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Republicans are Defining Foreign Interference Down

Trump's allies are trying to reset the standard for "election meddling" so low that it would be hard not to meddle in an election.

Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is not a fool, but he seems to think that Americans—or at least Meet the Press viewers—are fools. Conservative outlets and pundits have long claimed that Ukrainian officials interfered in the 2016 presidential election to undermine then-candidate Donald Trump and aid Hillary Clinton. Over the past three months, the claim has spread from backwater right-wing conspiracy theorists to the highest reaches of the Republican Party. “Do you believe Ukraine meddled in the election in 2016?” moderator Chuck Todd asked Cruz on Sunday. “I do, and I think there’s considerable evidence of that,” the senator replied.

Cruz did not articulate the most conspiratorial version of this narrative, which blames Ukraine outright for the acts attributed to Russia three years ago. But his interpretation was just as deceptive. “Look, on the evidence, Russia clearly interfered in our election,” Cruz said. “But here’s the game the media is playing. Because Russia interfered, the media pretends nobody else did. Ukraine blatantly interfered in our election. The sitting ambassador from Ukraine wrote an op-ed blasting Donald Trump during the election season. That is unusual.”

Calling this a lie would be too simple. It’s based upon a fanciful mixture of real events and surreal insinuations. The unfounded belief that Ukraine—and not Russia—was responsible for the cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns that tainted the 2016 election has already led Trump and his legal fixer, Rudy Giuliani, into the worst political crisis of his presidency. Now Cruz and the president’s allies are peddling a caffeine-free diet version of the claim in a desperate attempt to extricate the president from that crisis.

What did this Ukrainian “interference” look like in reality? Cruz only cited an op-ed published in The Hill on August 4, 2016, by Valeriy Chaly, who was serving as Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States at the time. Titled “Trump’s comments send wrong message to world,” the op-ed wasn’t published in a vacuum. As its title suggests, Chaly was responding to a series of remarks from Trump in which the presumptive Republican nominee adopted the Russian narrative on its war in Ukrainesuggesting that he might recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

“A candidate for the presidency in any country ought to realize the challenges he or she will face to ensure consistency in foreign policy and uphold his or her country’s international commitments,” Chaly wrote. It’s unusual and undesirable for ambassadors to comment on their host country’s internal politics. But describing his breach of diplomatic etiquette as “interference” gives it too much credit. Chaly’s piece focused solely on the Ukrainian policy issues that Trump himself raised and didn’t mention Clinton at all. Even if it had, an op-ed in The Hill—a publication with scant readership or clout beyond the Beltway—would hardly be the best vector to influence American voters in far-flung swing states.

In a report released last week, House Republicans pointed to other public critiques of Trump during the 2016 election as proof of interference. Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, wrote on social media at the time that Trump was a “clown” and that he was “dangerous for Ukraine and the U.S.” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the country’s former prime minister, also warned that Trump “challenged the very values of the free world.” Contemporary news accounts describe other Ukrainian officials and activists as favoring Clinton over Trump. According to House Republicans, these comments “shed light on President Trump’s mindset when interacting with President Zelensky in 2019.”

These comments only sound extraordinary when read in isolation. In fact, numerous foreign officials made no secret of their views during the election. Take the United Kingdom, for example. “Excellent!” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote on Twitter when Clinton entered the race in 2015. “Well I can’t be with Trump, can I?” Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told The Guardian in August 2016, “I can’t be with Trump so [I’m] obviously with Hillary.” George Osbourne, the chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, once told the House of Commons that Trump’s critiques about London “fly in the face of the founding principles of the United States.” He later quipped in a TV interview that he looked forward to working with the next American president, “whoever she may be.”

Some foreign leaders went even further in declaring their preference for Trump’s opponent. Matteo Renzi, Italy’s then prime minister, told a reporter that he was “rooting for Hillary Clinton” in February 2016. “It’s not a man I would vote for, I can tell you that,” Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told an audience in April. “The best thing that the Democrats can do is get Hillary Clinton elected,” French President François Hollande remarked the following June, adding that a Trump victory “would complicate relations between Europe and the U.S.” Vicente Fox, Mexico’s former president, became well-known in the U.S. for his frequent public tirades against Trump. “I’m not going to pay for that fucking wall,” he exclaimed throughout 2016.

Trump even received some endorsements of his own from foreign leaders. “I will not interfere with U.S. internal affairs,” Czech President Milos Zeman said in a September 2016 interview. “I am just saying that if I were an American citizen, I would vote for Donald Trump.” Viktor Orban, Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, was even more blunt. “The foreign policy of the Democrats is bad for Europe and deadly for Hungary,” he told The Wall Street Journal that July. “In contrast, the foreign policy of the Republicans and proclaimed by presidential candidate Trump is good for Europe and means life for Hungary.” A host of far-right figures also voiced support for Trump, including Britain’s Nigel Farage, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

By Cruz’s standard, then, at least half of Europe “interfered” in the 2016 election in one way or another. Treating every op-ed or critique by foreign officials as interference stretches the definition of election interference beyond recognition. Indeed, that seems to be the point. Singling out Ukrainian officials’ remarks gives a grossly misleading impression about the eastern European country’s role in the 2016 election. It also provides Cruz and the president’s other defenders with some ready-made whataboutism when discussing the Russia investigation and the Ukraine scheme.

In reality, the differences between how Ukraine and Russia approached the 2016 election could hardly be more stark. Take their approach to secrecy: Ukrainian officials raised their concerns about Trump and his policies in public forums under their own names, meaning that anyone who heard them could readily evaluate the credibility and biases of their claims. When Russian government operatives spread stolen internal Democratic files, by comparison, they assumed false identities like Guccifer 2.0 to mask their origins and used intermediaries like WikiLeaks to cover their tracks.

Another key difference was intent. Chaly’s op-ed may have been diplomatically awkward, but at least it made a fair critique of Trump’s remarks about Ukraine. Russian operatives went much further than that, to say the least. They used Facebook and other social media platforms to inflame preexisting racial tensions and political divides. They covertly encouraged voters, particularly those who might favor Clinton, to either support third-party candidates or not vote at all. Moscow’s goal wasn’t just to support Trump and harm Clinton, but to increase political strife in the U.S. and undermine American democracy. Nothing said or done by any Ukrainian official in 2016 comes close to that in terms of malice or bad faith.

Finally, there was the crime. Russian meddling in 2016 also took the form of illegal cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Spreading stolen documents and emails harmed Clinton’s campaign at key moments throughout the race, including on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. They also contributed to an overall sense of distrust and unease that hurt Clinton among voters throughout the race. Not only did Ukrainian officials’ comments and writings have nowhere near the same impact among voters, but they didn’t break the law when they made them.

Claiming that Ukraine “blatantly interfered” in the election, as Cruz did on Sunday, is worse than a lie. It’s a disingenuous defense of a president who was caught red-handed trying to force Ukraine to actually interfere in an election. It’s a conspiracy theory that’s all conspiracy and no theory. It’s like saying that heckling referees during a kids’ soccer game is as bad as rigging the 1919 World Series. It’s an insult to the intelligence of everyone who hears it—and a Christmas gift to the Russian officials who desperately want it to be heard.