President Trump and his defenders simply won’t stop playing into Russia’s hands by promoting the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine hacked the 2016 election in an effort to sabotage his candidacy.
On Sunday, Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, was on “Meet the Press” spreading this disinformation. “I think both Russia and Ukraine interfered,” he said. Russia may have been more aggressive and sophisticated, he allowed, but “that does not exclude the fact that President Poroshenko actively worked for Secretary Clinton.”
There is no evidence that the former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko conspired with the Clinton campaign. American intelligence agencies unanimously agree that Russia perpetrated the hacking.
Mr. Kennedy went even further a week earlier, when he suggested on “Fox News Sunday” that, in fact, Ukraine had hacked the Democratic computer server, obtaining emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any of us,” he told the host, Chris Wallace. (The next day he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo: “I was wrong. It was Russia who tried to hack the computer. I’ve seen no indication that Ukraine tried to do it.” It is unclear what changed his mind. Again.)
Mr. Kennedy is not alone in his historical denialism. Despite reports this week that the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee had checked out the allegations against Ukraine and found no evidence worth pursuing, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s chairman, told reporters on Monday that he didn’t “think there’s any question that elected officials in Ukraine” favored Ms. Clinton, and he equated that preference with Russia’s systematic interference in the race. “It was called meddling when it was just Russia had a preference on who would win,” Mr. Burr said, neatly ignoring that the Justice Department has brought two indictments against numerous Russians for hacking the Democratic computers and engaging in a pervasive social media campaign to elect Mr. Trump.
Somewhere, President Vladimir Putin of Russia must be smiling.
Much of the House Intelligence Committee’s report on Tuesday about its impeachment inquiry involved the president’s demands that releasing military aid to Ukraine be conditioned on its announcing investigations into Joe Biden and his son. But of all the efforts to defend Mr. Trump, legitimizing his efforts to have Ukraine investigate the 2016 election may be the most egregious, since it helps Moscow deflect blame for its assault on American democracy.
In her testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 21, Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert at the National Security Council, chided lawmakers for spreading a “fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
Senators received classified briefings from intelligence officials this fall detailing Moscow’s multiyear effort to spin that tale and pin its malfeasance on Ukraine.
Mr. Trump’s first homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, was one of multiple staffers to assure the president that the allegations about Ukraine were unfounded.
On Tuesday, an under secretary of state, David Hale, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that none of the allegations of Ukrainian interference were true.
But if anything, support among Republican legislators for the conspiracy theory continues to grow.
Time and again during the impeachment hearings, House Republicans sought to distract from, or even justify, Mr. Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Ukraine by floating the specter of Ukrainian saboteurs. Representative Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, called for the panel to refocus its investigation on the former Soviet republic.
The day after Dr. Hill’s testimony, Mr. Trump regaled “Fox & Friends” with wild assertions that the F.B.I. never properly examined the hacked server because it had been handed over to a shadowy Ukrainian company called CrowdStrike.
Among the flaws in his claim: CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm that the Democratic National Committee hired to respond to the hacking, is based in California and owned by Americans. One server hacked by the Russians is actually still in the D.N.C. offices in Washington.
This whole fantasm haunts Washington in tandem with Attorney General William Barr’s aggressive efforts to discredit the F.B.I. investigation of Russian ties to the 2016 Trump campaign. The Justice Department’s inspector general has reportedly concluded that the basis of that investigation was legitimate and that claims of deep-state manipulation were nonsense, leaving Mr. Barr fuming.
To be clear, plenty of Ukrainians openly opposed Mr. Trump’s candidacy for fear he was too supportive of Mr. Putin. Mr. Trump’s public acceptance of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea prompted particular concern. So did ties between Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, and pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Serhiy Leshchenko, an anti-corruption crusader and former member of Ukraine’s Parliament, worked to publicize secret payments Mr. Manafort received for his work in Ukraine, which eventually led to Mr. Manafort’s resignation from the campaign.
American intelligence agencies have determined that such efforts were scattershot and in no way comparable to the top-down, systematic, aggressive campaign by Moscow — directly overseen by Mr. Putin — to disrupt the race.
But beginning in 2017, if not before, the Kremlin went to work spinning such episodes into an elaborate conspiracy theory aimed at framing Ukraine. These conspiracies were then funneled — or, more accurately, laundered — through Russian and Ukrainian intermediaries, such as oligarchs and businessmen, and fed to American politicians and journalists.
In Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin found the perfect dupe to promote even the most crackpot of theories. Mr. Trump’s ego has long chafed at the idea that Russia meddled on his behalf, believing it to undercut his electoral achievement. Plus, accepting that Mr. Putin orchestrated such an effort would complicate Mr. Trump’s cozy relationship with him. From the president’s perspective, far better to believe there is a secret D.N.C. server hidden in some rich Ukrainian businessman’s basement.
The dissemination of such folderol is a triple win for Mr. Putin. It distracts from the Kremlin’s past — and continuing — work to undermine American elections even as it erodes political support in the United States for Ukraine’s fight against Russian domination. More broadly, the dueling Ukraine narratives are fomenting division and confusion among the American public, an enduring goal of Mr. Putin’s.
The Russian president is clearly delighted by the success of his disinformation crusade. “Thank God no one is accusing us anymore of interfering in the U.S. elections,” he said at an economic conference in Moscow last month. “Now they’re accusing Ukraine. We’ll let them deal with that themselves.”
That should make it clear whose interest Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans are serving.