Regardless of whether you think President Trump’s conduct with regard to Ukraine is impeachable, it’s objectively true that defending him means entertaining his evidence-free conspiracy theories. The idea that it was Ukraine, rather than Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election has been thoroughly debunked, and the allegation that Joe Biden was trying to help his son’s business by pushing for the removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor doesn’t even make logical sense.
Even Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have largely steered away from vouching for these theories over the past two weeks. But a few Senate Republicans aren’t being so shy.
Chief among them is Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who announced Thursday that his Senate Judiciary Committee would be launching a review of the situation involving the Bidens and the company that employed his son Hunter Biden, Burisma Holdings. This was the same Lindsey O. Graham who a few weeks ago begged off such an investigation by telling reporters he didn’t want to “turn the Senate into a circus.”
Asked whether his committee should be calling for testimony from figures in the impeachment probe, Graham in late October said, “That makes no sense to me.”
To be clear, his committee is now looking into this even though the Ukrainian prosecutor wasn’t looking into Burisma at the time, even though he was removed for being too soft on corruption, and even though Biden was one of many Western leaders pushing for his removal.
Graham’s fellow Judiciary Committee member Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) leaned into Trump’s other conspiracy theory Sunday in jaw-dropping fashion.
A few days after Fiona Hill, a former member of Trump’s National Security Council, warned in her public testimony that the idea of Ukraine interfering rather than Russia was “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by” Russia itself, Kennedy floated just such a theory. Asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether Russia or Ukraine interfered, Kennedy suggested it was an unknown:
CHRIS WALLACE: Sen. Kennedy, who do you believe was responsible for hacking the DNC and Clinton campaign computers, their emails? Was it Russia or Ukraine?
KENNEDY: I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any of us. Ms. Hill is entitled to her —
WALLACE: Well, let me interrupt to say — the entire intelligence community says it was Russia.
KENNEDY: Right, but it could also be Ukraine. I’m not saying that I know one way or the other. I’m saying that Ms. Hill is entitled to her opinion but no rebuttal evidence was allowed to be offered.
To be clear, it has been reported that certain Ukraine politicians did things in Hillary Clinton’s favor. But as Hill explained last week, none of them was close to or on par with what Russia did, nor is there any evidence that Russia has taken the blame for what Ukraine did.
And Kennedy wasn’t even saying that both Ukraine and Russia interfered; he was asked which one was responsible for the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign email hacks. And even though the U.S. intelligence community has concluded they were perpetrated by Russia and dozens of Russians have been charged by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, he said it could be Ukraine. It’s the kind of thing that even the most extreme House Republicans have shied away from over the past three years.
A third stunning moment on this front in recent days has come from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). One of the witnesses who testified last week, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, has been the subject of a nasty whisper campaign about his loyalties as a Soviet immigrant. The Purple Heart winner has also been accused of all manner of dirty partisan dealings, without firm evidence to back them up.
It was that void into which Blackburn stepped Friday to declare him “Vindictive Vindman.”
“Vindictive Vindman is the ‘whistleblower’s’ handler,” Blackburn declared.
The claim was both ugly and also completely speculative. Vindman said in his testimony that he had been in touch with a member of the intelligence community about Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, but he declined to name the official on the advice of his lawyer.
It’s possible that person is the whistleblower, but Vindman also testified that he didn’t even know who the whistleblower was. Yet Blackburn went out there and declared not just that it was true but also that Vindman was acting as the whistleblower’s “handler” — connecting the whistleblower’s actions to this immigrant who has basically been accused of being a foreign agent.
“I do stand by the tweet,” Blackburn said, adding that “what we have is someone who defied his chain of command, and his direct supervisor said he had a problem with judgment. He had a problem with the chain of command.
“He talked to somebody in the intel community. He then would not answer that question when he was asked if he had given this information to someone who was the whistleblower. And, of course, this is something that should cause everybody concern.”
None of that defense, you’ll note, is Blackburn saying that what she said is true. But Trump’s defense right now relies on whispers, rumor and innuendo, and some of the senators who will determine his fate have apparently decided they’ll have to do their part.