But there may be an easy way to blow up this strategy, which will be absolutely central to Trump’s defense. Indeed, there may be an easy way to show that Republicans privately possess extensive concrete information that undermines this theory — yet continue to push it anyway.
In an ugly preview of what’s to come, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) on Sunday brushed off our intelligence services’ hard conclusion that Russia sabotaged the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. “It could also be Ukraine,” Kennedy shrugged. “I’m not saying that I know one way or the other.”
Life is full of mysteries, man. Who can say what really happened, anyway?
Senate Republicans can, that’s who.
GOP senators have already investigated this
Here’s how we know this. The GOP-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee has been running its own investigation into Russia’s attack on our political system for three years. The committee has already released the first two volumes of its findings, detailing efforts to infiltrate U.S. elections infrastructure and sow social discord with disinformation warfare.
But here’s something that has been overlooked: As part of this investigation, the committee has also been examining whether there was U.S. coordination with foreign interference — by the Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns.
The committee’s findings on that front are currently in the beginning stages of getting written up into a report, a Democratic aide on the committee tells me.
And so, if Kennedy is uncertain about whether Ukraine, too, interfered in 2016, he should just ask his colleague who chairs the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, what he has found.
Burr himself already signaled this would be extensively investigated. In October 2017, he said the committee would examine “collusion by either campaign during the 2016 elections." Because Republicans will be Republicans, the alleged Clinton collusion would also be examined.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, recently dropped a tantalizing hint about what this has turned up, suggesting the committee was “wrapping up” this part of the investigation, and that it wouldn’t even “remotely” support various Trump narratives.
So it’s time for Republicans to put up or shut up: What did their investigation find?
Why the Ukraine conspiracy theory matters
It’s important to stress how central this theory is to Trump’s defense against impeachment — and to Trump’s overall corrupt project going forward.
Trump will get impeached in part because he corruptly pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce sham investigations that would validate this 2016 conspiracy theory, as well as a series of lies about Joe Biden.
Trump also used officials acts to leverage this. He dangled a White House meeting to secure it. And the ringleader of his scheme told a top Zelensky aide that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid was also conditioned on it, in effect soliciting a bribe with the obvious awareness that this is what Trump wanted him to do.
So the 2016 conspiracy theory serves Trump in two key ways. First, it’s supposed to show he had legitimate reasons for demanding that Zelensky investigate what happened with Ukraine in 2016.
The central theory here is that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked Democratic servers and that the FBI failed to investigate that crime. Trump’s own former homeland security adviser told him this is nonsense, but Trump nonetheless pressed Zelensky to make it true, and Trump’s propagandists regularly claim he had good reason to want this investigated.
Indeed, at Trump’s impeachment trial, Republican plan to use this story line to portray Trump as the “victim” of the “deep state,” the fake news media and Democrats, the New York Times reports.
The second way this theory serves Trump is that it purportedly absolves Russia of its role in sabotaging the 2016 election — and by extension the Trump campaign’s extensive efforts to coordinate with and benefit from it.
That’s why Russia has spent years pushing this theory, to “frame” Ukraine and protect its own ongoing electoral interference, which will continue in 2020, with Trump’s blessing. As the Times also reports, intelligence officials briefed GOP senators about the centrality of this theory to Russian propaganda.
In so doing, those intelligence officials demonstrated agreement with Fiona Hill, the former top White House Russia expert, who explosively testified that Trump and Republicans are pushing a “fictional narrative” that helps Russia use disinformation to undermine public faith in our democracy.
Yet in spite of all this, Senate Republicans will make this central in the impeachment trial.
Republicans should be pressed on this point
In the coming days, Republicans should be pressed on what the GOP-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee has turned up in the way of evidence supporting this narrative. The answer to this is likely to be: Nothing.
Indeed, every Republican on that committee may well already know this to be the case. If and when they echo the Trump narrative, they should be pressed on that point as well. And so should Burr.
None of this, of course, will stop Trump’s defenders from continuing to make these wild claims. But hopefully it can be demonstrated to the American people that Republicans themselves possess extensive information debunking them.