“I am not,” David Hale, the No. 3 official at the State Department, said Tuesday at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, when asked whether he was aware of any evidence of Ukrainian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
Hale’s statement’s echoed last month’s testimony by Fiona Hill, a former White House adviser on Russia, who dismissed claims of Ukrainian interference as “a fictional narrative” spun by Russian intelligence.
Republicans’ promotion of Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy theory is the latest example of their capitulation to him and of the GOP’s rapid transformation on Russia — from a party that for decades celebrated its hawkish stance toward the Kremlin to one that is reluctant to take a hard line and risk Trump’s wrath.
For some seasoned Republican foreign policy voices, the GOP’s refusal to back away from Trump’s position on supposed interference by Ukraine risks erasing values forged in the Cold War and defined for a generation by President Ronald Reagan’s prescient call for the Berlin Wall to come down.
“Historically, Republicans have been opposed to Russia, and they’re trying to do a narrative to help their guy,” said Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey who served as co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. “It’s a very strange time where there isn’t a center to govern around.”
Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who has advised top Republicans on global affairs, said “it’s entirely a reflection of the political reality of where we are and the gravitational pull of President Trump and his singular hold over the Republican political establishment. … They don’t just ignore the Democrats but embrace alternative theories.”
There is also a growing view inside the GOP that the party’s core voters will not revolt if the party takes a softer position on Russia — a calculation backed by polling during Trump’s presidency. Gallup’s surveys, for instance, show that an expanding group of Republicans — 40 percent in July 2018 — now says Russia is a U.S. ally or is friendly, up from 22 percent in 2014, while “25 percent of Democrats say the same, little changed from 2014.”
“The base supports the president, and every Republican knows that — and they don’t think that this issue will rise high on the list of issues that matter to voters when they go to the polls,” said Republican consultant Michael Steel, who worked forJohn A. Boehner (R-Ohio) when Boehner was House speaker. “Whether what some of them are saying on Ukraine is consciously intellectually dishonest or not, they think the election will turn on jobs and the economy, not on Russia.”
Trump’s claims on Ukraine are part of the long list of incendiary conspiracy theories he has championed while paying little to no political cost within his own party, including questioning former president Barack Obama’s birthplace and patriotism, linking the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to John F. Kennedy’s assassination and alleging that Trump Tower was wiretapped during the 2016 campaign.
Many Senate Republicans who spoke with reporters around their weekly lunch Tuesday argued that the way Ukrainian officials spoke about the 2016 presidential campaign constituted interference on par with Russian interference — a position that is directly at odds with the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he saw evidence of Ukrainian “cheerleading” for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 that was “not insignificant.”
Even Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has drawn praise for his emphasis on bipartisan investigations, nodded this week toward Trump’s belief that Ukraine interfered.
“There’s no difference in the way Russia put their feet, early on, on the scale — being for one candidate and everybody called it meddling — and how the Ukrainian officials did it,” Burr said Tuesday.
Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), a vocal Trump ally, was among the first key lawmakers to state that they believed Ukraine’s conduct in 2016 was all but equivalent to Russian interference. But he has strained at times in doing so, pinballing from touting the claim to somewhat recanting to touting it again during a Sunday television interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he claimed that Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko, “actively worked for Secretary Clinton” in 2016.
The inchoate and unproved nature of the Republican case against Ukraine has not prevented several GOP leaders from taking up the cause.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of GOP leadership who is close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), picked up directly on Kennedy’s argument this week, saying that Kennedy “has pointed out I think eight different stories” to show Ukraine and Russia “both meddled.”
Barrasso declined to elaborate on whether there was an equivalence between Russia’s covert 2016 election interference campaign and public statements made at the time by Ukrainian officials critical of Trump, who during the 2016 campaign had expressed a disdain for NATO and an interest in recognizing Crimea as Russia’s following the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian territory.
When asked to define what he understood “meddling” to be, Barrasso said, “I’m not going to get in the middle of a fight that you want to have picked.”
