Politics

Ukraine, Who-kraine?

One Slate writer tries to help another keep track of the impeachment scandal players.

Photo collage of the heads of Donald Trump, Kurt Volker, Adam Schiff, Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, Fiona Hill, and Rudy Giuliani.
Donald Trump, Kurt Volker, Adam Schiff, Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, Fiona Hill, and Rudy Giuliani, in no particular order.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images Plus, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images, Alexandria Virginia Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images, and Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images.

Transcripts, texts, secret servers! Whistleblowers, White House counsels, and subpoenas! Guys named Sondland, Volker, Parnas, and Fruman whom you’ve never heard of before! Is the Ukraine story getting too complicated for normal humans to follow, or are we obligated as citizens to keep track of everything? Two Slate staffers debate.

Ben Mathis-Lilley: Did you see that Sondland is selling out Rudy but pushing back on Fiona Hill? And that someone, maybe Volker, told the Journal that Sondland learned about the Burisma-Biden connection as early as the Rick Perry trip in May? Can you believe it?

Ashley Feinberg: I can believe it! But mostly because I can believe anything at this point, because it seems that every possible corruption crime this administration can do, it has indeed done. But in all honesty I am only 100% sure about two of the names in that paragraph.

About 80% sure of another, and one I only know because I got it wrong earlier today.

That last one is in addition to the two I am sure of. But despite this, I get the gist! It’s absurd to expect anyone to fully remember all the ins and outs unless it’s their specific beat.

Mathis-Lilley: I agree that there are, like, a lot of previously unknown people involved in this, and that it can be hard keeping track of all of them in one’s head. But my argument is that, as Citizens and Media Professionals, we should at least try to do that. This is a case that involves intricate corruption shenanigans. Deciding that something is too complicated to bother following, therefore, works to the advantage of the shenanigan-committers by signaling to the general public that the story is something that they can ignore. Doesn’t it?

Feinberg: Obviously it’s better to know their names than to not know their names, but if what you’re worried about is making sure the public knows to pay attention, isn’t it better to center stuff on the broader strokes anyway? Like, of course people should be writing about whatever Sicrumanlenskyachov did to cover his tracks, but we should also be explaining repeatedly who Sicrumanlenskyachov is. No one is going to remember on their own, and if they’re reading names without context, they’ll lose interest faster than if we go in with the expectation that everyone is as dumb as I am.

Mathis-Lilley: I’m relocating back to my in-laws’ house where Wi-Fi has been discovered.

Feinberg: I insist we include that in the post

Mathis-Lilley: Lol

Aren’t you, though, as a political journalist of great renown, contributing to learned helplessness among the citizenry by publicly professing that you find this story easy to lose interest in?

Feinberg: Where did I ever say that, though? I think there’s a big difference between acknowledging that it’s very difficult to keep track of the various incremental developments and saying this story is boring or not worth it or something.

And I think that’s why it’s important to re-contextualize these people each time we mention them—it reminds people of why things are important and makes it easier to stick with whatever thing Katrina Pulsimonskionisargon did when you know that she’s the ambassador to crimes or whatever.

It’s not even a lack of interest thing. As I’ve mentioned to you before, there are people at my last job who I’d developed rapport with whose names I could not even begin to tell you (if you worked with me at my last job and are wondering if this was you, it’s definitely not and I think you’re great!).

Mathis-Lilley: Without looking, what is MY name? Spell my last name.

Feinberg: Ben Pulsimonskionisargon.

Ben Mathis-Lilley: You won’t believe what I reportedly said Dr. Varancus did at the Miami meeting with Parnas and Fruman!

Feinberg: But it’s not because I found them dull or not worth remembering, it’s just that the news cycle and, honestly, Twitter in general has permanently ruined my brain

See, Parnas and Fruman sound like they are maybe people I’ve heard before and if you told me they were involved in this I’d have no reason to question it I don’t think.

Mathis-Lilley: It sounds like your beef is not with being expected to a follow a multiperson story, but with headlines and tweets that breathlessly expect you to know how each drip of news flows into the larger … bucket … bucket of crime.

