How A Progressive Bid To Shape Ukraine Policy Imploded

The kerfuffle over a now-withdrawn letter from 30 House Democrats shows how the left is still struggling to communicate effectively on foreign policy.

A group of progressive lawmakers withdrew a high-profile letter intended to influence President Joe Biden’s Ukraine policy on Tuesday, just a day after it was sent to the White House.

The story behind the letter, which 30 House Democrats signed, is one of mismanagement by leadership, an alleged staff error and a failure to appreciate the sensitivities of discussing a brutal ongoing war. Multiple legislators were so surprised by the letter’s release — and the ensuing criticism — that they publicly rejected the document and said it was supposed to be sent much earlier under different circumstances.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) ultimately agreed with them. In a statement Tuesday, she blamed her employees for releasing the letter and retracted it.

“The letter was drafted several months ago but, unfortunately, was released by staff without vetting. As chair of the Caucus, I accept responsibility for this,” Jayapal said. “Every war ends with diplomacy, and this one will too, after Ukrainian victory. The letter sent yesterday, although restating that basic principle, has been conflated with GOP opposition to support for the Ukrainians’ just defense of their national sovereignty. As such, it is a distraction at this time, and we withdraw the letter.”

Jayapal had personally approved the letter’s publication on Monday, a source familiar with the situation told Politico.

“The letter was drafted several months ago but, unfortunately, was released by staff without vetting. As chair of the Caucus, I accept responsibility for this,” Jayapal said.
“The letter was drafted several months ago but, unfortunately, was released by staff without vetting. As chair of the Caucus, I accept responsibility for this,” Jayapal said.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The timeline of the kerfuffle reflects how the left is still struggling to offer an effective message on foreign policy despite its years-long focus on reforming America’s approach to global affairs and progressives’ success in shaping some major national security debates.

On Monday afternoon, The Washington Post published the letter that the group sent Biden. Led by Jayapal, they asked the president to “pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.”

The letter faced immediate backlash online, as fellow legislators, analysts and liberal commentators accused the progressives of being naive at best, or worse, willing to reward Russian President Vladimir Putin for his vicious invasion of Ukraine. By Monday evening, Jayapal clarified, saying the letter did not propose a change in American support for Ukraine and the progressives did not seek to break with the Biden administration’s policy.

“We are united as Democrats,” Jayapal wrote.

But her colleagues suggested otherwise.

Moderate Democrat Rep. Jake Auchincloss (Mass.) accused the progressives of offering “an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war.” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who frequently champions a less hawkish U.S. posture internationally, warned of “moral and strategic peril in sitting down with Putin too early.”

Speaking to Politico, an anonymous member of House Democratic leadership said: “That bone-headed letter just put Dems in the same league as [Republican leader Rep.] Kevin McCarthy, who said ... Ukraine funding could be in jeopardy.”

By Tuesday, letter signatories Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) had all posted tweets questioning the timing of the letter’s release — with Jacobs saying she “wouldn’t sign it today.”

To understand how the progressive gambit imploded, HuffPost spoke with five sources familiar with the letter and Ukraine policy discussions among Democrats and reviewed a previous draft of the message. The overall picture: Thanks to a messy process and a misreading of the broader conversation about the war, a relatively anodyne statement became a firebomb that divided the caucus and could threaten leadership ambitions for Jayapal and other signatories.

Fail To Plan, Plan To Fail?

The timing of the letter’s development and release was odd.

Jayapal’s team circulated the message to lawmakers in the summer when Russian forces seemed to have the upper hand in Ukraine.

“We urge President Biden to seek a rapid end to the conflict as a chief priority, all while continuing to respect Ukraine’s sovereign decisions,” read a pitch email seen by HuffPost. The message directed members of Congress and their staff to seek further information about the plan from Keane Bhatt, the policy director for the Congressional Progressive Caucus. (Bhatt declined to comment for this story.)

