The Senate Intelligence Committee, during its investigation of 2016 election meddling, found no evidence of Ukrainian interference. But when asked about Kennedy’s comments this week, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s chairman, came closer to endorsing rather than repudiating them.
“Every elected official in the Ukraine was for Hillary Clinton,” Burr told NBC. “Is that very different than the Russians being for Donald Trump?” Burr went on to liken Russia’s massive intelligence and hacking campaign to occasional public comments by Ukrainian officials critical of Trump. “The president can say that they meddled because they had a preference, the elected officials,” Burr said. Other Republican senators, including John Barrasso of Wyoming, offered similar arguments this week.
The report released on Monday by House Republicans likewise blurred the difference. “Publicly available—and irrefutable—evidence shows how senior Ukrainian government officials sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in opposition to President Trump’s candidacy,” the report insisted.
Tucker Carlson took these arguments to new heights on his show Monday night, not only minimizing Russian involvement in 2016 but questioning why the U.S. was opposing its incursion into Ukraine at all. “I think we should probably take the side of Russia if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine,” Carlson insisted.
Read: Why Trump’s Republican Party is embracing Russia
No leading congressional Republicans have yet gone so far. But Republican foreign-policy experts are still worried about the attempts by GOP leaders to defend Trump by disparaging Ukraine.
“For starters, you end up validating the Kremlin line which they have been peddling since 2016: Yes, something happened, but it was because Ukraine did it and not us,” says Richard Fontaine, who runs the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security and was the top foreign-policy adviser to the late Senator John McCain of Arizona. “It’s one thing if Putin says these things, or if Kremlin spokespeople say these things; people, I hope, will take it with a gigantic mountain of salt. But when you have U.S. elected leaders saying these things, it gives it a significant dose of credibility, and that’s not a good thing.”
David Hale, an undersecretary in Trump’s own State Department, expressed that concern at a Senate hearing on Tuesday. When asked about the national-security ramifications of the rhetoric, Hale said pointedly, “It does not serve our interests.”
The accusations against Ukraine have drawn forceful pushback this week from Democrats, but only a few Republicans—most directly Senator Mitt Romney of Utah—have openly condemned them. “What you are seeing unfortunately is Republicans wanting to just adopt and parrot the Trump talking points, which also coincide with the Putin talking points,” Van Hollen said.