The TV Anchor Offers an Insightful On-Air Essay About Impeachment, Why Ukraine Matters and Where the Ultimate Villain Reigns
On Thursday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave a formal address to the nation in which she announced before a bank of American flags that the House of Representatives will proceed with drawing up articles of impeachment against President Trump.
But do you remember when we first started covering on this show what would ultimately become the impeachment scandal? Do you remember that obscure defense program we talked about here, kind of end of the summer, beginning of the fall, that was called the European Reassurance Initiative? Is that ringing bells for you?
I mean it`s interesting to look back now with the clarity of hindsight to see sort of where this started to go so wrong, where this started to go off a cliff for the president. As you know, in 2014, Russia invaded a neighboring country, invaded Ukraine. They seized a part of that country called Crimea for themselves. They declared henceforth Crimea would be part of Russia, not Ukraine.
This isn’t about Ukraine… Who benefitted by our withholding that military assistance? Our adversary in this is Russia. All roads lead to Putin.
Russia also invaded and started occupying big swaths of Eastern Ukraine beyond Crimea, a part that they just took. And to this day, Russia still claims Crimea is theirs, and they are still waging a war and occupying the eastern part of Ukraine.
Editor’s Note: This is an edited transcript of Rachel Maddow’s commentary on Thursday, Dec. 5.
When Russia first did that in 2014, it was seen as a really big freaking deal on the world stage. It was the first time another country had seized another country by military force in Europe since the end of World War II.
And when Russia did that the world reacted as if it was that big a deal because it was. The G8 decided they would kick out Russia and make the Group of 8 instead the Group of 7, the G-7.
Shot Down an Airliner
Russia got hit with serious international sanctions, sanctions that got even more intense after the Russian occupied forces in eastern Ukraine slot a civilian airliner out of the sky. That was a totally innocent, totally random commercial passenger, a Boeing 777, full of Dutch citizens and Malaysians and Australians, just civilians on a passenger aircraft, 298 people onboard all of them killed when a rush surface-to-air missile shot that passenger jet out of the sky over eastern Ukraine where Russia was occupying that part of the country.
The international sanctions against Russia got very, very serious, much worse than what Russia had been previously dealing with. Serious enough that those sanctions stopped Western oil companies from participating in joint ventures in Russia to drill for oil and gas there.
If you are looking for some light reading over the holidays this year, that is what I wrote this book about. It came out a few weeks ago. It`s called “Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth”. The industry in question there is the oil and gas industry.
And one of the central points of the book, I think one of the central moments that explains the geopolitical situation we`re all in right now is when those sanctions came down against Putin and against Russia for what they did in Ukraine. And there`s just this phenomenally important moment when the U.S. government basically picked up ExxonMobil by the scruff of its neck and said, hey, you guys stop drilling. You are no longer allowed to work with Putin and Russia anymore because Putin has overseen a post-Soviet and now post-Democratic stasis in Russia where the only thing they have developed economically is their oil and gas sector. That`s the tent pole that holds up their entire economy.
Blocked Oil Drilling
Those sanctions hit Russia hard enough that they blocked Western oil drilling in Russia. And that was an existential thing for Russia. That was an existential challenge to the Russian economy and to Putin and his ability to continue to rule that country the way that he has been ruling it now for 20 years.
But those sanctions were part of a major comprehensive international American-led response to what Russia had done. There was this whole suite of serious consequences punishing Russia, pushing back at Russia for what they had done in invading Ukraine.
President Obama also announced something called the European Reassurance Initiative, a big new defense program that was approved and funded by the U.S. Congress on a bipartisan basis, funding that was designed to basically stop the prospect that there might be another Ukraine.
The European Reassurance Initiative was a defense program designed to show Western support, American support, NATO support for other countries on Russia`s border and at risk of Russian aggression. The idea was to shore up those other countries militarily, to do things like making sure the runways at military bases in those countries were long enough and in good enough condition to handle NATO aircraft and NATO weapons systems, forward positioning, ammunition and fuel supplies and other stuff they`d need to maintain supply lines in case Western countries or NATO militaries ever needed to get into those countries quickly to push back against a potential Russian attack or potential Russian invasion.
Scrapping European Military Aid
Since Russia is still today holding onto Crimea and still today occupying Eastern Ukraine and waging their war there, that program continued for the last few years. But then not long ago, about three months ago, we noticed this weird thing that Trump very quietly had proposed scrapping the European Reassurance Initiative. He didn`t announce it that way.
Nobody in the administration put out any announcement about it.
But quietly, with no words about it at all, the line items in the European Reassurance Initiative were just defunded without explanation. They took the whole program and just sucked all the money out of it.
