The consensus conclusion of the US intelligence community is that the Russian government was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 election. This finding was affirmed by a bipartisan Senate investigation and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who in painstaking detail laid out how Russian intelligence officers helped Trump not only through hacks, but also with the ensuing WikiLeaks anti-Clinton propaganda campaign featuring the emails stolen during those hacks.
Nonetheless, nearly three years after the US intelligence community first announced this consensus conclusion, Republicans senators are publicly trying to gaslight people about what happened in 2016 by insisting that purported — but in reality nonexistent — Ukrainian election interference is just as concerning as what Russia did. Their aim appears to be twofold: justifying the conspiracy theories Trump tried to leverage the Ukrainian government into investigating (and that are at the heart of the House’s impeachment inquiry), and drawing into question whether Trump actually benefitted from foreign interference.
“I’m saying that Ms. Hill is entitled to her opinion”
That Republican senators are choosing this moment to push unfounded Ukrainian interference conspiracy theories is particularly galling in light of Russia expert and former National Security Council official Fiona Hill’s testimony before impeachment investigators last Thursday.
Hill used her opening statement to attack Republicans for indulging in unfounded conspiracy theories. She described the Ukrainian interference notion as “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” adding, “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a US adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.”
Nonetheless, the very next day, Trump called in to Fox & Friends and said “the word is” that “a lot of [the interference] had to do, they say, with Ukraine” — a claim that seemed to be a bit extreme even for the usually Trump-adoring hosts.
So, on the most recent edition of Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), “Who do you believe was responsible for hacking the DNC and Clinton campaign computers, their emails — was it Russia, or Ukraine?”
Kennedy responded with the equivalent of a verbal shrug, saying, “I don’t know. Nor do you. Nor do any of us.”
Wallace cut him off to note that “the entire intelligence community says it was Russia.” But Kennedy was undeterred.
“Right. But it could also be Ukraine,” he said. “I’m not saying that I know one way or the other. I’m saying that Ms. Hill is entitled to her opinion.”
On FOX News Sunday: Louisiana Senator John Kennedy reacts to President Trump saying Ukraine may have the DNC server, an idea that runs contrary to the intelligence community. Chris asks Senator Kennedy who he thinks is responsible for hacking the DNC. #FNS #FoxNews pic.twitter.com/zBbzuoXSje— FoxNewsSunday (@FoxNewsSunday) November 24, 2019
Hill’s position, of course, is more than an “opinion” — it’s in line with every major investigation of 2016 election interference, including one conducted by Kennedy’s Republican colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Beyond that, many Americans remember WikiLeaks’s anti-DNC and anti-Clinton propaganda campaigns in the summer and fall of 2016. But they don’t remember any equivalent anti-Trump campaign conducted by Ukrainian officials, because there wasn’t one. And yet Kennedy, echoing Trump, wants people to believe that Ukrainian officials played a role in framing up Russia for the election interference effort.
Kennedy wasn’t the only Republican to push this talking point on Sunday. On Meet the Press, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) did the same thing, telling host Chuck Todd that Hill “is correct that Russia tried to interfere in 2016, [but] also, Ukrainians themselves tried to interfere.”
“Isn’t there a big difference between the two?” Todd responded. “Look, I understand there’s individual Ukrainians who were upset that candidate Donald Trump wanted Crimea to stay with Russia. Is that the same as the Russian government and Putin ordering a full-fledged interference campaign?”
Wicker didn’t answer the question, but said, “I’m concerned about both.”
.@SenatorWicker: Fiona Hill is correct that Russia tried to interfere in 16. Also, Ukrainians tried to interfere— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 24, 2019
TODD: Isn't there a big difference? Individual Ukrainians who didn't like Trump, vs. Putin ordering a full-fledged interference campaign?
W: I'm concerned about both pic.twitter.com/pZhzBIX1cR
During her testimony, Hill addressed the specific false equivalency pushed by Wicker, noting that “there was little evidence of a top-down effort [to aid] Hillary Clinton by Ukraine ... a distinction between the Russian effort that was personally directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
Republicans pushing this unfounded conspiracy theory is a taste of what’s to come
As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post details, Republicans are suddenly pushing the Ukrainian conspiracy theory in part because if Trump is impeached, it will likely be central to his defense during a Senate trial. As unfounded as it is, it will be used to make a case that Trump had good reason to try to leverage the Ukrainian government into investigating what role, if any, previous governments there played in the 2016 campaign.
But the fact of the matter is that 2016 election interference has already been extensively investigated by a wide range of American officials. Time and time again, they’ve found that Russia interfered to help Trump and damage Clinton. They have not found that there was any sort of pro-Clinton Ukrainian interference campaign of significance. And yet to defend their president, Republicans are now going to the extent of pretending that reality is unknowable.