by Aaron Blake
On Sunday, for the second time in two weekends, Republican Sen. John Neely Kennedy (La.) spouted what U.S. officials have characterized as Russian propaganda about 2016 election interference. After suggesting Ukraine rather than Russia might have hacked the Democrats in 2016 — and then recanting — he took to another show this weekend and said that he believes “both Russia and Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.”
The comments came as a number of other top Republicans, including notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and House Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Devin Nunes (Calif.), have warmed to the conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered.
“Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd responded by telling Kennedy, “You’ve done exactly what the Russian operation is trying to get American politicians to do.” He added, “Are you at all concerned that you’ve been duped?”
Kennedy apparently wasn’t. But how true is that allegation? How much does what these Republicans are alleging about Ukrainian interference align with Kremlin talking points?
The first key point here is that the U.S. intelligence community hasn’t explicitly and publicly accused Russia of a disinformation campaign fingering Ukraine for election interference. It has said Russia waged an extensive campaign of its own and that it sows disinformation, but the allegation that Russia is pinning the blame on Ukraine is privately and widely acknowledged and has occasionally been testified to.
The chief example of such testimony came two weeks ago when the Russia expert Fiona Hill, a former White House national security official, detailed the “fictional narrative” of Ukrainian interference and urged Republicans not to fuel Russian propaganda efforts by promoting it. Hill said that certain Ukrainians favored Hillary Clinton, but that it was not at all comparable to what Russia did and that it wasn’t unusual for foreign politicians who assumed Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election.
“It suits the Russian government very much if we are also looking at Ukraine as somehow a perpetrator of malign acts against us,” Hill said, urging everyone to “please not promote politically derivative falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
What’s notable about Hill’s testimony — and what some have missed in the current back-and-forth — is that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has said something similar about alleged Ukrainian “interference.” He said in an interview with Oliver Stone this summer that what Ukraine did didn’t rise to that level:STONE: But now in the US there has been an investigation going on about Ukraine’s interference in the election. It seems that it was a very confusing situation, and [former Ukrainian president Petro] Poroshenko seems to have been very strongly pro-Clinton, anti-Trump.PUTIN: Yes, this is no secret.STONE: Do you think there was interference?PUTIN: I do not think that this could be interpreted as interference by Ukraine. But it is perfectly obvious that Ukrainian oligarchs gave money to Trump’s opponents. I do not know whether they did this by themselves or with the knowledge of the authorities.
Putin also echoed Hill about Ukrainians saying nice things about Clinton and bad things about Donald Trump.
“They assumed Mrs. Clinton would win, and did everything to show loyalty to the future U.S. administration,” he said. “That is nothing special. They wanted the future president to have a good opinion of them.”
So right there is Putin — who, as Hill notes, has a real interest in blaming Ukraine for 2016 election interference — saying that it didn’t rise to the level of interference and that it was “nothing special.”
Even while he’s saying that, though, Putin is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He alleges that Ukrainian oligarchs were funding Trump’s opponents. And elsewhere, Putin and his allies and loyalists have toyed with — if not outright promoted — the idea that Ukraine did interfere.
Recently, as the Ukraine situation blew up, Putin needled the American politicians who are now consumed with this idea. “Thank God nobody is accusing us anymore of interfering in U.S. elections,” he said on Nov. 20. “Now they’re accusing Ukraine. Well, let them sort this out among themselves.”
At other times, Putin has more explicitly pointed the finger at Ukraine. In February 2017, at a news conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Putin directly accused Ukrainian oligarchs of funding Clinton.
“As we all know, during the presidential campaign in the United States, the Ukrainian government adopted a unilateral position in favor of one candidate,” Putin said. “More than that, certain oligarchs, certainly with the approval of the political leadership, funded this candidate, or female candidate, to be more precise.”
In a March 2018 interview with Megyn Kelly and NBC News, Putin suggested Ukrainians — or others — might have been responsible for the interference that the U.S. intelligence community blamed on Russia.
“Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews — just with Russian citizenship,” Putin said. “Even that needs to be checked.”
Russian state television has been even more direct in its accusations. During a special report this summer on the subject, reporter Anna Afanasyeva called for probing Ukraine.
“It’s time to start a new investigation into meddling by Ukraine, which from the start supported President Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton,” Afanasyeva said, according to NPR. “So-called Russia-gate is turning into Ukraine-gate.”
Such theories have also been pushed by pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Most notable among them is Oleg Voloshyn, a onetime spokesman for pro-Russian former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych who is tied to pro-Russian oligarch Dmitry Firtash.
“It was election interference, pure and simple,” Voloshyn told Time magazine last month. “When the liberal media tell me it’s a conspiracy theory, I say, ‘How do you know?’ There has been no investigation. Without an investigation, how can you say that Poroshenko did not help Hillary? I know that he did.”
At the very least, Russia is pointing in this general direction and letting American politicians connect the dots for themselves. And the idea that Ukraine interfered in 2016 is an attractive allegation for Republicans, given it’s a conspiracy theory Trump has promoted. If you say Ukraine didn’t interfere, it means Trump has been pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a bogus investigation. Republicans have to at least pretend this idea is credible, or the foundation of Trump’s defense crumbles.
But there is no question this is something that, as Hill has said, is promoting Russia’s interests — just as it was promoting Russia’s interests when Kennedy (briefly) and Trump (repeatedly) suggested Russia may not have actually interfered. They may not be echoing Russia’s talking points for the express purpose of helping Russia, but the practical effect is indistinguishable — which is why Hill said what she said.
Of course, Hill isn’t the only one to have said such things. The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr (N.C.), warned about continuing Russian disinformation campaigns and “conspiracy theories” as recently as October.
“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election,” Burr said. He added, “By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans.”
The likes of Burr are pretty quiet these days, though, while the likes of Kennedy, Pompeo and Nunes are increasingly promoting the theories Burr and Hill warned about.
Kennedy’s efforts earned an attaboy from Trump on Monday morning. “Thank you to Great Republican @SenJohnKennedy for the job he did in representing both the Republican Party and myself against Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd on Meet the Depressed!” Trump tweeted.
It’s unlikely Trump was the only president who was pleased.
Aaron Blake is senior political reporter, writing for The Fix. A Minnesota native, he has also written about politics for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Hill newspaper. Follow