When Sen. John N. Kennedy of Louisiana went with a group of fellow Republican lawmakers to celebrate the Fourth of July in Moscow (yes, Moscow) last year, they met with Russian counterparts in what the Russian press described as a “secret room.” Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of Russia’s foreign affairs committee, said Kennedy had promised to deliver a “tough message” about Russia’s interference in U.S. elections, but when it was his turn to speak “he had absolutely nothing to say.”
Now the Republicans have plenty to say, and most of it benefits the Kremlin. Indeed, the Republicans of Donald Trump’s regime and the Russians of Vladimir Putin’s often sing in amazing harmony.
When Kennedy was interviewed Sunday by Chris Wallace on Fox News, he gave us a striking example of synchronicity. Kennedy, who was educated at Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, and Oxford University’s Magdalen College, and ought to know better, readily echoed a fable spawned by the Russian security services.
“Who do you believe was responsible for hacking the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and [Hillary] Clinton campaign computers, their emails?” Wallace asked. “Was it Russia or Ukraine?” To which Kennedy replied, “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any others.”
Wallace fired back: “Let me just interrupt to say the entire intelligence community says it was Russia.” Kennedy wobbled: “Right, but it could also be Ukraine.”
Nothing could better epitomize the ideal outcome of the Kremlin’s barrage of conflicting narratives, its dezinformatsiya, or disinformation designed to create a false impression that the truth is simply unknowable.
Gone are the days when the GOP dared to confront the Kremlin, and we should keep in mind that prominent Russian politicians and media figures rejoiced at the death of the late, great Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) last year—presciently predicting that no one in the Republican Party would be able to live up to his legacy. Appearing on the Russian state television show 60 Minutes in 2018, Karen Shakhnazarov opined: “Global empires like the United States are destroyed from within... The U.S. is deteriorating. They won’t find other fighters like McCain. There won’t be any others like him. This process is irreversible.”
The Kremlin wagered its bets with stellar precision and the Republicans made the job easy. Instead of picking up the torch of democracy proudly carried by McCain, the GOP of Trump is clutching the tiki torch of Russian propaganda.
Fiona Hill, who served as the leading Russia expert on Trump’s National Security Council staff, issued a stark warning during her testimony in the impeachment hearing: “Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” The Republican committee members who have intoned the phrase “Russia hoax” like a mantra feigned surprise.
President Trump did not heed the warning from Hill, nor did his Republican enablers. Calling into Fox & Friends, Trump again repeated the debunked conspiracy theory that Russia didn’t hack the servers of the DNC—and Ukraine was the real culprit. Then Russian state television immediately inserted the translated clip from Fox News into its news broadcasts.
But we’ve come to expect that sort of thing from the president who took the side of Putin against his whole intelligence community at the Helsinki summit last year.
It’s the capitulation to the Kremlin by the virtual entirety of the obsequious GOP that really draws attention now as Trump’s impeachment by the House and trial by the Senate loom on the near horizon.
Last Thursday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (once a close friend of McCain) launched a probe into former Vice President Joe Biden’s dealings with Ukraine. His efforts were lauded almost instantaneously on the Russian state television program Vesti Nedeli. And lo and behold, that very same day Russian state media announced the alleged beginning by the Ukrainian parliament, or Rada, of an investigation into the Ukrainian energy company Burisma as well as Hunter Biden, who sat on its board, and his father.
Vesti couldn’t hide its excitement with a segment entitled “Rada FINALLY sits up... Opens Investigation of Hunter Biden!” Vesti added: “It’s hardly possible to get back the money, but will likely mess up Joe Biden’s election prospects.”
The said “investigation” is in fact merely an audit. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka has said repeatedly that there are no criminal cases or any other cases initiated against Burisma or Hunter Biden. But the mere announcement of such an inquiry could be used for political advantage. One recalls the testimony of Ambassador Gordon Sondland revealing that a public announcement of an investigation by Ukraine’s president would sufficiently serve Trump’s political needs.
Multiple actors in the United States, Russia, and Ukraine have been promoting the idea of investigating Ukraine’s alleged election meddling, as well as the inquiry about the Bidens. The calls for such measures have been promoted especially by Ukrainian lawmakers known for their pro-Russian views, including Yuri Boyko, the co-chairman of Ukraine’s biggest pro-Russian party.
According to the English-language Ukrainian newspaper Kyiv Post, three other Ukrainian lawmakers—Oleg Voloshyn, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, and Andriy Derkach—are also “doing Trump’s dirty work” to try to prompt the investigations he demanded from the Ukrainian president.
