Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, sorry I’m late. It’s summer in Washington, which can mean only one thing: roadwork and traffic delays. Do other countries basically shut down their capital cities in the summer for repairs?
Matt Kroenig: Maybe they are trying to tell us to vacate before we get smothered by the oppressive heat and humidity. I hope you and your family have fun summer travel plans.
But before you depart, what should we discuss this week?
EA: It hasn’t exactly been a slow news week, this week or last. Honestly, it feels like one of those weeks that is a verse in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” We’ve got the Kakhovka dam collapse, the start of Ukraine’s big counteroffensive, new revelations about the Nord Stream gas pipeline, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s death, the Unabomber’s suicide, former Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon’s arrest, and, of course, the small matter of the indictment of the former president of the United States on charges of mishandling classified documents. Maybe I’ll take a summer tour of countries with embattled former leaders under threat of prosecution?
MK: “It was always burning, since the world’s been turning.”
Let’s get started. But excuse me for a moment. I have some research materials that can help us understand what’s going on. I just need to retrieve them from my shower.
That’s where everyone keeps sensitive documents, right?
EA: Next to the toilet, apparently, if you read this indictment. The facts are incredibly damning: Donald Trump took highly classified documents from the White House when he left office, and then proceeded to engage in a series of shenanigans to hide them from FBI investigators. He’s been charged on 37 counts and was arraigned in court in Miami on Tuesday.
I confess myself completely flummoxed at this point. This is only the latest in a series of events that show that Trump was never an appropriate candidate for president and should not be president again. It sounds like he kept the documents in order to brag about them. And yet, he remains the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024. It makes no sense.
MK: I have several thoughts that might contradict each other.
First, I think there is no doubt that this action was illegal and endangered national security. If you or I had taken classified documents home, stored them in our bathroom, and showed them off to acquaintances, we would rightly be in jail. Where is Jack Teixeira spending his time these days?
Second, despite some of the speculation, I don’t think Trump was up to anything sinister, like sharing secrets with the Russians. I think he probably just wanted to keep cool mementos from his time in the White House. This is damning in its own way, to be sure, but it is less serious than other high-profile cases prosecuted under the Espionage Act such as Edward Snowden’s or Robert Hanssen’s.
Third, I do question whether it made sense for the Justice Department to indict him. There is always discretion when it comes to prosecuting cases. If anyone else had done this, the correct course of action would be clear given the danger to national security, but there are countervailing factors in this case. He is the front-runner opposition candidate to the sitting president. Do we want a system where the sitting administration can order its Justice Department to go after its opponents?
In addition, to the average person, there is not an obvious difference between Trump bringing home classified information as a trophy and Hillary Clinton’s “extremely careless” handling of classified information for the convenience of her and her staff. To many, it understandably looks like a double standard in the U.S. justice system.
EA: You might be right about whether Trump had nefarious purposes in mind. But unlike the charges he faces in New York—which are related to alleged hush money and Trump Organization behavior—these are pretty serious charges. I personally think Clinton should have been held to account for her lax handling of classified information, just as I think that former CIA Director David Petraeus got off too easily for his charges of mishandling classified information. It is problematic that some people skate, while others are prosecuted.
That said, this is an extreme case. Compare Trump’s reaction to that of President Joe Biden or former Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom had some classified documents found at home after this whole scandal broke. They both turned over the documents immediately and cooperated with authorities. Trump conspired with his valet to hide the documents from the FBI. It’s just another sign that Trump feels he should be immune from criticism and from accountability for anything he does wrong. The Justice Department could overlook this, but all it would do is bolster his sense of impunity.
What does this mean for the Republican presidential primaries, do you think?
MK: I don’t know. It is hard to believe, but it might actually help Trump. We saw his poll numbers rise after he was indicted in New York over campaign finance violations. It ensures that his name is in the headlines every day, and political scientists will tell you that name recognition is a huge asset in American electoral politics. And, for many conservative voters, this is just more evidence that the “deep state” in the federal government is waging a war on Republicans.
On the other hand, there are now formally declared alternatives in the race, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. I suspect many voters will decide to choose a Trumpy candidate without the Trumpy drama.
What do you think?
EA: I think the media is making exactly the same mistakes as it did in 2016: paying too much attention to the Trump circus, while knocking down his opponents in a way that helps him triumph.
But to get back to our actual area of expertise: It is interesting from a foreign-policy point of view that the most viable candidate after Trump is DeSantis, who has embraced a more Trumpian foreign-policy outlook. The more conventional Republican neoconservative hawks in the race—Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley—are all polling in the single digits. I can’t see their foreign-policy leanings being popular with today’s Republican base, who are much more “America first” in their approach to foreign policy.
MK: I disagree that DeSantis has a Trumpian foreign-policy outlook. Yes, he called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine a “territorial dispute,” but he seemed to walk it back later. Otherwise, his foreign-policy positions have been within the Republican mainstream: critical of Biden, tough on China, etc.
EA: Well, we can only wait and see what the next few months will bring for the Republican primaries. In the meantime, things in Ukraine are heating up. We have signs of an incipient Ukrainian counteroffensive—though it’s far too early to tell whether it will be successful—along with the unexplained collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam, causing flooding in parts of Ukraine. I find it interesting that the discussion of the dam collapse mostly revolved around the question of who did it, rather than the possibility of an accidental collapse caused by past damage.
