Little Russia-gate: The Tragic Comedy Of Journalism Has a Ukrainian Encore

Matt Bivens, MD
Oct 2, 2019 · 12 min read

“I said, ‘I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars.’ I said, ‘You’re not getting the billion. I’m going to be leaving here in,’ I think it was about six hours. I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch. (Laughter.) He got fired.” — Vice President Joe Biden, from a video clip in January 2018, recounting how he threatened to withhold $1 billion in aid until Ukraine’s government agreed to fire its top prosecutor.

But that was noble!

It was completely different from Donald Trump’s recent call to the new Ukrainian president!

You see, Vice President Biden was just trying to make Ukraine a better place. One with, you know, respect for the law. So he blew into Kyiv with a list of demands, looked at his watch, and said to the elected leaders of that long-suffering nation that they had six hours to get rid of the equivalent of their attorney general.

Or at least that’s how he tells it. This is probably another of Biden’s Walter Mittyesque daydreams, like his similarly gripping fiction about how as vice president he was asked by a four-star U.S. general to venture into a “godforsaken” region of Afghanistan, no doubt riding a camel and wearing a pakol, so he could pin a Silver Star on a reluctant American officer.

But whether the ultimatum to Ukraine happened that way or not, all agree that Biden led our policy toward Ukraine with a public demand for that nation’s prosecutor’s head on a platter. Some might call that meddling in the affairs of a fellow purported democracy. Some might go further and say it looks extra sketchy when you lead the charge to bring down a lawman who is investigating people who have been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to your son, for a fake job.

The reply from Camp Biden is all sputtering indignation. Vice President Biden was just bringing a collective message to Ukraine from the whole world! And anyway, Burisma Holdings — the Ukrainian fossil fuel company that hired Hunter Biden immediately after his dad took over Ukraine policy for the United States — is a fine company. Burisma is right there in the Honor Role of Donors to the Atlantic Council, for example, having given between $100,000 and $250,000 to our leading pro-NATO think tank — a solid citizen right alongside Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, the U.S. Department of Defense and CNN. (As an aside: Not sure which is more inspiring to see here: CNN’s coziness with the military-industrial lobbying world? The Pentagon’s open-handedness with our tax dollars? The panache with which the Atlantic Council takes money from Ukrainians the British investigate for money laundering?)

And sure, Hunter Biden raking bucks from Ukraine while his dad the Vice President sternly lectures Ukraine — definitely “the optics are bad.” (That’s Washingtonspeak for: It looks to all the rest of us — we the people who don’t get huge checks in the mail from random foreign gas companies just for our pretty looks — like family corruption. Which is exactly what it looked like 10 years ago, when Hunter Biden got checks from credit card corporations while his dad was flogging their favored bankruptcy bill through Congress, earning Joe Biden the derisive nickname “the Senator from MBNA.”). But as The Washington Post so typically and definitively puts it, “No evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Bidens has surfaced.”

So Biden, on behalf of the White House, demands a prosecutor be fired in the most explicit quid pro quo imaginable: You ain’t gettin’ the billion dollars. I’m leaving in six hours, if the prosecutor ain’t fired, no money for you.

And that’s democracy in action. Tough-love. Diplomacy, motivated only by our deep respect for the Ukrainian people, and our ongoing desire to model for them the highest standards of the rule of law.

A few years later, President Donald Trump says to the newly elected Ukrainian president: You should return to this episode, and look into it.

“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that,” Trump says in his phone call with the Ukrainian president. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution [sic] so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”

Technically Biden bragged about stopping the prosecutor — not the prosecution of the gas company that was making regular payments to his son.

But nevermind. Suddenly, overnight, all right thinking people agree that this phone call — this odious demand, this effort by a U.S. president to have a foreign power investigate his political rival — this is the last straw!

The president should be dragged out of the Oval Office by his orange hair!

Start the impeachment hearings! (What could go wrong?)

In fact, why stop there?

We should put him in front of the firing squad!

That is according to no less mainstream an authority than former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, who is running a longshot campaign against Trump for the Republican nomination. “It’s treason, pure and simple,” Weld told MSNBC, with two other Republican candidates at his side who did not disagree, adding, “The penalty for treason under the U.S. code is death. That’s the only penalty.”

Death! Death! Death!

(And the other side chants: Lock her up! Lock her up!)

