Chuck Todd got his MSNBC pals together on “Meet the Press Daily” to have a serious, objective, and intellectual discussion of foreign policy and politics. Just kidding.
The Senate Intelligence Committee had just announced it found “no direct evidence” of collusion between President Trump and Russia. Democrats dispute this, without giving much reason why, which is a story in itself.
But Todd and his panel largely ignored that. They were laser-focused on former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s legal troubles, which is supposedly the next bombshell in the Russia investigation. Earlier this week, a federal judge found that Manafort lied to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, breaking his plea agreement with Mueller’s team.
One of the things Manafort allegedly lied about was his interactions with his longtime business associate Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian national, while Manafort was Trump campaign chairman. That Manafort worked with Kilimnik for years is not news. Several years before his work on the Trump campaign, Manafort, along with many other D.C. types including connected Democrats, did a lot of work for Ukraine’s then Russia-backed government.
But Manafort’s meeting with Kilimnik is supposed to be nefarious. Manafort met Kilimnik on August 2, 2016, just weeks before Manafort was fired from the Trump campaign after it emerged that Manafort had long before received undisclosed money from Ukraine’s pro-Russia government. During the meeting with Kilimnik, Mueller’s team alleges that Manafort discussed a plan for peace in Ukraine with Kilimnik, which CNN said “could have had ramifications on U.S. sanctions against Russia.”
Now Manafort faces decades in prison for crimes including and stemming from not paying his taxes and not registering as a lobbyist for a foreign government, which occurred years before he joined the Trump campaign. But back to Todd’s panel.
Todd focused on the “importance of this meeting” with Kilimnik that occurred in a cigar bar. After painting the meeting as without-question nefarious with the help of “Former Senior FBI Official” Chuck Rosenberg, Todd pivoted to paint Trump as a Russian stooge:
Chuck Todd: You know, the other part of this [cigar bar meeting between Manafort and Kilimnik] was how President Trump as a candidate in that same period… August 2nd is the meeting… Here is Donald Trump on July 31st, obviously two days earlier on a Sunday show, being asked about Ukraine. Take a listen.
Then, a clip rolls of Trump’s interview with George Stephanopoulos on July 31, 2016:
Trump: That whole part of the world is a mess under Obama, with all the strength that you’re talking about, and all of the power of NATO and all of this, in the meantime he’s going away [Vladimir Putin] takes Crimea…
George Stephanopoulos: But you said you might recognize that.
Trump: I’m going to take a look at it, but you know the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia from what they were and you have to look at that also.
The flashback ends, and back at the MSNBC studio Todd asks the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, “Who would it be in telling Donald Trump, at the middle of July, that giving him that Kremlin talking point, that most of those people speak Russian? Was it Mike Flynn, was it Paul Manafort?”
Costa says it could have been either one. Then Chuck asks Evelyn Farkas—a “Former Pentagon Russia Expert” in the Obama administration—where Trump could have gotten such a talking point, because “nobody else was saying that… nobody in the foreign policy community was saying this?” Here, Todd is implying that Trump, unwitting or not, only could have gotten such a talking point from Russia.
Farkas answers: “If I remember correctly I was in Miami, and I was woken from my vacation revelry, because what he said was outrageous. The idea that he’s basically spouting the Russian line, the Russian propaganda about Crimea, saying ‘Well these people were Russian speakers and they wanted to be part of Russia.’ That’s irrelevant.”
Then Todd adds: “There are Spanish speakers in states in this country, does that mean they want to be part of Mexico?” Finally, Todd asks, “Was there any mainstream American foreign policy person pushing this” other than Manafort and Flynn?
Farkas says no, but adds that “Thankfully President Obama and all the western leaders and the United Nations as a whole said this will not stand.”
Our Foreign Policy Establishment Gets Nothing
From listening to Farkas, you would think Crimea was back in Ukrainian hands. Obama and foreign countries slapped sanctions on Russia, for goodness sakes! The real problem is that Farkas and Todd—and most of our country’s foreign policy establishment—don’t understand realpolitik.
Crimea had been part of Russia since 1783, when tsarist forces won it from the Ottoman Turks, until 1954. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine—which, at the time, was essentially the same thing. The transfer was likely meant to reduce ethnic differences between the two Soviet entities, as Crimea’s Russian population could be added to Ukraine’s already sizeable Russian minority. So yes, Trump was factually correct, and it shouldn’t be Russian propaganda to point out Crimea’s Russian population.
Likewise, it isn’t being a Russia apologist to point out that Putin’s motivations at the time were largely driven by realpolitik, not an ethnically driven land grab. Russia has an important naval base in Crimea, which allows it to project power in the Black Sea, which is highly strategically important for Russia. Russia had leased the base from Ukraine until 2042, but the fall of Ukraine’s pro-Russia government in 2014—which Washington had at least something to do with—caused concern about Russia’s continued use of the base. So Putin snapped up Crimea that same year.
That doesn’t excuse Putin’s actions. But knowing the motivations of your opponent, and what he truly seeks, is an essential element to a successful foreign policy.
Don’t forget that when Trump was talking to Stephanopoulos, there was savage fighting in Ukraine, between forces loyal to the Ukraine government in the west and ethnic Russian forces being aided by Russia in the east. Although Trump would eventually send more help to the Ukrainians than Obama did, at the time Trump and many others were worried about America getting sucked into a war with Russia.
Right or wrong, Trump, the consummate deal maker, was surely eyeing ways to end the fighting in Ukraine without escalation—which is and was in America’s interest. As such, in Trump’s mind, it would be foolish to take the Crimea issue off the table.
Trump didn’t have to hear this from a campaign staffer who was somehow secretly connected to the Russians. This is common sense to average Americans, and certainly common sense to Trump. Basically everybody aside from the likes of the people on the MSNBC panel get this.
Likewise, it doesn’t justify Putin’s actions, or delegitimize agreed-upon international boundaries, to point out that the whole Ukraine issue is highly complicated, and America needs to tread lightly. America should have some very real concerns about propping up a corrupt and incompetent government in Kiev. It isn’t pro-Putin to point that out. Fundamentally, does America want to increase the risk of nuclear armed war with Russia over Crimea, or a chunk of eastern Ukraine?
That’s why, at the very least, we should all be able to have a reasonable debate about these issues. But the public discourse is so poisoned by the likes of Todd, Farkas, and their MSNBC panel that a reasonable debate has long ago become impossible. The MSNBC foreign policy gurus think Trump is crazy, but they quite literally don’t know what they are talking about. They think that smart, nuanced foreign policy must be a sign of collusion. You can’t deviate in any way from their approved mantras or they’ll get mad and call you a traitor. It almost sounds like a religion.
By their standards, many of our foreign policy elite—and many Democrats—are colluding with China. And have been for decades. See how this works, and where this gets us?
That’s why our foreign policy establishment is the worst. They have bad ideas about just about everything, and are utterly unwilling to engage about their ideas in a civil manner. That often makes their ideas the only game in town, so that the problem is bipartisan. Sen. Mitch McConnell can’t find enough Senate votes for conservative causes, but he easily found 68 Senate votes to keep us in Afghanistan and Syria. But it’s a bad idea to stay in Syria. And we’ve been in Afghanistan for 18 years, and the situation on the ground isn’t getting any better.
To borrow from an old saying, five people picked at random out of a small-town USA phonebook would do better at foreign policy than that MSNBC panel, or much of our foreign policy establishment. Maybe we start to have a foreign policy that reflects what the people in the phonebook want?