Days after being impeached by the House of Representatives, President Donald Trump seemed to echo and endorse Russian President Vladimir Putin’s take on the impeachment process on Twitter.
In his annual marathon press conference Thursday in Moscow, Putin argued Trump was impeached for “far-fetched” reasons. “It’s simply a continuation of internal political struggle,” Putin said. Echoing a Republican talking point, the Russian president continued, “The party that lost the  election, the Democratic Party, is trying to achieve results by other means.”
Democrats, Putin claimed — again, as Republicans did during impeachment proceedings Wednesday — have always wanted to impeach Trump and had been looking for a reason to do so all year.
“It turned out there was no collusion,” Putin said, referring to the conclusions of the Mueller report. “It could not form the basis for impeachment, and now there is this made-up pressure on Ukraine.”
The pressure on Ukraine is, of course, well documented, including in evidence released by the White House. Like Putin, however, Trump and his Republican allies have claimed the evidence does not show this.
Trump, for instance, wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Tuesday that the articles of impeachment “include no crimes, no misdemeanors, no offenses whatsoever. You have cheapened the importance of the very ugly word, impeachment!”
Friday, he was a bit more succinct in replying to an Associated Press report detailing Putin’s comments, responding to a tweet containing Putin’s assessment of the president’s impeachment by writing, “A total Witch Hunt!”
The timing of the president’s tweet was less than ideal given it came not just after his impeachment, but in the wake of a Washington Post report detailing the president’s affinity for — and trust in — his Russian counterpart.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), a frequent critic of the president, appeared to refer to that report Friday in a rebuke of Trump, in which she called him Putin’s “puppet.” Referring to a “revelation by former [White House] officials,” she warned that if the Senate doesn’t remove him from office, Trump would invite Putin to the White House next year.
Revelation by former WH officials proves what we've known all along: Trump is #PutinsPuppet. Trump repeated Putin's talking point that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the ‘16 election. Mark my words. If the Senate doesn't remove him, Trump will invite Putin to the WH next yr.— Maxine Waters (@RepMaxineWaters) December 21, 2019
Both tweets — Waters’s and Trump’s — underscore concerns over the president’s relationship with Russia and election security during the 2020 presidential contest.
The president has reportedly told Russia he didn’t care about that country’s meddling in the 2016 election, and he was criticized recently for giving Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a White House meeting, something he has refused to grant US ally Ukraine, despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly asking for one.
Trump has also been criticized for his adherence to the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election, and that it did so in an effort to benefit Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
This conspiracy theory has been disproved by national security experts — one of whom, former homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert, said he repeatedly told Trump it was false — but it has lingered in the presidential and Republican consciousnesses. The Washington Post report that so concerned Waters focused on this theory, and according to that report, one former senior White House official said Trump told him that “he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because ‘Putin told me.’”
Trump’s full embrace of this conspiracy theory has now directly affected how his presidency will be remembered: his pursuit of an official Ukrainian investigation into the theory (as well as into another conspiracy theory, that former Vice President Joe Biden misused his power to help a Ukrainian company on whose board his son sat) led to his eventual impeachment.
Democrats are increasingly concerned however, that impeachment will not chasten the president, and that the 2020 election won’t be free of foreign influence — not just due to concerns that Trump will invite meddling, but because the president and his allies continue to promote Russian propaganda.
US intelligence officials grow frustrated over Russian disinformation
US officials have repeatedly warned that Russian attacks on US elections are ongoing.
During his congressional testimony in July, former special counsel Robert Mueller said Russia was working to undermine US democracy “as we sit here,” and added, “And they expect to do it again during the next campaign.”
In a 2018, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats called Russian interference in US politics “real” and “continuing.”
“It goes beyond the elections,” Coats said, “It goes to Russia’s intent to undermine our democratic values, drive a wedge between our allies, and do a number of other nefarious things.”
One of those “nefarious things” is the Russian promotion of the Ukraine election meddling conspiracy theory. That theory has not only been advanced by the president, but by his allies in defending him during the impeachment process, as Vox’s Aaron Rupar has explained:
Republican 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.
The tendency of Trump and his allies to maintain Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election has frustrated intelligence officials throughout the impeachment process — so much so that former National Security Council official Fiona Hill used a portion of her testimony during impeachment inquiry hearings to rebuke Republican lawmakers.
“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,” Hill said in November. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
That statement did little to dampen Republican enthusiasm for the conspiracy theory, however. The day after Hill’s testimony, Trump spoke with Fox News about election meddling in 2016 and said, “A lot of it had to do, they say, with Ukraine.”
And days later, when Republican Sen. John Kennedy appeared on Fox News and was reminded of Hill’s words and the intelligence community’s assessment that it was Russia that meddled in the last presidential election, the lawmaker responded, “But it could also be Ukraine.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote on impeachment, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) claimed in a floor speech that the impeachment process was meant to “stop the investigation of the US Department of Justice and Ukraine into the corruption of Ukraine interference into the US election in 2016.”
Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) returned to the lectern to respond, “I am deeply concerned that any member of the House would spout Russian propaganda on the floor of the House.”
These comments — and Trump’s tweet — suggest that Russia has already been rather successful in convincing Republican politicians of falsehoods around the last election. And given Putin’s comments Thursday, as the next election grows closer, it would seem Russian efforts to advance distorted and divisive narratives are not going away.