Feinberg: Well it is also with being expected to follow this particular multi-person story. It’s incredibly complicated and there are a lot of weird legal details that are difficult to parse and keep track of, especially if it’s not something you spend 100% of your time focused on

I think it’s normal to expect people to have a very crude, baseline understanding and just constantly reexplain the rest of it

Mathis-Lilley: OK. While we’re here, as someone who does get a little excited when he sees on Twitter that Kurlenko just agreed to testify against Lurkenko, is there anything about the current state of the story that I could explain to you, or America?

Feinberg: I mean, this is perhaps a large ask but … where are we at right now …

In general …

Mathis-Lilley: In one paragraph: Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is testifying today (in a private session of the House Intelligence Committee) that Trump told him the president of Ukraine wasn’t allowed to visit the White House until he got the OK from Rudy Giuliani. At that time, Giuliani—as we already know from other sources, including Giuliani and Trump themselves—was obsessively hounding Ukraine to announce that it was investigating Joe Biden on (bogus) corruption charges, and also to announce that it had tried to frame Russia and the Trump campaign for everything that happened in 2016. We have been and will likely continue hearing about the details of this scheme from other State Department figures, via Congress. Parnas and Fruman, those two guys mentioned above, are in fact real Ukrainians whom Giuliani describes as his “legal clients.” They were just arrested for trying to buy influence with American politicians. They also happen to have paid Giuliani $500,000 for vague services related to a company called “Fraud Guarantee.” Federal prosecutors in New York are reportedly investigating whether, as this would suggest, Rudy was mixing his “Private Citizen Whom the President Has Randomly Appointed to Be in Charge of Ukraine” gig with his “Quasi-Lobbyist Who Takes Money From Shady Guys in Ukraine” role in illegal fashion.

Feinberg: This is the first I’m hearing about Fraud Guarantee I think??

Which I DO feel embarrassed by, more so than being unable to recognize the names

Is Gordon Sondland the one who made a big show in the texts of saying, “To be clear, the President says do NOT do crimes”

Mathis-Lilley: Yes, that’s our Gordon. He’s also trying to now claim that he had no idea there was any connection between Giuliani’s constant demands for Ukraine to investigate Burisma, the natural gas company Hunter Biden worked for, and Trump’s potential 2020 campaign against Joe Biden.

Feinberg: Wouldn’t that require not knowing that Joe Biden was running for president?

Mathis-Lilley: His argument, and I am pleased to be able to be the one to break this to you, is that he did not know Hunter Biden worked for Burisma until last month, despite there having been a prominent New York Times story about it in May and Giuliani having mentioned it multiple times on national television.

Feinberg: OH I do sort of remember that.

OK and Volker is the … ambassador to Ukraine?

Mathis-Lilley: Shit.

I don’t remember! Fuck.

Feinberg: Oh wow

Mathis-Lilley: I looked and Volker is the “special representative” to Ukraine from the State Department. The ambassador, I do remember, was Marie Yovanovitch, but she got pushed out for calling shenanigans on the rest of these clowns.

I think that pretty much covers it.

And I did spell her name correctly without looking it up.

Let’s take the part out where I didn’t remember Volker’s job.

Feinberg: This is why no one trusts the media anymore

I do have another question, which is: Which of these guys appear to have turned on Trump so far?

And which were never on his side

Mathis-Lilley: Sondland: Kind of turned on Trump, though trying to do it in a way that absolves himself.

Volker: don’t know yet.

State Department Ukraine “chargé d’affaires” Bill Taylor: Appears to have turned on Trump months ago.

Fiona Hill and John Bolton: Fully turned.

Yovanovitch: Was never on his side.

Rudy: Currently standing outside your window accusing Fiona Hill of being a witch.

Feinberg: This is probably an embarrassing question but … who is Fiona Hill exactly?

Mathis-Lilley: John Bolton’s buddy who worked on national security.
Don’t worry about it.

Feinberg: I thought I was explicitly supposed to worry about it?

Mathis-Lilley: This workplace conversation is over.

Feinberg: Once again, I’m being deplatformed.