conference in September and this was not a conference you would expect to see of a nation at war and under occupation. The theme was happiness, it seemed very froufrou, like something out of 1970s new age Los Angeles. I thought it was a bit silly and bizarre but then I reflected on it and thought "no, actually, this is good, this is a country that wants to get on with its life and most importantly not be defined by its victimhood, by its having been invaded and occupied and having been kind of that punching bag of its next-door neighbor. 

That's important because if Ukraine becomes a truly sovereign country with its own agency, and attracts foreign direct investment and tourism, and people want to come here not to sniff around and see what the Russians have got up to, but because they genuinely enjoy being in Ukraine. That will have been the biggest success story of EuroMaidan and that will be something that Americans can appreciate in the future, if not right now. 

/Interview by Oleh Pavliuk