Thank Goodness that there was a vigilant CIA officer lurking around the White House, ready to file a formal complaint with the Inspector General of National Intelligence about stuff he overheard other people saying about a presidential phone call.

“I was not a direct witness to most of the events described,” the CIA officer writes. “However, I found my colleagues’ accounts of these events to be credible.”

Good job, anonymous CIA officer! I personally might have thought twice about demanding, in writing, an investigation of a U.S. president based on hearsay. But then, I’m not a foot soldier for a secret service in an all-but-open war now with the elected president.

The president now hints broadly that this CIA officer was spying on him — spying on the president! — and himself might need to be put to death, along with some Democrats in Congress.

So this is clearly going very well.

Do Us a Favor Though

“I would like you to do us a favor though,” Trump says in his phone call in July to congratulate Volodymyr Zelensky on his election.

(Ukraine is a nation so disgusted with its political elites, it elected a TV personality known for his role as a good-hearted high school teacher who accidentally becomes president. So, sort of like the United States, a nation so disgusted with its political elites, it elected a TV personality known for his role as a smirking blowhard who enjoys firing people. Trump clearly has some fellow-feeling for Zelensky; each seems bewildered as he struggles to fake it until he makes it as president.)

Trump goes on to say — clearly referencing the mass psychogenic illness known as Russiagate — that “our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” He tells Zelensky, “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation” — he makes some garbled allegations that I will gloss over for simplicity’s sake, but he basically verbalizes his ongoing doubts about whether Russian agents actually did breach the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee during the runup to the 2016 elections; and alludes to credible-seeming reports that both DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign operatives asked the previous government of Ukraine to investigate and help undermine then-candidate Trump’s campaign for president.

It is worth noting that there has been near-zero interest among supposedly objective national media in this story, which Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson characterized in formal complaint letters to the Justice Department as “brazen efforts” by the DNC and Clinton campaign “to use the government of Ukraine for the express purpose of finding negative information on then-candidate Trump in order to undermine his campaign.”

So to judge by the priorities, tone and coverage of our national media:

  1. It is mafia-like behavior, perhaps even treason, for Donald Trump to ask any foreign government or basically any foreigner to share information about his Democratic political opponents; how dare he!
  2. It is right and just and good, perhaps even the highest form of patriotism, for any Democrat to ask any foreign government or basically any foreigner to share information about their Republican political opponent Donald Trump.

Trump, in his rambling way, continues his phone call with the Ukrainian president:

“There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people,” he tells President Zelensky. He seems to be saying: When you took over from your opponent, the Clinton-supporting Petro Poroshenko, some of his people stuck around, and they are bad news. (Elsewhere in the call they have back-and-forth about recalling and criticizing their own various diplomats that seems to be a similar preoccupation.)

“I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it,” Trump continues. This was back in July, one day after the staggering face-plant political disaster of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s televised testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, and Trump assumes Zelensky was watching with the same horrified disbelief as the rest of us. “As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”

Zelensky volunteers that his people have been meeting with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, who has a brief to look into what Trump sees as abuses of power by CIA and FBI in cooperating with Democrats and pet journalists in building the Russiagate narrative. Giuliani has a nebulous position — is he an official envoy of the president of the United States, or a personal representative of The Donald? Hard to say. But at minimum, for the Ukrainian president, being seen as treating Giuliani well is probably a good insurance policy, just like raving about the accommodations at Trump Tower when he visits New York. Trump agrees it’s great that Zelensky’s people met Giuliani, says he hopes they will continue to interact with both Giuliani and the U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who is also investigating the dark origins of the Russiagate narrative (again we’re in nebulous territory here about the jurisdictions of Barr, Giuliani and their Ukrainian counterparts), and the call winds down.

And that’s it.

Cue the hysteria.

Imagine if Barack Obama had taken a 2016 phone call with the Ukrainian president, and had said something like: “I’m told that Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka has a $50,000-a-month job on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that’s being investigated for money laundering. It also looks like Donald Trump was able to use his influence to have your government fire law enforcement officials who had been investigating this. My attorney general is going to call your prosecutors about this, and anything you can do to get to the bottom of it would be welcome.”

Would this be inappropriate? Yes. Because presidents are not prosecutors, and presidents should not call other nations to ask for investigations into their political rivals. But would anyone be screaming about such a hypothetical Obama phone call as treason, disloyalty, the scandal of the age, possibly punishable by death? Would we see the president brought to formal trial before the U.S. Congress? Of course not.