Lawmakers began signing on as early as June 30, Jacobs tweeted. A number of progressives signed in July because of concern over Putin’s nuclear threats, according to Pocan. A House Democratic aide whose boss signed the message on July 20 said they expected the letter would be released soon afterward.

“It was supposed to go out Aug. 1. My guess is they just held it open trying to get as many people,” the aide told HuffPost.

Come September, Jayapal’s office was still trying to secure more signatures, with discussions continuing late into the month, according to a source.

Jayapal’s team kept the letter largely the same, according to HuffPost’s review of the earlier and final drafts, only adding a condemnation of Russia’s claim to annex Ukrainian territory.

Given the reflexively hawkish nature of Washington’s national security discourse, progressives always face an uphill battle in championing diplomacy.
Given the reflexively hawkish nature of Washington’s national security discourse, progressives always face an uphill battle in championing diplomacy.
Photo by AFP via Getty Images

By the time the letter came out, Ukrainian troops had reclaimed territory in several strategic areas in the eastern part of the country. Meanwhile, Russia appeared to be growing desperate, resorting to missile attacks on major civilian areas designed to knock out power and water systems and starve Ukrainians.

Several signatories said on Tuesday they weren’t given a heads up on when the letter would be released. Jayapal’s team did not appear to expect a backlash, the aide told HuffPost, saying that had they done so, they would likely have given signatories talking points to rebut potential attacks.

“We had no idea it came out until the maelstrom on Twitter,” the aide added.

One Democratic source familiar with the letter said the organizers had waited to get about 30 members on board and “didn’t consider election timing.” Coming two weeks before the vote, the letter was especially alarming for Democrats in Republican-leaning districts who fear being seen as too dovish, a senior House Democrat told CNN.

What Progressives Said — And Didn’t Say

A striking element of the controversy is that most of the actual letter is not particularly striking. It promotes the U.S.’s overall position that Ukraine deserves support, that Russia has behaved horrifically and that ending the war is vital to protect Ukrainians, prevent escalation and ease the global economic shock it has produced.

Instead of highlighting that reality, some Democrats quickly accepted and echoed criticisms of the message, equating it to Republicans’ growing skepticism towards Ukraine and sympathy for Putin’s war narrative.

McCarthy, who will be the speaker of the House come January if Republicans capture the chamber in next month’s midterm elections, last week said his colleagues are wary of giving “a blank check to Ukraine.” For months, conservatives like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and GOP Senate hopeful J.D. Vance have loudly questioned Washington’s backing of Kyiv. Right-wing commentators Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens have argued that Russia invaded its neighbor to defend itself.

The progressives’ message squarely blamed Putin for the war and subsequent human suffering and did not suggest ending U.S. aid to Ukraine. It also noted: “It is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions.”

In withdrawing the letter on Tuesday, Jayapal said: “Because of the timing, our message is being conflated by some as being equivalent to the recent statement by Republican Leader McCarthy… The proximity of these statements created the unfortunate appearance that Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted for every package of the military, strategic, and economic assistance to the Ukrainian people, are somehow aligned with Republicans who seek to pull the plug on American support for President Zelensky and the Ukrainian forces.”

Democrats could have tried to nip that perception in the bud — and upheld a clear progressive position on Ukraine, defying fringe activists who call the party pro-war and pundits who cast liberals as soft.

“The framing around the letter from The Washington Post and the subsequent discussion on Twitter frame the letter as progressives calling for appeasement and giving in to Putin and Russia, but if you actually read the letter, it doesn’t do that,” the House Democratic aide argued. “People don’t seem to think that you can hold both positions of arming Ukraine and supporting their sovereignty and pushing for a diplomatic offramp.”

Given the reflexively hawkish nature of Washington’s national security discourse, progressives always face an uphill battle in championing diplomacy. This time, in making a major statement on the most significant issue in global politics, they were unprepared — and the setback has likely damaged their credibility and unity in a lasting way.

CORRECTION: A prior version of this article misidentified Sen. Josh Hawley as a Democrat.

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