As Dana Milbank put it today in the Washington Post, “this is the White House that can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.” Republicans complained impeachment hearings were secret, so the Democrats made them public, and then Republicans complained they were illegitimate. After complaining that there were no “first-hand” reports of the events surrounding the Ukraine scandal, Trump refused to let anyone who had that knowledge testify (some did despite his order). Republicans complained about that hearing transcripts were secret, so Democrats released them. Republican complained that Trump’s lawyers couldn’t be present at the hearings; now House Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler has invited them and they have declined to attend. And my favorite, after repeatedly saying that Democrats should hurry up with impeachment and move on, Republicans are now complaining that the Democrats are rushing the process.
It is clear that Republicans cannot defend Trump on the merits, so they are going to attack the impeachment process. In USA Today, Maine Senator Angus King, an Independent, excoriated the officials in Trump’s administration who are not speaking up about the Ukraine scandal. They could exonerate the president with a few short statements under oath, King points out. The fact they are resolutely refusing to testify suggests they cannot defend him. King also notes that Trump is actively obstructing the process of fact-finding and attempting to intimidate witnesses. “If the president is innocent,” King writes, “he should want—no, he should demand—that the above mentioned officials appear in a public forum, under oath and subject to examination, to set the matter straight, as soon as possible.” Their silence, he concludes, speaks for itself.
But while it is clear Republicans are trying to gum up the works, it is also increasingly clear that they are no longer trying to argue there was “no quid pro quo”—the evidence is overwhelming—and are instead going to try to argue that the reason Trump went after Ukraine was because it tried to interfere in the 2016 election in favor of Hillary Clinton. This is hogwash, but more than that, it is Russian propaganda that has been utterly disproven by American intelligence services. As Trump supporters try to push this line of argument over that of our own intelligence, more and more people are asking why the Republican Party is echoing Putin.
Devin Nunes (R-CA) who is now under a cloud because Lev Parnas, the associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani who was arrested trying to flee the country, claims that he helped to arrange for Nunes to work with corrupt pro-Russia Ukraine officials to smear Hunter Biden, laid out the argument in the Intelligence Committee hearings. Nunes asked “What is the full extent of Ukraine’s election meddling against the Trump campaign?”
The evidence for this claim is a 2016 op-ed from the Ukrainian ambassador to the US criticizing Trump’s apparent willingness to let Russia keep Ukraine’s Crimea, and a single article in Politico in January 2017 that outlined local opposition primarily to Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, who had promoted a deeply unpopular pro-Russian politician in Ukraine for a decade (and who is now, of course, in prison, convicted of tax evasion on monies taken from that politician and revealed in what is now known as the “black ledger,” among other things.)
The Senate Intelligence Committee investigated this story, and quickly concluded there was nothing to it. When asked about Ukraine’s involvement in 2016, Senator Angus King, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, answered that he had “probably been to between 20-30 briefings and hearings on this subject of election interference in 2016, and I have never heard one word about any culpability on the part of Ukraine.” In her powerful testimony before Congress, Fiona Hill, formerly Trump’s top Russia advisor on the National Security Council, said that claims of Ukrainian attacks on our elections are “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security systems themselves.”
In contrast, Russian interference in our election has been widely documented by our intelligence agencies, by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report, and by a bi-partisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The evidence is clear and incontrovertible.
But GOP leaders continue to spout the Russian Ukraine lie. There was more notice today of Louisiana Senator John Kennedy’s statement on Meet the Press that there is “a lot of evidence” that Ukraine tried to influence the 2016 elections. When host Chuck Todd noted that Intelligence Community officers had told the Senate in a recent briefing that this story was Russian propaganda, and said, “You realize the only other person selling this argument outside the United States is… Vladimir Putin,” Kennedy answered: “I was not briefed.”
Kennedy is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the most important committees at the very top of our government. If he was unaware of this Russian propaganda effort, he is so utterly derelict in his duty he should be immediately impeached himself. For my part, though, I don’t buy it.
Kennedy is not a lone voice. Today, the GOP members of Congress released their own report of the impeachment hearings so far, and concluded that the Democrats are simply trying to overturn the 2016 election, and that Trump withheld money from Ukraine not to pressure Zelensky, but out of “a deepseated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine due to its history of pervasive corruption….” (This is so obviously laughable it offends me.) It went on to insist that “Publicly available—and irrefutable—evidence shows how senior Ukrainian government officials sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in opposition to President Trump's candidacy, and that some in the Ukrainian embassy in Washington worked with a Democrat operative to achieve that goal.”
The narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in our elections would let Russia off the hook and would make it easier to lift the sanctions against the country and its oligarchs that Putin so desperately wants lifted. The attempt to whitewash Russia’s attack on our elections is running in tandem with the idea that Ukraine was the real culprit.
We learned tonight that Attorney General William Barr, who famously downplayed the findings of the Mueller Report on Russian attacks on the 2016 election, plans to dispute the forthcoming report of his own Department of Justice’s Inspector General on the FBI’s opening of the investigation into Russian interference in that election. The IG is said to be preparing a report establishing that the FBI’s investigation was proper; Barr has his own investigator, John Durham, preparing his own report into the same question, prompting UK officials to express surprise at his attempt to undermine the determinations of our own intelligence agencies.
Today Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman from Florida turned television host, branded the entire GOP as a Russian asset. “You have Republicans going on national television, repeating Putin talking points. The United States Senate even got a warning from the intel agencies, Donald Trump’s intel agencies, that this is propaganda that Vladimir Putin has been trying to push for the past several years.” Scarborough concluded with the question on all of our minds: “Why is the Republican Party… willingly repeating Russian talking points made up by an ex-KGB officer?”
That, if you will pardon the profanity, is one hell of a good question.