Let’s keep playing, this is fun! Imagine Obama in an interview is asked a hypothetical: If the British, say, or the Norwegians, call with damning information about a political opponent, would you hear them out? Or would you cover your ears like a frightened child and run as fast as you could to FBI headquarters to turn yourself in, sobbing apologetically for almost committing a Listeningcrime? “I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” Obama replies. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”

Would this provoke headlines about our disloyal president? Of course not. We’d all say, “Ah, Obama, I love that guy. So calm and sensible.”

Enter the Media

Consider this exchange between NPR’s Scott Simon, interviewing Wall Street Journal reporter Dustin Volz. The transcript is just after news of this Ukraine phone call broke, it is from NPR and you can listen to it as well; the emphasis is added by me:

SIMON: And let’s begin with what you’ve learned about — I guess it was the president’s phone call in July to Ukraine’s new president, Zelensky.

VOLZ: That’s correct. So we reported yesterday that President Trump had a phone call in July, sort of a congratulatory call in many ways. But during that, he told the new president of Ukraine — we’re told about eight times — to look into the Biden family amid sort of ongoing allegations, unfounded, that there are some sort of corruption concerns there with the 2020 candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served as a board — on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

SIMON: I — let’s repeat. You averred to it. Several U.S. news outlets — news outlets in the U.S. have investigated these allegations and found no evidence.

Trump actually urged President Zelensky one time to look into the Bidens per my read of the transcript, not eight times. It’s eye-rolling, of course, because trying to keep up with all of the breathlessly exaggerated delirium is just hopeless. But even more egregious is how Simon and other journalists fall all over themselves at this stage to dismiss even the notion that Joe Biden and his son Hunter might have some explaining to do … Shouldn’t real journalists be interested in both sides of this story?

NPR’s Simon notes that the White House was holding up $250 million in military aid to Ukraine at the time of this call. He asks if Trump was telling the Ukrainian president: Investigate Biden or you’re not getting the money. Was this a quid pro quo, he asks? Then adds, “Or is that simply implied?” (?)

Volz replies that Wall Street Journal sources “are telling us that there was no explicit quid pro quo on this … there was no mention of the military and intelligence aid that was being held up … we’re not hearing that there was anything like that.”

Not good enough! Try again! NPR asserts that Zelensky certainly would know there was $250 million in aid awaiting approval, the Wall Street Journal agrees, and NPR with satisfaction continues with its pre-planned mafia analogy “joke”:

SIMON: I mean, this is sounding very — forgive me — Sopranos-like, in a way, isn’t it?

VOLZ: (Laughter).

SIMON: ‘Nice little country you got here. And if you want $250 million in aid …’

VOLZ: I must confess. I never watched “The Sopranos.” But I…

SIMON: All right.

VOLZ: … I will say …

SIMON: My generation.

VOLZ: (Laughter) This is — you know, the past two years have, of course, been dominated by the Russia investigation, the Mueller probe. And that was centered on the idea of foreign influence in the 2016 election from Russia. And now we have, you know, what appears to be a conversation between President Trump and the president of Russia’s neighbor Ukraine talking about looking into a political opponent, Joe Biden, and his son. And so this does raise questions, again, about foreign interference and what the president is inviting or doing heading into the 2020 campaign.

What a helpful summary. The past two years have been dominated by what the president rightfully has called a witchhunt. Sorry, but it has been. That delirious, rage-filled two years of hyperventilation — Trump and his people working with the Russians to sap our freedoms and steal our votes. Russians under every bed, Russians infecting our minds like a virus, Russians about to turn off our heat and freeze us all to death.

It all ended with a disappointing whimper but never mind that because President Trump has now been caught colluding with “Russia’s neighbor” — doesn’t matter how you do it, just get that word “Russia” in there next to those words “President Trump”. Even if you are technically referring to a neighbor that finds itself at war with Russia, it still counts! After all, why does the word Russia keep coming up again and again around Donald Trump and his people — right? So suspicious! More collusion! This time, we’re going to get him!

Matt Bivens, MD

Written by

Born in DC, studied at UNC-Chapel Hill, now living in Massachusetts. ER physician, EMS medical director, recovering newspaper journalist & Russia-watcher.

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