And that was within a few weeks of Trump also starting to make public proclamations he believed Russia should be let back into the G-7. As a candidate, Trump in 2015 said that he didn`t see the need for any U.S. sanctions on Russia. Remember he was asked a question about Russia at a candidate event in July 2015 in Las Vegas. That is where he, candidate Trump, first volunteered he did want think there should be any sanctions on Russia.
We would later realize that the person who asked him that question at that event was Maria Butina, only recently released now from federal prison after serving a considerable jail term for having been operating in this country as a secret agent of the Kremlin. She finished her prison term in October, flew home to a rapturous welcome in Moscow. She has reportedly been given a fancy new job in the Russian government.
She is the first person who elicited a statement from candidate Trump on the campaign trail in 2015 intimating that he didn`t think the U.S. should impose sanctions on Russia at all.
ExxonMobil CEO to the State Department
After he was elected president, Trump appointed Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state. Rex Tillerson until that moment had been the CEO of ExxonMobil. As the CEO of ExxonMobil, he had negotiated a record-breaking half trillion dollar oil deal between ExxonMobil and Putin`s state-run oil company in Russia to have Exxon come in and help Russia drill its sort of hard to get oil and gas. That`s what got cut off, that deal had to get stopped by the sanctions that were put in place by the Obama administration after Russia invaded Ukraine.
It was Rex Tillerson who the U.S. government reached in and grabbed by the scruff of the neck and pulled out, told him that he needed to stop drilling thus bringing an end to that half-trillion-dollar deal. Trump had never met him before. Picked him to be secretary of state, and as the new Trump administration started work in 2017, with Trump in the White House and Rex at the State Department, the Trump transition landing teams moved immediately to try to unilaterally end U.S. sanctions on Russia. They didn`t get away with it. They repeatedly found themselves blocked by members of Congress from both parties.
Now, though, apparently, enough time has passed or Trump has just consolidated enough sort of Trumpest power in the Republican Party, now things seem to be falling into place more so than they could make them go back in 2017. It just seems there`s less resistance in the Republican Party to Trump doing what he wants now towards Russia. It`s much like pushing on an open door.
Part of what he got for on this impeachment scandal is, of course, his effort to dismantle the other punishments against Russia, the other support for Ukraine that characterized the U.S.-led international response to Russia invading its neighbor back in 2014. When Trump tried to, excuse me, when Trump tried to hold up and block U.S. aid to Ukraine, right, part of the scandal that has led to this impeachment, he was trying to hold up both assistance to Ukraine directed through the State Department and the military aid directed to them through the Defense Department.
I mean, those were really the last elements of the push back against Russia that were left for him to take a go at, right? For him to try to dismantle.
But those things, him trying to block the aid to Ukraine, it didn`t come – that stuff didn`t come out of the blue. It wasn`t like he invented that idea of hurting Ukraine that way just to give himself some leverage to try to get these investigations against Biden or to try to get investigations that helped Russia exonerate itself in terms of hurting our election in 2016. I mean, all of the stuff that the U.S. government had done to punish Russia and to help Russia, he`s gotten all of that systematically.
What he’s getting impeached for is part of a larger group of actions that he’s taken consistently since he’s been in office that have all pointed in the same direction, that have all had the same aim.
Pelosi’s Press Conference
And after Nancy Pelosi made her formal announcement to the country that the House of Representatives would move forward in drafting articles of impeachment against Donald Trump for his actions towards Ukraine, if you saw her press conference where she took questions from reporters about that historic decision and this historic action the House is now taking, I think this pattern here that I`ve just described is something maybe that Speaker Pelosi was pointing reporters toward in terms of how to understand what the president got caught doing and what might have been his motivation and how it may fit into something larger than he is using our country to do.
So the first question Nancy Pelosi got asked from reporters was about how she had previously seemed cautious or hesitant for a long time about whether or not the House should move forward with impeachment. She was asked, quote, was there an “aha” moment for you personally, a piece of evidence or testimony that swayed you now to this day? That was the first question she got, and Speaker Pelosi gave a long answer to that question. She said she was pleased to be asked that.
But this is where she landed with that question:
Let me just say this, this isn’t – we are saying Ukraine. Ukraine was the vehicle of the president`s action. Asking the president of another country to make an announcement that he was investigating the president’s political opponent and withholding military assistance that was voted by the Congress of the United States.
And the president did so. This isn’t about Ukraine. This is about Russia.
Who benefitted by our withholding that military assistance? Russia. It’s about Russia. Russia invading Eastern Ukraine.
So, sometimes people say, well, I don’t know about Ukraine, I don’t know that much about Ukraine. Well, our adversary in this is Russia.
All roads lead to Putin. Understand that. And so, that was the “aha” moment.
