President Trump’s long-running embrace of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, has been taken up recently by some of his staunchest Republican supporters, who have publicly sided with Moscow over Ukraine, an American ally, in comments they subsequently disavowed or dismissed as jokes.
During a Sunday interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., was asked whether he shared Trump’s belief that Ukraine, rather than Russia, hacked a computer server belonging to the Democratic National Committee in 2016 to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.
“I don't know, nor do you,” Kennedy responded.
“The entire intelligence community says it was Russia,” Wallace retorted.
“Right, but it could also be Ukraine,” Kennedy said. “I’m not saying that I know one way or the other.”
Kennedy’s doubts — of the unanimous judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies and the conclusions of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators and the grand jury that indicted Russian operatives for cyber-meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of Trump — came just days after Fiona Hill refuted that view.
“Based on questions and statements I have heard, 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, a former top Russia expert with the National Security Council, said during her opening statement at last week’s impeachment inquiry hearing. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
On Monday, Kennedy walked back his assertion that Ukraine may have been involved in the DNC hack.
“I was wrong,” he told CNN. “The only evidence I have, and I think it’s overwhelming, is that it was Russia who tried to hack the DNC computer. I’ve seen no indication that Ukraine tried to do it.”
Trump faces impeachment over his attempts to convince Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, and over a debunked conspiracy theory that the hacked server resides in that country.
Mueller’s investigation found copious evidence that Russian operatives tried to help the Republican ticket in 2016, although he did not establish direct collusion with the Trump campaign. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., now the House minority leader, told a closed-door meeting of Republican House members in 2016 that “there’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” He was referring to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, who was defeated for reelection in 2018.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters it was his “duty” to investigate whether Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.
“Anytime there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American elections, we not only have a right but a duty to make sure we chase that down,” Pompeo told reporters when asked about the theory already debunked by U.S. officials.
It’s unclear how much stock Pompeo puts in Trump’s expressed view that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in 2016, but one person who is certainly glad to hear it being publicly discussed is Putin.
Last week, Putin addressed the subject at a conference in Moscow. “Thank God nobody is accusing us anymore of interfering in the U.S. elections,” he said. “Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”
Polling has shown a remarkable GOP warming trend toward Russia in recent years. In 2014, just 22 percent of Republicans surveyed by Gallup believed Russia “is an ally or is friendly toward the U.S.” In 2018, that number had risen to 40 percent. In contrast, 25 percent of Democrats polled said the same in 2018, down marginally from 28 percent in 2014.
Democrats have regularly criticized Trump for what they see as his acquiescence to Moscow, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did during a contentious October meeting at which she called out the president’s decision to withdrawal troops from northern Syria. That decision, analysts said, would benefit Moscow, and Pelosi stood during the meeting and declared that, with Trump, “all roads lead to Putin,” before leaving the meeting.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson appeared to take the GOP embrace of Russia a step further, expressing outright support for Moscow over Kyiv.
“Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia?” Carlson said in an exchange Monday with former Hillary Clinton adviser Richard Goodstein. “I’m serious. Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which, by the way, I am.”
At the conclusion of his program, Carlson offered a clarification in case any of his viewers mistook the spirit of his defense of Putin’s government.
“Before we go, earlier in the show I noted I was rooting for Russia in the contest between Russia and Ukraine,” he said, “Of course, I’m joking. I’m only rooting for America — mocking the obsession many on the left have. Ha!”
As far as America’s interests are concerned, it is official U.S. policy to back Ukraine in its war with Russia, which invaded the country and seized a portion of it five years ago.
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