Trump de­fend­ers con­tinue to push con­spir­acy the­o­ries

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Jonah Gold­berg

Con­trary to heated rhetoric from Democrats, most Repub­li­cans un­der­stand that Rus­sia was re­spon­si­ble for the hack­ing of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee’s server in 2016 and other ef­forts to sow mis­chief in the elec­toral process. They’ll even ad­mit it when pressed. The prob­lem is they want every­one to be­lieve that Ukraine did the same thing. It didn’t.

To make their case, the Ukraine con­spir­acy the­o­rists take a hand­ful of anec­dotes about in­di­vid­ual Ukraini­ans and insist this thin gruel amounts to some­thing as sin­is­ter as the Rus­sian ef­fort. This is a pro­pa­ganda gift for Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. They’re push­ing this pif­fle to show they’ve got the pres­i­dent’s back amid the im­peach­ment drama. They’re try­ing to le­git­imize Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s pres­sure cam­paign on Ukraine, but it takes some huge leaps of faith.

The pres­i­dent sub­scribes to a fever­swamp il­lu­sion that goes by the short­hand “CrowdStrik­e.” This pot­ted con­spir­acy the­ory holds that the Ukraini­ans were re­ally the ones to hack the DNC, and the cy­ber­se­cu­rity firm CrowdStrik­e col­luded in hid­ing the server some­where in Ukraine. Be­fore Trump pressed Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy to in­ves­ti­gate for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent turned pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Joe Bi­den, he first asked him to get to the bot­tom of CrowdStrik­e.

Trump isn’t push­ing this ca­nard be­cause it’s Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda, but be­cause it’s Trumpian pro­pa­ganda. He de­tests the fact that every­one, start­ing with the CIA and con­tin­u­ing through Robert Mueller, has con­firmed Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence on his be­half be­cause he thinks it robs glory from his vic­tory. The prob­lem is that no one can take this CrowdStrik­e crazi­ness se­ri­ously. Ac­cord­ing to Trump’s the­ory, Ukraine med­dled on be­half of Hil­lary Clin­ton. To that end, Ukraine dealt a dev­as­tat­ing blow to her cam­paign by hack­ing the DNC server and pin­ning it on Rus­sia.

Those dots don’t con­nect. So what the pres­i­dent’s de­fend­ers are do­ing is wav­ing away the mat­ter Trump asked about — CrowdStrik­e — and stitch­ing to­gether ran­dom bits to claim Ukraine med­dled just enough to make the pres­i­dent’s “con­cerns” le­git­i­mate. It’s a bait and switch. Take the dra­matic ap­pear­ance by Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Repub­li­can, last Sun­day on “Meet the Press.”

“Of course Rus­sia in­ter­fered in our elec­tion,” Cruz said. “No­body look­ing at the ev­i­dence dis­putes that.” Cruz then added: “Be­cause Rus­sia in­ter­fered, the me­dia pre­tends no­body else did. Ukraine bla­tantly in­ter­fered in our elec­tion.” No, it didn’t.

Cruz’s best ev­i­dence of med­dling is an op-ed writ­ten by the Ukrainian am­bas­sador in the wake of re­marks by then-can­di­date Trump about Rus­sia’s il­le­gal an­nex­a­tion of Crimea. Trump later tried to walk back the com­ments, but not be­fore Ukrainian am­bas­sador Va­leriy Chaly wrote that Ukraine was trou­bled by Trump’s back­slid­ing on the Crimea is­sue.

To bi­par­ti­san and world­wide hor­ror, Rus­sia il­le­gally stole Crimea. At a time when Ukraini­ans were be­ing killed by Rus­si­abacked forces, Chaly wrote: “Many in Ukraine are un­sure what to think, since Trump’s com­ments stand in sharp con­trast to the Repub­li­can Party plat­form.” This is out­ra­geous med­dling? Who knew an op-ed in The Hill could be so in­flu­en­tial?

Mr. Trump’s com­ments stood in con­trast to Cruz’s own po­si­tion on the an­nex­a­tion. Does Cruz think that an am­bas­sador rais­ing con­cerns that echo his own amount to “bla­tantly” in­ter­fer­ing in an elec­tion? Is it com­pa­ra­ble to Rus­sia’s anony­mous pur­chase of Face­book ads in 2016 de­signed to ex­ploit po­lit­i­cal di­vides and help Trump get elected?

Other ex­am­ples of Ukrainian med­dling thrown around by Trump’s de­fend­ers in­clude ran­dom state­ments by in­di­vid­ual Ukraini­ans or the ef­fort by in­de­pen­dent Ukrainian ac­tors to re­lease dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about for­mer Trump cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort’s cor­rupt deal­ings in Ukraine on be­half of pro-Rus­sian politi­cians. They of­ten men­tion a Ukrainian court rul­ing say­ing the dis­clo­sure of that in­for­ma­tion amounted to med­dling in U.S. elec­tions. Less men­tioned is the fact that the rul­ing was over­turned.

The idea that any of this is re­motely equiv­a­lent to Rus­sia’s clan­des­tine, Puti­nordered in­ter­fer­ence is pre­pos­ter­ous. It’s also ir­rel­e­vant, be­cause there’s no ev­i­dence Trump had any of this in mind when he asked Ze­len­skiy about CrowdStrik­e.

Just af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, for­mer Rus­sian chess cham­pion Garry Kas­parov tweeted: “The point of modern pro­pa­ganda isn’t only to mis­in­form or push an agenda. It is to ex­haust your crit­i­cal think­ing, to an­ni­hi­late truth.” That may be the clos­est we can come to un­der­stand­ing the pres­i­dent’s Ukraine strat­egy — and that of his de­fend­ers.

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