Such assessments appeared to confound some members of the GOP who serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Hale testified Tuesday that he was not aware of any evidence that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — the party’s 2012 presidential nominee and the informal standard-bearer for GOP hawks — was one of the few Republican lawmakers who stood by the assessment of U.S. officials. Romney famously declared in 2012 that Russia “is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.”
“I saw no evidence from our intelligence community, nor from the representatives today for the Department of State, that there is any evidence of any kind that suggests that Ukraine interfered in our elections,” Romney told reporters Tuesday.
Romney added later, “Leaders of the countries are pulling for one candidate or another, that’s to be expected, but there’s a big difference between pulling for someone, hoping someone wins in the American election and interfering in the way Russia did.”
Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) — who like Romney sits on the Foreign Relations Committee — said Tuesday that while “Russia meddled in the election,” he was “not aware of” evidence that Ukraine did.
McConnell, meanwhile, declined to comment on the ongoing GOP debate over Ukraine and interference in the 2016 election.
“The intelligence committees have the ability to look at any of these suggestions,” he said at a news conference. “My view is that’s something for Senate Intelligence to take a look at it, and I don’t have a particular reaction to it.”
In other influential gathering places on the right, conservative media figures, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have been at the forefront of right-wing claims that Russian interference has been overstated by U.S. officials and the national political establishment, fueling the congressional Republican push to shrug off talk about Russian hostility.
“It never happened. There was no collusion. Russia didn’t hack our democracy,” Carlson wrote on Fox News’s website Tuesday. “The whole thing was a talking point, a ludicrous talking point, invented by the Hillary Clinton campaign on or about November 9th, 2016 to explain their unexpected defeat in the last presidential election.”
That column by Carlson came hours after he said on his Monday broadcast that “I think we should probably take the side of Russia, if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine.”
Hill testified last month that while serving in the Trump White House and in the months since she left, she refused 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.”
“These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes,” Hill said.
Putin has appeared to be amused by the turn of events in the United States. Speaking in Moscow last month, he said, “Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now, they’re accusing Ukraine.”
Senate Democrats expressed alarm Tuesday as the Republicans chimed in along those lines; Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said in a floor speech that “by spreading the false and unsupported narrative that Ukraine — not just [Russian President Vladimir] Putin — was responsible for interfering in the 2016 elections, Republicans are endangering our democracy and empowering Vladimir Putin, at the same time.”
“Even wondering aloud about the debunked Ukrainian interference theory helps Putin muddy the waters and deflect the blame away from his country, which our intelligence services have all agreed — I think it’s seventeen of them — that he interfered in the election. He’s trying to create a diversion, and our Republican colleagues are going along,” Schumer said.
Veteran Democratic strategists see a possible opening for the party’s eventual nominee to win over some hawkish Republicans and independents who are wary of the Republican drift on Russia.
Throughout the campaign season, most Democratic presidential candidates have spoken sharply of Russia, calling out its election interference and defending what former vice president Joe Biden has called the “liberal international order.”
“The responsible position is to recognize that Russia is a force one has to reckon with, but certainly not a force to embrace,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama. “Among ‘Never Trump’ Republicans, you could see it as a huge, animating factor next year because they tend to be neocons who are strongly anti-Russia.”
Axelrod added that the GOP shift on Russia is among a number of “stunning Republican changes, from being the free-trade party to the tariff party, from a pro-immigration party to anti-immigration” that could have an impact on next year’s election.
But Democrats have been grappling with figures within their ranks whose foreign-policy rhetoric is skeptical of the political establishment and has elements of Trump’s worldview, highlighting that the party’s positioning is far from universally hawkish and that Democrats face their own turbulence on foreign policy.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a presidential candidate, has argued in favor of a noninterventionist U.S. foreign policy in Syria and elsewhere and has been favorably covered by the Kremlin-backed news agency RT. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton claimed in October that Gabbard was the “favorite of the Russians,” drawing quick criticism from Gabbard.
Mike DeBonis and Paul Kane contributed to this report.