“The Congressional Progressive Caucus hereby withdraws its recent letter to the White House regarding Ukraine,” the caucus’ chair, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), said in a statement after POLITICO first reported that the retraction was imminent. “The letter was drafted several months ago, but unfortunately was released by staff without vetting.”
Jayapal said she accepts “responsibility” for the embarrassing flub, adding that the timing of the letter caused a “distraction” and was “conflated” with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s recent suggestion that Republicans might pull back on Ukraine funding if they win control of the House.
“The proximity of these statements created the unfortunate appearance that Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted for every package of 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 [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian forces,” Jayapal added.
A source familiar with the situation told POLITICO that Jayapal personally approved the letter’s release on Monday. Spokespeople for the Progressive Caucus and Jayapal’s personal office, asked for comment, referred back to the group’s statement without denying Jayapal’s direct involvement.
The letter to Biden was released without the knowledge of many Democratic lawmakers who put their name on it, several people told POLITICO, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity. While it was partially updated with new information about Russia’s war on Ukraine and sent to other lawmakers to reach a threshold of 30 signees, POLITICO has learned, the letter got released mostly in its original form.
The original release date for the letter was August 1, a congressional aide said, adding that it was never made clear why there was a delay. Its text was circulating on the Hill during August’s weeks-long legislative recess.
“Once you sign on to a letter, it’s up to the original drafters and unfortunately not all of them will keep folks updated,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the Progressive Caucus whip and a signatory of the pro-Russia-diplomacy letter, tweeted Tuesday. “That’s why some of us don’t sign on to letters without direct insight into when or how it will be released.”
Other signatories and congressional aides blamed the Progressive Caucus’ office for releasing it as questions swirl over whether Republicans would continue funding Ukraine’s defense if they win the House majority in two weeks, as is expected.
“Amateur hour on part of the CPC not to have anticipated that,” said one lawmaker who signed on and, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A Hill staffer put it even more bluntly: “It’s just a disaster. The CPC just needs to clean house.”
The letter called on Biden to consider a diplomatic path to end Russia’s war on Ukraine if the opportunity arises. Acknowledging the difficulty of direct talks with Putin, the lawmakers encouraged consideration of a negotiated settlement as the risk of nuclear war rises. Ukraine opposes such a diplomatic path because that would likely require surrendering some of its territory to Moscow. And the Biden administration has pledged that the U.S. wouldn’t do anything without Kyiv’s backing.
Outside progressive and anti-war groups supported the letter’s content, agreeing it was time to pursue a diplomatic path when the time was right. But the organizations split on the rollout, exposing a rift in the progressive foreign policy community. Just Foreign Policy’s Erik Sperling, one of the lead advocates of the letter, told POLITICO “the issue here is simply that, as happened during the Iraq War and other wars, those who oppose diplomacy want to use bad faith attacks to intimidate people out of having substantive debates about U.S. policy.”
A leader for another group that endorsed the initiative said, on condition of anonymity: “We signed the text of the letter, not the editorialized roll out that isn’t consistent with the progressive position on Ukraine.”
Amid the pushback on Monday, Jayapal — who’s mulling a bid for House Democratic leadership next year — released a statement to clarify her support for Ukraine and insist that the letter wasn’t suggesting a break from Biden’s policy.
Her explanation didn’t stop the ire within the Democratic caucus, where several lawmakers bashed the letter in public in a remarkable display of intraparty rejection. One of the signatories even said she wouldn’t have signed it today.
“Timing in diplomacy is everything. I signed this letter on June 30, but a lot has changed since then. I wouldn’t sign it today,” Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) said.
Many Democrats took particular issue with the letter’s suggestions that sanctions relief could be on the table in order to incentivize Russia to end its assault on Ukraine.
Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) called it “an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war.” Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) told POLITICO she was “dismayed that some of my [Democratic] colleagues think that we can negotiate with Putin.” Neither lawmaker signed the letter or belong to the Progressive Caucus.
Other signatories of the letter quickly clarified their own positions, and more are expected to speak out as soon as Tuesday. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who also chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, released a statement Monday declaring continued support for Ukrainian self-determination: “Only Ukrainians have a right to determine the terms by which this war ends.” Another signatory, Rep. Chuy García (D-Ill.), said in a statement the “letter should not have been sent” because of its outdated information, though he still believed in the letter’s “underlying message” of the need for diplomacy while supporting Ukraine’s defense.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), however, said he didn’t support withdrawing the letter, calling it “common sense” in a CNN interview.
“All the letter said is that we, at the same time that we stand with Ukraine, need to make sure that we’re reducing the risk for nuclear war, that we’re engaging in talks with the Russians to make sure that the conflict doesn’t escalate,” he said.
The saga could have implications beyond the Ukraine funding efforts, given Jayapal’s leadership ambitions. And Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who also signed the letter, is vying for the party’s top post on the powerful House Oversight committee.
Raskin said in a statement Tuesday that he was “glad” the letter was withdrawn due to its “unfortunate timing and other flaws.” He also pointed out he has “passionately supported every package of military, strategic and economic assistance to the Ukrainian people.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who is running against Raskin for that job and serves as president of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, released a statement Tuesday blasting “magical thinking regarding the nature of the Russian threat” — though without mentioning the letter or Raskin.
Sarah Ferris and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.