A House progressive leader abruptly withdrew a letter pushing the Biden administration to pursue diplomacy in Russia’s war with Ukraine, an about-face following furious internal backlash from Democrats who felt blindsided by the move just two weeks before the November midterms.
The move by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, came after she released a letter – initially signed in June – from 30 liberals calling for more diplomacy, a move that appeared to undercut their party’s resolute support for Ukraine. Releasing the letter this week was not endorsed by most of the members, and some said they would not sign it now given how the war has turned in recent days.
After Democratic fury began to emerge publicly, Jayapal contended the letter was released by staff without proper vetting and said it improperly conflated her caucus’ position with GOP divisions over providing more aid to Ukraine aid, which Democrats back. She withdrew the letter after the embarrassing intra-party feud.
“The Congressional Progressive Caucus hereby withdraws its recent letter to the White House regarding Ukraine,” Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, said in a statement. “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.”
The public reversal comes amid a backlash from Democrats who criticized the timing of the letter, which was sent on Monday.
“People are furious – especially front-liners,” said one senior House Democrat ahead of the letter being withdrawn, referring to the most vulnerable members at risk of losing their seats in the November 8 midterms.
Democrats argue that the ill-timed letter undercut their party’s position showing resolute support for Ukraine – at a time when it’s Republicans who are sparring about whether to approve more U.S. aid to Ukraine. Moreover, several Democratic members said they signed onto this letter months ago and were caught off-guard when Jayapal’s office sent the letter out on Monday with their names on it. Some said they wouldn’t sign it again.
“Timing in diplomacy is everything,” said California Rep. Sara Jacobs, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus that Jayapal leads. “I signed this letter on June 30, but a lot has changed since then. I wouldn’t sign it today.”
Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, a former leader of the progressive caucus who signed the letter in July, told CNN he found it “puzzling” it was sent out this week after he signed it this summer and added:” “I would not support it being released now.” Releasing it now, he said, “didn’t make much sense.”
The letter, signed by Jacobs and 29 other Democrats, praised President Joe Biden’s efforts supporting Ukraine while avoiding direct US involvement on the ground – but they suggested a more forceful attempt at bringing the war to an end through diplomacy is necessary to prevent a long and slogging conflict.
“Given the destruction created by this war for Ukraine and the world, as well as the risk of catastrophic escalation, we also believe it is in the interests of Ukraine, the United States, and the world to avoid a prolonged conflict,” the group, led by Jayapal, write in the letter. “For this reason, we urge you 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.”
After Democratic backlash intensified over the letter, Jayapal clarified their position, saying they maintain “unequivocal commitment to supporting Ukraine” and were supportive of the Biden administration’s strategy.
At least one Democrat was ready to defend the effort Tuesday to engage in diplomacy with Russia. Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who signed the letter, told CNN’s Bianna Golodryga he did not support Jayapal’s decision to rescind the letter.
“I think the letter was common sense,” Khanna said. “I support making sure we arm Ukraine and provide arms to Ukraine and continue to fund it, but I also believe that the President as he said we are at a risk of nuclear war. Don’t you think our counterpart should be talking to Russia? Of course they should to be sure that it doesn’t escalate.”
He added: “Let’s stand with Ukraine but let’s also support diplomacy.”
A Jayapal aide declined to explain why the letter went out Monday. And some members said they didn’t receive a follow-up on it before it was sent to Biden.
“They didn’t check back with the signers before releasing it. I would have taken my name off,” said one member who signed the letter, who spoke with CNN under the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “Timing is terrible.”
Several other Democratic aides for members told CNN they were unaware the letter would go out on Monday.
Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss, who did not sign the letter and is not in the Progressive Caucus, tweeted: “This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war.”
The letter comes at a critical moment in the war, with Russia increasingly targeting civilian infrastructure with a particular focus on cutting power supplies to Ukrainian citizens ahead of winter.
In Congress, questions have grown at the willingness of lawmakers to sustain the massive financial and military support that has gone to Ukraine. Some Republicans have threatened to cut aid to the country if they take control of Congress in November.
The liberal Democrats, in their letter, say that more direct attempts at engaging Moscow in diplomacy were necessary as the war drags on.
“We are under no illusions regarding the difficulties involved in engaging Russia given its outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine and its decision to make additional illegal annexations of Ukrainian territory,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, if there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine, it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine.”
John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council, said the White House had received the letter.
“We certainly appreciate the sentiments expressed by these members of Congress,” Kirby said.
“We have been working with members of Congress throughout this entire process, especially when we have needed additional funding to support Ukraine’s defense needs,” Kirby said. “And it’s been done in full collaboration in full transparency with members of Congress. And that is exactly the way the President wants to continue going forward.”
Still, Kirby said there were no indications that Russian President Vladimir Putin was willing to engage in serious diplomacy to bring the war to an end.
“When you see and you listen to his rhetoric, and you see the other things – be they atrocities, the war crimes, the airstrikes against civilian infrastructure that the Russians are committing – it’s clear Mr. Putin is in no mood to negotiate,” Kirby said.
He said it would be up to Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, when the time is right to return to the negotiating table.
“Mr. Zelensky gets to determine when he thinks that’s the right time, and Mr. Zelensky gets to determine, because it’s his country, what success looks like, what victory looks and and what sort of terms he willing to negotiate on,” Kirby said. “We’re not going to dictate that.”
This story and headline have been updated to reflect additional developments.