In the hive of reporters, clicking cameras and voice recorders that is the hallways of the U.S. Senate, Sen. John Kennedy is ubiquitous.
The Louisiana Republican almost never turns down an interview, and will talk—and talk—on any subject, holding court until reporters are out of questions. His status as one of the Senate’s most quotable members—and as one of the few GOP senators currently rushing toward, not away from, the press to defend President Trump amid the impeachment inquiry—has only put Kennedy in greater demand.
But on Tuesday, this seemingly inexhaustible well of quotes and quips seemed, well, exhausted.
The reason dates back about two weeks, to an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday when Kennedy was asked about Fiona Hill’s House testimony that blaming Ukraine is a Russian propaganda tactic.
Kennedy responded, “It could also be Ukraine… I’m saying that Ms. Hill is entitled to her opinion but no rebuttal evidence was allowed to be offered.”
Backlash ensued, and Kennedy claimed he misheard Wallace’s question. But by this past weekend, he had backtracked from that backtracking, trotting out the idea that Ukraine and Russia were both guilty of election meddling in 2016, though perhaps to different extents. He even pushed an unfounded theory that the former Ukrainian president was “actively” working for Hillary Clinton, an assertion that seemed to flabbergast his interviewer, NBC’s Chuck Todd. Conservative commentator Charlie Sykes later commented that Kennedy sounded like “an addled Russian asset.”
Putting an arm around this reporter on his way to the Senate floor Tuesday, Kennedy offered a jarring response to questions about his views on Ukraine: no comment.
“I have given I don’t know how many interviews in the last week and a half,” he said. “I’ve said all I want to say on that, guys, there’s nothing else I can add.”
Kennedy might be done talking for the time being. But his move to muddy the waters on election meddling, and suggest Russia and Ukraine’s roles in it might be comparable, is spreading to key members of the Senate GOP conference as they brace for an imminent impeachment trial that will test their loyalty to the president.
That includes Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee that led a sweeping investigation into the 2016 election and reportedly found no evidence of Ukrainian election meddling. Burr told reporters on Tuesday that “meddling is meddling” and claimed that there wasn’t any difference between what Russia and Ukraine did.
The president himself made clear he approved of the course being charted by Kennedy to publicly revive a far-out thread of the Ukraine counter-narrative, debunked by the intelligence community and officials in both parties, that he has been fixated on for years. Trump has flirted with theories that the firm tasked with a review of the hacked servers, Crowdstrike, framed Russia for the DNC hack when it was actually Ukraine, and hid the evidence from the feds.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike,” Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their July 25 call. The Daily Beast has reported that Ukrainian and U.S. officials were baffled by the obscure reference and had to google it.
On Monday, the president tweeted favorably on Kennedy’s appearance representing “both the Republican Party and myself against Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd.” From Trump himself down to his support base, opinion of the first-term senator is currently sky-high.
“Kennedy is a massive political talent, and I’m not at all surprised at the support he’s received among Trump supporters these days,” said a former White House official. “And it’s no surprise that the president likes the guy. Kennedy was running a very Trumpy, anti-Washington campaign long before Trump was elected president.”
Indeed, those who have followed Kennedy’s career from his home state of Louisiana are hardly shocked that he has found himself at the heart of this historic moment of political turmoil in Washington, gleefully tossing bombs.
“Kennedy has always been willing to lob a grenade, particularly if it will result in press coverage,” said Pearson Cross, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a frequent commentator on state politics. “With Kennedy, I’m always thinking—the link between showmanship and ambition. That’s the nexus that I see.”
John Couvillon, a GOP strategist in Louisiana, told The Daily Beast that Kennedy “loves tilting at windmills and has a gift for finding the jugular.”
“He’s been doing this for years and he knows how to get press,” said Couvillon. “The thing that’s been interesting is, he has turned his witticisms to the defense of the president.”
The state treasurer from 1999 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2016—and a registered Democrat until 2007—Kennedy brought a knack for getting headlines to a sleepy corner of the state government while angling for higher office, Louisiana political observers say. After several failed bids for governor and senator, Kennedy finally won his seat in a December 2016 run-off election. Then-President-elect Trump flew to Louisiana to rally for him, making Kennedy the first GOP candidate he stumped for after winning the White House.
Since then, Kennedy has cultivated a reputation as a folksy font of wisdom in the nation’s capital. His creative turns of phrase—Trump, he once said, “is a hard dog to keep on the porch… he’s not a porch dog; he's a running dog”—are so outlandish that a New Orleans newspaper columnist drew up a quiz challenging readers to guess whether certain phrases were said by Kennedy or Foghorn Leghorn.
More recently, Kennedy has targeted his one-liners at the president’s enemies. At a rally last month in Louisiana, the senator—standing onstage next to Trump in rolled-up shirtsleeves—mocked Speaker Nancy Pelosi and impeachment. “It must suck,” he bellowed, “to be that dumb.”
This persona—and his recent scattershot arguments on impeachment—have prompted some who follow him scratch their heads. They note that Kennedy holds degrees with honors from Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia School of Law, and Oxford University in England.
“This is someone who’s really smart,” said Pearson. “You kind of wonder, where do you draw the line between how much of this is for show and how much of it is what he actually thinks?”
Even fellow GOP allies of the president, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have pushed back on the election meddling claims advanced by Kennedy and others. Graham told reporters on Tuesday that any suggestion Ukraine hacked the DNC emails is “not true.”
“It was the Russians. I’m 1,000 percent confident that the hack of the DNC was by Russian operatives, no one else,” said Graham. “I think it’s always wrong to say things that can't be proven, and it can be proven it was the Russians.”
Before he grew tired of talking to the press about it, Kennedy seemed unbothered by the pile of evidence countering his claims. In fact, he came to interviews prepared with supposed evidence of his own: on Monday, he approached reporters with paper copies of articles he said justified the story of Ukrainian election meddling; the senator also brandished those articles in a Tuesday morning appearance on Fox & Friends.
One of the articles, said Kennedy, was a “great piece” in the Financial Times with the headline “Ukraine’s leaders campaign against Trump.” The U.S. editor of the Financial Times, Edward Luce, has told MSNBC his paper could not find such an article. “I don’t know whether he did the same with the Washington Examiner and The Economist and so forth. But it seems like he just plucked those newspaper names out of thin air.”
Still, Kennedy kept to the story he’s now sticking to during his time on the president’s favorite morning show: “The Ukrainian government, everyone knows this, is historically and organically corrupt,” he said. And while Russia influenced the 2016 election “big time,” he felt “based on this reporting, so did Ukraine.”
Asked by Steve Doocy to respond to Clinton’s tweet asking why he was “parroting Russian propaganda,” Kennedy smiled and laughed. “I try not to worry too much what anyone thinks of me,” said the senator. “Except dogs. I like dogs.”