With the House Judiciary Committee now taking up the impeachment inquiry, it’s clear that Republican lawmakers are fully committing to the funhouse reality manufactured by Russia, if that’s what it takes to exculpate President Trump.
Any lingering doubts about whether Republicans would exercise independent judgment and conduct themselves with honor dissipated with the maddening performance of Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
“I think both Russia and Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election,” Kennedy told host Chuck Todd. He added, “Russia was very aggressive, and they’re much more sophisticated. But the fact that Russia’s so aggressive does not exclude the fact that President Poroshenko actively worked for Secretary Clinton.”
Fiona Hill, formerly Trump’s senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council, had urged House Republicans against just this type of dissembling in her testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 21.
“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,” she said. “This is a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves…. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically derived falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
According to reporting by CNN, Hill had briefed members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which Kennedy is a member, on this matter earlier in the fall. But Kennedy said he didn’t attend the briefing.
Kennedy, a freshman Republican who comes up for reelection again in 2022, is likely hewing a line friendly to Trump to protect himself from the wrath of Republican primary voters who would mercilessly turn on him for any display of disloyalty to the president.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who chairs Senate Intel, has no such excuse. Before his last election in 2016, Burr announced this would be his last term.
Like so many other Trump loyalists, Burr was once a voice of reason.
In a statement accompanying the release of the report by his committee on Russian election interference in 2016, Burr warned against conspiracy theories perpetrated by Russia.
“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the US that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election,” he said. “Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government. By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust in our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans.”
But on Monday, with the chips down and his fellow Republicans closing ranks around Trump, Burr engaged in just the type of false equivalency he had warned against less than two months earlier.
“Every elected official in the Ukraine was for Hillary Clinton,” Burr told Frank Thorp V, a producer for NBC News. “You considered Russia meddling with just the preference they had before you knew the rest of it. Apply the same standard to Ukraine. The president can say that they meddled because they had a preference, the elected officials, that’s not the current people.”
Burr should know better than anyone that holding a preference in an election is not the same as meddling.
Ukraine, unlike Russia, did not field an army of internet trolls to spread disinformation and amplify division on social media, or hack into Republican servers and leak embarrassing emails from GOP operatives. If some Ukrainian officials wrote op-eds expressing apprehension about Trump’s candidacy, who could blame them? After all, it was the Trump campaign that insisted that the Republican Party platform be revised before he accepted the party nomination to remove a call to provide weapons to fight to Ukraine to fight Russian separatists. They would have been justifiably worried based on the fact that Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, previously worked as a consultant for Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, who resigned amidst the Euromaidan protests in early 2014.
Burr’s contempt for the press is well documented, but on Monday he dangerously took it a step further, attempting to bully the NBC producer into going down the rabbit-hole of conspiracy promotion.
When Thorp challenged Burr to substantiate his claim that Ukraine engaged in election meddling comparable to Russia, Burr responded, “Are you guys investigating?”
Alluding to the fact that Burr chairs the Senate committee that is responsible for knowing about this type of thing, Thorp replied, “No, I’m asking you because you guys are investigating.”
“But I’m not going to talk about what I’m investigating,” Burr said. “Do I do your work now?”
The bizarre exchange basically amounts to Burr telling Thorp he can’t presume that Ukraine didn’t meddle in the 2016 election based on what he doesn’t know, while guiding Thorp to entertain a phantom theory so that Burr doesn’t have to get his hands dirty.
Finally, Thorp challenged Burr to put up or shut up, asking if he personally had found any evidence that there was more to so-called Ukraine election meddling than officials expressing a preference for one particular candidate.
“If I had investigated, I wouldn’t even tell you,” Burr replied.