There are going to be articles of impeachment against this president. For what? There is one overarching point that I think is really insight now quite clearly, now that we can look back with hindsight, with clarity to see how we got to the point of Trump being impeached.
Ukraine as a Vehicle
And as Nancy Pelosi says, at one level, it`s not really specifically about Ukraine. It’s about Ukraine being used as a vehicle. And ultimately what it`s about, it`s about Russia, about rogue state behavior by Russia. And I use that phrase “rogue state” in a considered sense, because with Russia, it`s not that they are a country with whom we have disagreements and country that has alliances and aims different than ours. That`s true of countries all over the world that even you might consider our closest allies.
I mean, Russia does consistently act in ways that we and most of the western world consider odious and reprehensible. I mean, everything from them helping North Korea evade sanctions in ways that are specifically designed to prop up the despotic regime there, to Russian pilots and Russian planes deliberately bombing hospitals and civilians in Syria while the Russian government props up the dictator there.
I mean, even their less murderous but just maligned and pathetic stuff.
Like doping all the athletes for the Olympics, right, all their athletes, and then sabotaging the whole worldwide anti-doping infrastructure for sports. I mean, doping in sports not the most important thing in the world, but, of course, it`s Russia that didn`t just get caught doping its athletes. When Russia got caught doping its athletes they way it responded to getting caught they tried to blow up the whole system of policing doping in sports so they could try to get some little false advantage for their athletes and not be held accountable for the cheating they already did.
Russia`s number one export to the world other than oil and gas is super high end organized crime. As we saw last week in a massive indictment handed down against Russian mastermind criminal hackers who the Justice Department says orchestrated the theft of more than $100 million from more than 300 banks, including a bunch of America banks. And naturally, because they are specifically Russian criminal mastermind hackers, they weren`t just operating on their own with maybe the Russian authorities after them. No, the Russian authorities weren’t after them at all. The Russian authorities were working with them.
According to the announcement from the Justice Department, these hackers were contracted to work for the Russian security services because that`s what Russia does with its best and most capable criminals. It doesn`t put them in jail. It puts them to work at the services of Vladimir Putin around the world.
Russia’s Bad Behavior
But when – so bad behavior, yes, I got it. But when it comes to true rogue state stuff, just over the past few years, off the top of your head, you could list things that Russia has done that`s unlike anything any other country in the world would even try. §In 2018, Russia dispatches agents carrying military-grade nerve agent to go carry out an attempted assassination of a Russian ex-spy dissident guy who lives in Britain. They go after him in a British cathedral town. It very nearly killed him and his daughter. They do kill a random civilian British passerby who got caught up in that nerve agent mess.
This year, just a few months ago, they did it again. This time broad daylight in a city park just a few blocks from Angela Merkel`s office, in the center of downtown Berlin. A Russian assassin, according to U.S. and government officials, dispatched by the Russian government to assassinate another perceived enemy of the Kremlin. Broad daylight in the middle of Berlin.
That stuff is not just like normal bad country behavior. That`s crazy town, right? That`s not pushing the envelope a little bit. That`s inventing a new type of paper enclosure entirely and then pushing that, too.
And that’s why I use the phrase “rogue state Russia”. And, you know, I think it`s good to know, interesting to see and be aware of in terms of this large country and its influence in the world. I mean, we live in a world where democracy is in decline, authoritarianism is on the rise.
Russian influence in this world is both super maligned and super insidious and getting more emboldened all the time.
But here`s what’s on us, though, about this. Not just normal bad country behavior stuff. Treating our citizens badly, not respecting human rights internally, you know, having bad alliances, behaving badly overseas.
This is just like just the highlights in terms of stuff Russia`s done that other countries wouldn’t even try. That’s their behavior just over the last five years. Look at what`s changed over the last five years in terms of us, the first one of those things the invasion of Crimea, massive international response led by the United States.
Weaker U.S. Responses
I mean, you know, no other country rolled tanks into Ukraine and went to war with Russia`s soldiers there. But short of that, you get a strong multipart American-lead response and a big international response. You get it almost instantly too, with weeks of Russia mounting that invasion, they’re out of the G-7, the sanctions are rolling out, the aid is approved to Ukraine, the military shoring up of other countries on Russia`s border starts.
The other companies get pulled out of there, which is a big blow to Russia economically, right? It`s a fast, strong response. That`s the first one, right?
Chronologically move down to the next one, the 2016 election interference.
What kind of push back do they get there from the United States? Well, still a pushback but it`s more nuanced. We get President Obama personally warning Putin to buzz off. We get U.S. intelligence personally warning Russian intelligence to buzz off at the highest levels.
The U.S. expels a bunch of Russian diplomats. Remember the U.S. seized a whole bunch of physical compounds Russia had been using in this country and doesn`t give them back.
