INDIANAPOLIS — The spook’s eyes at the Londonskaya Hotel bar burned holes in me. Every time I glanced in his direction they were trained on me. I had entered Odessa, Ukraine as part of the last hurrah of Sen. Richard Lugar’s old Republican internationalist order in this pre-partitioned nation.
Vladimir Putin held only shadow power in the old Soviet remnants. His fractured standing belied a reeling nation, the former Soviet Union, in steep demographic decline. High rates of alcoholism, suicide and plunging birth rates defined this former empire. Donald Trump was a wannabe presidential aspirant who owned a couple of Gary riverboat casinos and a New York real estate empire.
It would have been impossible to foresee how this churn of events would play out a dozen years hence in Moscow, Kiev, Washington and even Indianapolis. The old Republican internationalist order that once thrived in Indiana has ended, begging the question in the emergent era of the Trumpian cult of personality, so what if it has?
The Indiana aspect of this story can be told through the hyper-supplicant Pences, with the Vice President accepting full ownership of that cult; Indiana’s two Republican senators, Mike Braun, who owes his station to Trump, and Todd Young, a former Lugar staffer who, had he taken a different career path, might have found himself briefing the Senate in a manner similar to Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.
Last week Vindman, former Ukrainian ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, and State Department Ukrainian expert Dr. Fiona Hill testified before Congress of a disinformation campaign echoing Putin’s Kremlin that it was the Ukrainians, not the Russians, who meddled in the U.S. 2016 elections. The Republican senators received a briefing on the Ukrainian fiction as multiple sources discredited the story.
In the wake of the sensational impeachment testimony which appears not to have swayed public opinion, the question for Hoosier voters remains, does it matter? Do people care? I don’t think they do. Hoosier voters appear to be giving President Trump the benefit of the doubt, preferring to decide his future at the November 2020 ballot box.
Two recent polls in Indiana, the Old National/Ball State and the Bowen Center poll, put Trump’s approval at 52 percent, while a Morning Consult poll had Trump’s Indiana approval at 50 percent. While the perception is that Trump remains wildly popular in Indiana, particularly after he used the immigrant caravan and the Kavanagh hearings to help forge Sen. Braun’s upset of Joe Donnelly in 2018, another way to read this would-be Trump has faced a steep decline even in Indiana, given he won the state in 2016 with 59% of the vote. In 2018, Trump routinely drew capacity crowds on behalf of Braun, filling arenas with overflow crowds in Fort Wayne, Elkhart, Evansville, and Indianapolis. So the perception persists that he remains an outsized political force to be reckoned with. A national CNN/SRSS poll puts support for Trump’s impeachment at 50 percent, with 43 percent opposing. Neither figure has changed since October, with support for impeachment remaining at its highest level thus far in CNN polling.
Back in Odessa, Ukraine, HPI was confronted with a female beggar outside the Londonskaya hotel. We gave her American money and she threw it on the ground and spat on it. Americans were never very popular here. The question American voters may ponder heading into the 2020 elections is whether the cult of personality that is Trumpism is ultimately diminishing our standing in the world. Trump seems to think siding with Vladimir Putin is a politically expedient move.
Lugar used this particular mission to Odessa to outfit Ukrainian Navy vessels with equipment that detects highly enriched uranium signatures on shipping entering ports like Odessa. He had the begrudging approval of Presidents Boris Yeltsin, Putin, Dmitri Medvedev and George H. W. Bush.
But it’s the Chinese who are poised to become a global powerhouse, particularly after Trump withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would have cemented Western rule of law and economic norms in that sphere. Instead, Trump has opted for a trade war that does not promise resolution prior to the 2020 election, another factor that could impact his Indiana base of support.
What Hoosier voters should ponder is President Trump sidling up to the waning petro kleptocrasy despot of Putin and ask the question on whether the old international order matters.
HPI asked Sens. Young and Braun about the emerging and widely discredited Ukraine narrative pushed by The Kremlin and Trump White House. Braun did not respond to my inquiry. Young did, citing a Nov. 20, 2017 Brian Howey column, in which he said, “President Trump said he believed Russian President Putin didn’t ‘meddle’ in the U.S. election.” I asked if Young believes Putin? “No.1, there’s something known as a diplomatic lie that is often deployed by sophisticated diplomats and leaders in furtherance of our national interest. Let’s keep that in mind,” he explained. “No. 2, our intelligence community, which I trust, has indicated that Russia has hacked our elections. It never indicated that Russia has influenced our elections.”
In a December 2018 Howey Politics Indiana Interview, Sen. Young said he ‘generally’ trusts U.S. intelligence assessments. “As a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, I’ve spent a lot of years relying on the work product of our intelligence professionals. I trust their work product,” Young responded to HPI questions about the gruesome dismemberment murder of Washington Post columnist and Indiana State University graduate Jamal Khashoggi. “They don't always get it right but they're the best in the world. That informs my work on this and on other issues.”
Young added, “I'm always wanting to get more information on what's going on in the world and the conversations that top leaders have. That will always be imperfect information I'll have. Vis-à-vis Russia, the Trump administration has been as vigilant as I can imagine with respect to their actual actions. President Trump and others in this administration, working with this Republican Congress, has sent heavy weaponry into Ukraine, to try and deter to the extent possible Russian encroachment. Clearly this president is a different sort of president than those I've served in my life time. That's one of the reasons the American people elected him. He communicates differently, he makes decisions differently. He wants to shape policy in different directions. I've not only accepted that, in many cases I embrace it.”
One key final point: While U.S. ambassadorial class is in chagrin over Trump’s protocol breaches, the masses don’t appear to care. It may take a decade or more before we know if it matters.