Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Amy Klobuchar (D.-Minn.) (L) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) (R) at a press conference in the Capitol in Washington, DC, Jan. 10. The bipartisan group of Senators has sponsored legislation to enact sanctions against Russia for their computer hacking interference in the U.S. presidential election. (SHAWN THEW/European Pressphoto Agency)

On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to the floor to bitterly denounce another Russian human rights abomination, and to rebuke President Trump for suggesting some moral equivalence exists between the United States and Russia. The immediate topic was Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian activist who has been hospitalized for poisoning — for a second time. McCain declared:

Last week I was heartbroken to learn that my dear friend Vladimir Kara-Murza, had been hospitalized in Moscow. Those of us who know the work of this brave Russian patriot could not afford to hope or assume that he was suffering some ordinary illness. Just two years ago, under mysterious circumstances, Vladimir grew very ill and fell into a coma. Many suspected he was poisoned to intimidate him—or worse. That is why last week’s news signaled another shadowy strike against a brilliant voice who has defied the tyranny of Putin’s Russia.

McCain recalled his efforts to promote civil liberties. ““In the United States, Vladimir was one of the most passionate and effective advocates for passage of the Magnitsky Act, legislation that gives the federal government powers to punish human rights violators in Russia,” he said. “Most recently, he has eloquently and persuasively campaigned to expand the Act to impose sanctions on those Russian journalists, who are so cowed and corrupted by the Kremlin, they have become indispensable to propagating the lies and atmosphere of hate, fear and violence the Putin regime relies on to maintain power.”

Vice President Pence and senators of both political parties on Feb. 5 reacted to President Trump's comments about Russia and the United States in a Fox News interview. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

McCain as usual pulled no punches in denouncing an attempt to blur the distinction between Russian authoritarianism and American democracy. After going through a long list of other murdered human rights activists and journalists, McCain blasted Trump without mentioning his name. “In short, Vladimir knew that Putin is a killer, and that he might very well be the next target. Vladimir knew there was no moral equivalence between the United States and Putin’s Russia. And anyone who would make such a suggestion maligns the character of our great nation and does a disservice to all those whose blood is on Putin’s hands.”

McCain’s remarks were bracing, in part because they underscored Trump’s grotesque association with Putin, which implicitly excuses or even encourages Putin’s killings. Just as stunning, far too many Republican who during President Obama’s time in office decried inattention to human rights now find no reason to bring up Trump’s revolting rationalization for Putin’s repression.

“Vladimir Putin is KGB. He always has been. He always will be,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on New Year’s Day. He excoriated the Obama administration: “They have actively opposed measures to toughen up on Russia. I proposed measures in our annual intelligence bill, for instance, that would enforce existing travel restrictions on Russian diplomats — by which I mean Russian spies in the United States — that would force the government to crack down on these Russian spies who are traveling all around America without the proper approvals,” he recalled, “I got a call just weeks ago from a senior administration official after the election, after the hacking, asking me to remove that from the bill because it would be too provocative.  So, it’s not just that Russia has — that the president and his administration has been weak on Russia, they have actively stopped other efforts by people like me and other Republicans and Democrats in Congress from trying to draw a firmer line. ” However, in a major address at the American Enterprise Institute this week Cotton did not utter the words “human rights,” instead choosing to fawn over Trump’s “America First” policy, which ignores and excuses human rights crimes.

Arch Puddington of Freedom House reminds us that recently Russia has “combined domestic repression with long-distance political sabotage. The Putin regime stage-managed Russia’s parliamentary elections, leading to the total extinction of liberal opposition in the legislature. The Kremlin also added to its blacklists of ‘extremist’ websites and civil society groups that it considers ‘foreign agents.’” He states, “Russia’s interference in the American presidential election represents a new level of political warfare. The target is democracy itself. Russia has made clear its intention to discredit democracy as an idea, discourage those enduring autocratic rule from aspiring to a democratic future, bolster populists and nationalists, and weaken the self-assurance of democratic societies.” And in this he now has an ally in Trump and his GOP enablers. Puddington correctly sees that what Cotton and Trump celebrate as “America First” is something far more menacing. “Trump’s positions raise fears of a foreign policy that is plainly divorced from the traditional idea of America as leader of the free world, as opposed to simply the world’s most powerful nation-state.”

A bipartisan group of senators, including McCain, will introduce legislation to limit Trump’s ability to lift Russian sanctions, an extraordinary measure necessitated by Trump’s extraordinary sympathy for an enemy of America. CNN reports that the legislative effort will “underscore the growing concern on the Hill that Trump’s openness to Vladimir Putin could prompt the United States to rebuild diplomatic ties with Russia, despite Washington’s furious opposition to a host of Russian actions, including its annexation of Crimea and alleged cyberattacks during the U.S. election. And it comes as lawmakers in both parties have pushed back at Trump’s comments over the weekend, when he seemed to equate US military actions with violence spawned by Putin’s government.”

If we want to maintain American greatness we should follow McCain’s lead and his Democratic and Republican colleagues who harshly disparage Russian repression and aggression. We do not put “America First” by excusing the attempted murder of Russian dissidents.