That said, there is no whole of government push back because when the Obama administration came to Congress to ask for a bipartisan show of force against what Russia was doing in our 2016 election, it was Senate Leader Mitch McConnell who said, no, he wasn`t interested, I won`t participate in that.
And, yes, there were U.S. sanctions ultimately against Russia interfering in the U.S. election. But you will recall once Donald Trump was in office, Rex Tillerson as secretary of state vehemently and opposing those sanctions and saying he was against them, and President Trump was, too.
President Trump tried to veto them. He only couldn’t because Congress was so strongly in favor of them. So they had to have the secretary of state and president saying they don’t want those sanctions. That pulls the punch a little bit in terms of the impact of those sanctions.
Chronologically the next one, the assassination attempt in the U.K., well, in that one, it`s an even weaker response. The messages get really mixed.
Yes, the U.S. did join in some additional international sanctions against Russia for what they did with that attempted assassination in the U.K.
But the sanctions this time weren’t much. The U.S. certainly didn`t play a lead role in organizing them. Trump let it be known he was quite upset when he learned that the United States had accidentally expelled more Russian diplomats than any other country did in response to that assassination effort. He made it clear that he wished he hadn`t been so harsh.
Ultimately, the Trump administration would slow-walk the implementation of those sanctions for months. “The Washington Post” reported on a call earlier this year with then-British Prime Minister Theresa May, President Trump spent a full ten minutes on that call trying to convince Theresa May that, hmm, maybe it wasn`t Russia that carried out that assassination in the U.K.
A 300-Pound Guy in His Bed, Again
Maybe she and her government were wrong. Maybe it was a 300-pound guy in his bed. Who knows?
Well, chronologically, what`s the next one after that? The next assassination after that, the one in Berlin, as we reported here last night, the U.S. government has reportedly concluded, yes, the Russian government was behind that assassination too, unnamed U.S. officials confirming to “The Wall Street Journal” months ago. But the U.S. government has had exactly zero official response to that even though as the Germans have now let it be known they too have assigned blame to the Russian government and kicked out Russian diplomats in response.
The U.S. has still done nothing, not even said anything officially even as the U.S. officials, the U.S. government has reportedly concluded that that was another example of Russia sending assassins to go kill somebody they wanted dead in a Western capital. Broad daylight. We can act and do whatever we want. What are you going to do about it?
That decline in seriousness of U.S. consequences for Russian bad behavior and indeed for stuff you would consider I think rogue state behavior – I mean, at some point that is no longer a story about Russia being a bad actor. That`s a story about us.
And this administration is our country because American push back against Russian bad behavior can be very important. In fact, is very important.
Whether it`s a strong response or a weak response, either way, it`s very consequential.
And now as this president is being impeached for his behavior toward Ukraine, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was back in Ukraine working to continue to promote the idea that it wasn`t Russia that interfered in our 2016 election, it was Ukraine.
U.S. intelligence agencies have briefed the Senate, that that story that it was Ukraine that did it not Russia, that story was concocted by Russian intelligence as disinformation, to take the blame away from Russia for what they did in 2016.
U.S. intelligence knows that`s a Russian disinformation operation. They have briefed the Senate that this is Russian disinformation operation.
Clearly, the administration knows that this is a Russian op.
Giuliani met with a former Ukrainian prosecutor now-fired who is linked to Russian intelligence and specifically to the Russian militias occupying and waging war in Eastern Ukraine. That`s the guy from whom he got his anti-Biden dossier that he`s been using trying to push the scheme for which President Trump is being impeached. Hey, Ukraine, you have to investigate these allegations against Biden. That`s where he got the allegations against Biden from, this guy linked to Russian military intelligence.
Giuliani also reportedly met last week with another former prosecutor who has also been pitching the anti-Joe Biden scam. He`s been pitching it as part of the legal defense of this guy who is named Dmytro Firtash. He is wanted in this country for his alleged role in multimillion-dollar bribery schemes. He`s fighting extradition to this country.
U.S. prosecutors say he`s an upper-echelon associate of Russian organized crime. Forever, he has been seen as the Kremlin`s man in Ukraine. He`s been the chief broker of natural gas in that country, as well as a major funder of pro-Putin political parties. Which is why I wrote about him too from my “Rogue State Russia” book, right? I`ve been obsessed with this stuff for a long time, and I make no apologies for it.
But we`re at this moment now, this historic moment now where we`ve got all these arrows all pointing in the same direction consistently and none of them all pointing in the same direction consistently. And none of them ever pointing in the other direction. All of these actions all pointing in the same direction, all pointing towards exonerating Russia, advancing Russian claims, spreading disinformation that is of Russian origin, that is designed to serve the Kremlin`s interests.