This worked both ways. Russia injected content into a partisan space, where it gained energy. It also plucked partisan ideas out of the conversation which then helped its efforts be more effective. There was something of a symbiosis, however witting, that served both Russia and President Trump’s campaign. Trump’s late-election declaration that he loved WikiLeaks wasn’t disconnected from the information that WikiLeaks was dumping into the political conversation.
In the opening statement she will offer at her public testimony on Thursday, Fiona Hill, a former member of Trump’s National Security Council, will draw attention to Russia’s efforts three years ago — and now.
“The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today,” Hill’s statement reads. “Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career Foreign Service is being undermined.”
But Hill's statement goes further than that.
“I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016,” the statement says. “These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”
Her statement is a pointed response to one of the useful narratives being promoted by Republican members of the House impeachment inquiry — including and especially the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), who will speak immediately before Hill offers that opening statement.
Nunes has been explicit in lifting up precisely the “alternative narrative” to which Hill refers, what she elsewhere refers to as “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” In his opening statement before Wednesday afternoon's hearing, Nunes suggested specifically that Ukraine had done something untoward during the 2016 election.
A contractor for the Democratic National Committee who reached out to Ukraine's embassy was “one of several indicators of Ukrainian election meddling in 2016, all of which were aimed at the Trump campaign,” Nunes said. “Once you understand that Ukrainian officials were cooperating directly with President Trump's political opponents to undermine his candidacy, it's easy to understand why the president would want to learn the full truth about these operations and why he would be skeptical of Ukraine."
At other times, he’s elevated other components of a loosely-knit argument that Ukraine was targeting the election, an argument that a social media account for Trump’s reelection bid suggested was demonstrated in part by an article noting that “Moscow’s cyber warriors in Ukraine” were linked to the election. Other evidence of this includes an editorial criticizing Trump written by a Ukrainian official and a member of parliament releasing evidence in August 2016 of Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort having received off-the-books payments from a Ukrainian political party.
What hasn't been shown is any effort by Ukraine itself to interfere in the 2016 election. In the same way that Trump critics would often conflate “a Russian” with “Russians” in building out theories of his campaign's ties to that country, Trump's allies are now suggesting that the appearance of any Ukraine-adjacent individual in anything touching the election is evidence of Ukraine itself trying to interfere. Russia's effort lasted for years and involved dozens of employees and millions of dollars executing a deliberate, surreptitious two-pronged strategy. Nunes compares that to a DNC staffer who asked officials at Ukraine's embassy if they knew what work Manafort had done.
Nunes and his allies are making this argument about Ukraine simply because it’s politically useful. Trump’s request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he investigate an aspect of the 2016 campaign seems demonstrably self-serving — unless Nunes and other Trump allies can cast it as part of Trump’s dedicated effort to uproot Ukrainian malfeasance. To make that argument, they need to gin up a little malfeasance.
Never mind that what Trump requested of Zelensky wasn’t anything about Manafort or some opinion piece. What Trump asked in that rough transcript he insists we read was that Zelensky look into an obviously wrong theory that Ukraine was somehow involved in unfairly blaming Russia for the hack of the DNC. There’s no question at all that this particular accusation is unfounded. Trump’s request included no broad questions about the campaign at all. Just this one thing that bubbled up from the murkier parts of the conspiracy-friendly web.
Hill's point is that embracing these theories even insincerely harms America's relationship with Ukraine and bolsters a narrative embraced by Russia. Russia has long been eager to deflect criticism of its role in 2016, a deflection which Trump himself has repeatedly bolstered. It's easy to see how those who accept Russian interference in 2016 but who nonetheless reinforce this unfounded theory about Ukraine are aiding Russia's goal, if even unwittingly: suggesting any equivalence between the two might help rationalize Trump's actions but it also diminishes the importance of Russia's.
We don’t need to take Hill’s word for it that Russia embraces the Ukraine-did-it-too narrative being deployed by Trump’s allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at an event in Moscow on Wednesday and addressed the idea directly.
“Thank God,” he said, “no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”
On Wednesday, Nunes claimed that the Democrats had found no quid pro quo immediately before Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland explicitly identified the quid pro quo he’d been directed to engage in — as his released opening statement made clear well before he began speaking. It will be interesting to see if Nunes similarly contradicts the witness’s central thesis on Thursday.
Update: Nunes did incorporate Hill’s criticisms into his opening statement.
“I’d also like to take a quick moment on an assertion Miss Hill made in the statement that she submitted to this committee in which she claimed that some committee members deny that Russia meddled in the 2016 election,” he said. He pointed out that the Republicans, when in the majority, had issued a report on Russian interference, which he then asked staff to provide to Hill and the second witness, David Holmes.
“Needless to say,” Nunes continued, “it is entirely possible for two separate nations to engage in election meddling at the same time. And Republicans believe we should take meddling seriously by all foreign countries, regardless of which campaign is the target.”
This, of course, was Hill’s primary point.