The Kyiv Post pointed out the lawmakers’ links to the oligarch Dmytro Firtash, discredited former Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, and President Trump’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort.
Voloshyn, who calls Manafort his friend, authored a flattering opinion piece about him in December 2017. At the time, Robert Mueller’s prosecutors argued that Manafort violated a gag order by heavily editing Voloshyn’s op-ed that attempted to whitewash Manafort’s work in Ukraine.
The politically motivated investigations of the Bidens and Ukraine’s alleged interference in the U.S. elections would play right into President Vladimir Putin’s hands by jeopardizing bipartisan U.S. support for Kyiv. The Kremlin, which seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, sees Ukraine as the highly coveted jewel of the post-Soviet region. But Russia’s influence over its largest European neighbor can be restored only by undermining the American involvement. Putin personally pitched in to paint a negative picture of Ukraine, when President Trump inexplicably sought his “guidance” on how to deal with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Kremlin has strived continually to drive a wedge between the United States and Ukraine in order to get the country back firmly into Russia’s sphere of influence. Russian state media repeatedly urge the Ukrainian government to go along with Trump’s demands, no matter how humiliating, or else lose any hope of continued U.S. support.
The host of Russian news talk show 60 Minutes, Evgeny Popov, warned: “If Trump gets re-elected, and you don’t investigate Biden... [Ukraine] won’t get anything from America. Not a thing.” The co-host of 60 Minutes, Olga Skabeeva, scoffed: “With respect to mutual American-Ukrainian love, as we know, nothing lasts forever,” adding, “Trump could spit on Ukraine.”
The leader of a pro-Russian group of Ukrainians, Yuriy Kot, picked up that refrain: “Trump could spit on Ukraine!” Kot added that if Trump is re-elected, Ukraine can expect “four more years of hell from the United States of America. You don’t even understand the horror that is coming your way.” Skabeeva summed up: “For Ukraine, this is a catastrophe... Americans are directly telling you they’re sick of you. Nobody needs you.”
Such demoralizing drivel from Russian state media is, of course, designed to push the fledgling democracy away from the U.S. and back into Russia’s orbit.
Trump, for his part, has been in the “blame Ukraine” camp for years as a way to diminish or discredit the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community and many of its Western allies that, as Fiona Hill pointed out, Putin had waged a systematic effort to undermine U.S. democracy, with support for Trump a part of that strategy.
Putin and Trump reportedly have discussed allegations of Ukrainian interference in U.S. elections. In a 2017 Oval Office meeting, Trump told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that he was unconcerned about Moscow’s election interference. At the G20 in June of this year, Trump grinned and playfully wagged his finger as he told Putin: “Don’t meddle in the election."
One month later, during Trump’s now infamous July 25 call with Ukraine’s Zelensky, Trump urged him to investigate Ukraine’s alleged meddling in the U.S. elections—and the lesson drawn from all this by Putin? Appearing at the economic forum Russia Calling, he smirked: “Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”
But here’s the fact of the matter. Russia’s unprecedented interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has been described, with reason, as “the most successful influence campaign in history, one that will be studied globally for decades,” and it is far from over.
Instead of counteracting Russia’s malign influence, American foreign policy under Trump is seemingly being guided by it and leaders of the Republican Party are doing their best to aid and abet that program.
The wave of Kremlin disinformation started with faceless workers at the St. Petersburg “troll factory” banging away at their keyboards, striving to reach everyday not-very-well-informed Americans who would in turn misinform others within their sphere of influence.
The operation surpassed Putin’s wildest dreams when ripples of disinformation surged into a tsunami as Candidate Trump and then President Trump started openly to recite Russia’s fictive talking points. The range of dissemination was then magnified by Trump’s Republican supporters, along with his 67 million Twitter followers, and media outlets hanging on to every word uttered by the leader of the mightiest country in the world.
In sum, there’s no question the presidency of Donald J. Trump has proved to be enormously beneficial for the Kremlin, and supporters of the Russian president are openly rooting for Trump’s re-election.
Russian state television channel Rossiya-1 has dispatched its reporter Denis Davydov to broadcast directly from the impeachment hearings and, probably this should not be a surprise, Russian state-media coverage sounded eerily like much of Fox News, echoing the disingenuous claims by Trump supporters that there was no pressure against Ukraine and no “quid pro quo.”
For the first time in modern history, in the era of Trump, Russian state television is more than happy to support the Republicans—and for a good reason.