It doesn’t seem like either side really benefited from it: Some Russian fortifications were flooded and the water supply to Crimea is probably in jeopardy, and Ukraine suffered significant flooding and was not likely to attempt a river crossing downstream of the dam in its counteroffensive in any case.
MK: We just don’t know. I agree the accidental collapse hypothesis is persuasive. I also don’t trust Putin or the Russian military to make good decisions, so I think a Russian attack is possible. I do think it is highly unlikely the Ukrainians did it.
And you are right that the flooding is complicating the military operations for both sides.
I am watching the counteroffensive with great interest. The stakes are huge. It is possible (although not likely) that the Russian military collapses, resulting in a rout for Ukraine. It is possible the counteroffensive makes no headway and Ukraine’s Western backers lose hope and push Kyiv into premature peace negotiations. I think the most likely outcome, unfortunately, is that the front lines move, but not so much that it is decisive. This has been a defense-dominant war, and it could grind on in this way for years.
In short, we are at an inflection point. The future trajectory and outcome of this war could be decided in one direction or another within the coming days.
EA: We will know in the next month or so, I think. On a related note, though, I found it really interesting that all the discussion about the dam was unfolding alongside a series of revelations about the Ukrainian role in the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline. Although many observers at the time were sure that it must have been done by Russia—which is, after all, the bad guy in this conflict—it turns out that U.S. and European intelligence services have a fair amount of evidence that it was actually blown up by Ukrainian or Ukrainian-aligned forces. The CIA apparently warned the Ukrainians last summer not to follow through with a plan to blow up the pipeline.
It’s a reminder that Ukrainian and Western interests are not always aligned: Ukraine continues to allow gas to flow through pipelines in Ukraine and collect transit fees but seems to have been behind the attack that blew up the Nord Stream pipeline that transported gas to Germany. To be frank, I’m astounded that it took that risk given the potential for blowback from European states. Thus far, there has been no public backlash, but you can bet this won’t sit well with segments of the German business community, for example.
MK: Cui bono? That’s what the Romans would ask. Ukraine benefited from the destruction of Nord Stream. And, if it was Ukraine, I agree that it was very risky given its dependence on Western aid.
But are you implying that this means that Ukraine may have also destroyed the dam? I see the cases as pretty different. Flooding one’s country and severing an enemy’s major source of revenue are not the same.
EA: No, I agree with that. I don’t think it makes much sense for the Ukrainians to have blown up the dam. Cui bono, as you point out. But I do think some of the reaction, particularly by pro-Ukraine voices on social media, has been quite similar: an assumption that Russia must have done it and that Ukraine couldn’t possibly have done it, rather than any attempt to tease out potential motivations and consequences.
The historian Timothy Snyder even wrote a lengthy Twitter thread on how journalists should write about the dam collapse, in which he argued that they should “avoid the temptation to bothsides a calamity” and advised them not to cite Russian statements on the dam at all. I don’t see how giving up on critical thinking—or believing that Ukraine can do no wrong—helps us in these circumstances.
MK: I agree. Putin’s war on Ukraine is evil, but it doesn’t mean that Russia is responsible for every bad thing that happens in the world.
China is also contributing its fair share!
It was reported last week that China opened a new spy base in Cuba. The White House first said this was inaccurate. It later clarified that the reporting was false because the base has actually been in operation since 2019.
It was similar to the Biden White House’s response to the China spy balloon incident: “Not our fault. This actually started under Trump.”
What is your take?
EA: It’s factually accurate. It’s also unhelpful and doesn’t offer any real solution to the problem. So par for the course for the Biden team.
But perhaps that is because the administration has backed itself into a corner here. You cannot on the one hand argue that all countries have agency and the right to choose their own alignment while simultaneously telling the Cubans that they can’t host a Chinese spy base.
For a realist like me, of course, it’s quite concerning that Cuba is hosting this base. I think we should take steps to prevent or reverse such situations. The most obvious step is probably bribery; Cuba is one of the United States’ closest neighbors, and all we’ve got from decades of hostility is more hostility. Maybe it’s time for some carrots instead of sticks.
MK: Biden may be backed into a corner, but this also spotlights China’s hypocrisy (as if more evidence were needed). Beijing constantly rails against U.S. alliances and military presence in the Indo-Pacific as an effort to contain China. But then it does the same thing when it gets the chance.
I don’t know about carrots for Cuba. Maybe in exchange for good cigars and rum just in time for summer vacation?
EA: All great powers are hypocritical. The trick is to use it to your advantage, not to your disadvantage, the way the administration is here.
Anyway, I think we’re almost out of time, and I want to go read up on the latest reports about another arrested former national leader. The Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon, the former first minister, is being investigated on financial misconduct charges. It’s not quite as exciting a story as Trump—there are no golden toilets and classified documents involved—but her family might have misused a “luxury campervan.” Who says other countries don’t have scandals as good as America’s?
MK: Oh, ours are definitely not as good. They just have a bigger, worldwide audience. Kind of like our superhero films.