I rarely watch television. By the age of 55, you’ve seen all the plots that drama writers will ever come up with. But I made an exception for “Chernobyl,” the riveting five-part HBO series written by Craig Mazin. Anyone who never went to the Soviet Union should be required to watch it.
The key point “Chernobyl” makes is that the chronic inefficiency, corruption and untruthfulness of Soviet life guaranteed that one day a catastrophe like the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor would happen — and that the first impulse of the country’s communist rulers would be to try to cover it up.
I was in nearby Kyiv a couple of weeks ago for the annual Yalta European Summit (YES), a conference that used to take place in the Black Sea resort until Vladimir Putin annexed it along with the rest of Crimea. I have a soft spot for Ukraine. Surely no country witnessed more suffering in the 20th century. A battlefield in two world wars, it also bore the brunt of Stalin’s man-made famine — the mass murder of the peasantry in the name of “collectivization” that Ukrainians remember as the Holodomor. Chernobyl contaminated with radiation land that was already suffused with blood.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has struggled to cleanse itself of history’s many taints. In successive revolutions in 2004 and 2014 Ukrainians took to the streets to protest against the two main threats to their country’s independence: Russia to the east and corruption within. Today, Russia occupies not only Crimea but also Donbas. And oligarchs still dominate both economics and politics.
Ukrainians look like Europeans, but — as a survey carried out for this year’s YES revealed — they are closer to Brazilians in their attitudes. They are sick of the status quo. And they are willing to gamble on a complete political outsider in the hope of radical change.
Enter Volodymyr Zelensky. Other populist politicians have begun as entertainers. Zelensky is unique in having been elected president after playing the role of president in a sitcom, “Servant of the People.”
Now, into the Ukrainian tragi-comedy wanders another transplant from entertainment to politics, President Trump. It was not news to me that Trump had been taking an interest in Ukrainian politics. In May it was reported that Rudy Giuliani — the president’s personal lawyer — had been seeking to meet with Ukrainian officials. The story then was that Giuliani was pushing the new Ukrainian government to investigate allegations involving former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s well-paid job with a Ukrainian energy company. At YES, Zelensky’s own people muttered about a rather tricky phone call with Trump.
We now know just how tricky that call was because a memorandum of it was released on Wednesday, following a formal complaint by an as yet unidentified CIA whistle-blower.
In it, Trump asks Zelensky to do two things in return for the assistance the United States has given Ukraine. The first is to help Giuliani “find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike . . . I guess you have one of your wealthy people . . . The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
Trump is alluding to a conspiracy theory that officials in the previous Ukrainian government sought to help Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. (CrowdStrike was the firm the Democrats hired to investigate the hacking of their e-mails.)
Then Trump asks Zelensky to help the attorney general find out more about an allegation that Joe Biden “stopped the prosecution” of an unspecified individual or entity by “shutting down” a “prosecutor who was very good.”
The question is how far this exchange — combined with the revelation that $391 million of US military aid to Ukraine was withheld just before the call, and the whistle-blower’s crucial allegation that records of other such presidential calls have been improperly classified — provides a new basis for the impeachment that the Democratic rank-and-file, the liberal media, and conservative Never-Trumpers have so long craved, and which Robert Mueller’s hotly anticipated report failed to deliver.
If they are right, then this will be Trump’s Chernobyl: the catastrophe that was bound to befall a chronically inefficient, corrupt, and untruthful government. In this view, he and Giuliani already show signs of melting down and not even a brigade of heroic Fox News anchors can douse the fire. The House will vote for impeachment. Then it just needs 20 Republican Senators to defect . . .
Wait, did you say 20? At a time when Republican voters are solidly opposed to impeachment and inclined to believe the president’s cries of “fake news” and “witch hunt”? There’s another, equally plausible scenario in which impeachment guarantees that Trump dominates US news for the next three to six months, marginalizing all his Democratic rivals except for Biden, who’ll be fielding questions about his son’s business dealings until he concedes the nomination to Elizabeth Warren, whom Trump can beat.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” says the morose scientist Valery Legasov in “Chernobyl.” “Sooner or later that debt is paid.” Websites such as Politifact and FactCheck keep a tally of presidential lies. Perhaps their efforts will one day be rewarded and an appropriately large debt paid. But the key to Trump’s power is not the untrue things he says. It is the outrageous things he openly does — and gets away with.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.