The extensive testimony, congressional debate, and public discussion of President Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s quest to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations into Trump’s 2020 campaign rival have not focused sufficient attention to a dimension of the plan. The ongoing conversation has included frequent reference to the potential destructive effects: illegal foreign interference in a presidential election that damages America’s democracy and subordinates American national security to personal, political interests. That should be enough to ram home the impact. But it’s still a pretty clinical, academic description, and it omits a missing element of the practical impact on American voters.
Even the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic counsel Barry Berke’s simple ABC explanation in a slide presentation (abuse of power, betrayal of the national interest, corruption of elections) before the panel on Dec. 9 used the abstract and generic-sounding “corruption of elections.” What does that mean? Corrupted how? What does that mean to Jaime Voter in Michigan?
What’s missing is the more direct, practical impact: to deceive and manipulate American voters and undermine their ability to cast an informed vote. Indeed, there are different forms of foreign election interference, and what makes the Ukraine one especially pernicious is this dimension. The president to whom so many voters cleave as their champion was trying, as he so often does, to twist their understanding of the truth, and this time in secret. American voters’ perceptions of their candidates and, thus, their ability to exercise their constitutional right to vote for their next president in a free and fair election would have been influenced by a secretly cooked version of the story, or narrative, of one of the leading candidates—in this case, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Had the scheme worked without the kind of scrutiny it has received in recent months, it would have gone far beyond the usual negative advertising and campaign bluster about opponents that is routine in vibrant democratic debate. Typical negative attacks are at least somewhat transparent because sponsors are declared, and so those individuals or groups and their statements can be challenged just as openly. Arguably, the persistent Republican drumbeat about investigating Biden may have worked to a certain extent already; while he maintains the lead among Democratic candidates, CNN polling showed him slipping from 34 percent in October to 28 percent in November. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll this month has him at 24 percent. (Of course, it is difficult to attribute causality.)
But the Ukrainegate plot would have constituted a corrupt effort hidden from the American public, just as voters were trying to make decisions about their Democratic nominees. Voters would have been left with the impression that a foreign government was independently and legitimately opening a new investigation into Joe Biden and into his son Hunter’s membership on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
The truth that there had been no evidence of criminal wrongdoing would have been obscured by the rhetorical dust kicked up by the announcement. And the fact that the investigation was being announced only because the U.S. president had threatened to withhold a vital White House meeting with the new Ukrainian president and to deny crucial military funding from an underdog U.S. ally at war with Russia would have been hidden.
In effect, this is different—and even worse in some particular ways—than Russia’s 2016 election interference operation to hack the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems and disseminate the stolen information. In the 2016 operation, the information that Russia released via WikiLeaks at least was real information about what the DNC was doing and about its candidate, Hillary Clinton. In this Trump-Giuliani operation, the effort is to present a completely doctored version of history to coerce and manipulate the public.
This manipulation becomes even more clear in the statement by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland during his Nov. 20 public testimony to the House Intelligence Committee’s inquiry. Sondland said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had to commit only to a public announcement of investigations.
Sondland specifically testified, “He had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”
So Trump and Giuliani were manufacturing a double dose of obfuscation: coercing the Ukrainians to announce an investigation but not really caring whether it would be carried out.
The “political benefit” was to manipulate the understanding that American voters have about the personal and professional credibility of a particular presidential candidate whom Trump saw—and that some polls indicated—as his strongest challenger.
Certainly the mere specter of soliciting foreign interference in U.S. elections is bad enough, and foreign interference is in itself prohibited. But it is important to focus on why it is so extraordinarily illegitimate in this instance: because the effect could be to manipulate and likely sway large numbers of voters without them realizing that the information on which they were basing their decisions was tainted. And, yes, research suggests that Russia’s other 2016 election interference effort, its social media influence operation, produced such results.
Giuliani appears to have even privately admitted to U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker that he knew a key source of the allegations, a Ukrainian prosecutor, was not credible. Recounting a July 19 breakfast meeting in Washington, Volker testified that he told Giuliani that prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko was not credible and was acting for self-serving reasons. “To my surprise, Mr. Giuliani said that he had already come to the same conclusion,” Volker testified.
Still, Trump and Giuliani have been persistent. Even this month, Giuliani flitted around Eastern Europe, continuing to manufacture dirt on Biden for truth-twisting “documentaries” and then immediately reporting back to the White House. And the president and his personal attorney have been joined eagerly by some Republican members of Congress.
The continual echo chamber risks having an even larger effect on the understanding of “low-information voters.” Political science professors Richard Fording at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and Sanford Schram at Hunter College, CUNY, defined such voters in 2016 as those who have “lower levels of knowledge about politics” and are less interested in collecting and considering new information to solve problems or decide among competing positions. Such voters, the researchers said, make up not all but a “sizable bloc” of Trump’s base and are “less prepared to challenge his misstatements and untruths.”
The argument that these voters are being misled by the president they adore is unlikely to persuade them because they are already committed, said Sarah Oates, a professor and scholar of political communication and democratization at the University of Maryland. They may, in fact, understand the idea of foreign manipulation but insist it isn’t happening to them. Instead, they will look where the argument is coming from—their perceived political adversaries—and dismiss it.
“Trump supporters are going to reject that as further evidence that Democrats are out to belittle them,” she said in an interview.
Yet, the idea that the president of the United States is interfering with Americans’ ability to cast informed votes might resonate with voters in the middle, the independents, or those who swing between Republican and Democratic candidates and remain undecided about how they’ll vote in 2020. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published Nov. 3 showed that, while 46 percent of registered voters reported being “certain to vote against Trump” in 2020 and 34 percent were “certain to vote for Trump,” 17 percent said their decision depended on the Democratic nominee.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, is among the political leaders who have come closest to articulating the practical and concrete effect of Trump’s actions. During the Judiciary Committee’s Dec. 11 consideration of the articles of impeachment, he referred directly to the impact on voters.
“We are here because President Trump tried to sabotage that democratic process,” Johnson said. But he didn’t stop there. He drove the point home: “He didn’t want to let the voters decide. He tried to cheat in the upcoming election.”
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