Just how far will Republicans go in following President Donald Trump’s embrace of Russia? An answer may be crystallizing as the GOP mobilizes its defense of the president against impeachment.
Both congressional Republicans and conservative commentators are defending Trump from impeachment partly by accusing Ukraine of intervening against him in the 2016 presidential election—despite repeated warnings from national-security and intelligence officials that those claims are not only baseless, but advance Vladimir Putin’s goal of discrediting Ukraine.
Earlier in Trump’s presidency, many Republicans sought to distance themselves from his warm tone toward Putin. But just this week alone, a number of Republican lawmakers, the official House Republican report rebutting impeachment, and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson have repeated Kremlin lines on Ukraine.
This flurry of GOP rhetoric comes as Democrats are raising alarm about the Republican-controlled Senate’s refusal to take action on the DETER Act, a bipartisan bill that would impose sanctions on Russia if it interferes again in 2020.
Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the act’s sponsor, has been unsuccessfully pressing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to attach the bill to a defense-authorization bill now in conference between the House and Senate, which would ensure its passage.
“Nobody has provided any substantive justification for opposing this measure,” Van Hollen told me in an interview. “All the testimony has been supportive of the DETER Act. And yet when you get behind closed doors, it’s not that anyone says they are opposed to it; they just won’t engage. McConnell would like to see this defeated without any of his fingerprints on it, but his fingerprints are there because he has refused to engage.”
Against the backdrop of Trump’s rhetorical warmth toward Putin, congressional Republicans have produced a mixed record on Russia. In 2017, virtually all Republicans joined with Democrats to pass legislation that prevented Trump from unwinding sanctions on Russia that former President Barack Obama imposed after the Kremlin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Most House Republicans also voted earlier this year to block the administration from ending sanctions against the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. And many congressional Republicans loudly criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria earlier this year, which was widely viewed as benefiting Russia’s position in the region.
But at the same time, the Republican-controlled Senate allowed the Trump administration to go ahead with lifting sanctions against Deripaska in January. Democrats also grouse that Senate Republicans have looked the other way as Trump has failed to fully implement the sanctions legislation passed in 2017. And Senate GOP leaders have blocked action on the two bipartisan bills targeting Russia, the DETER Act and the broader Defending American Security From Kremlin Aggression Act.
Impeachment is now providing a new test case to measure how far Trump has steered congressional Republicans toward greater accommodation of Russia.
This new front opened when Representative Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, repeatedly insisted during last month’s impeachment hearings that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election against Trump. That drew a stern rebuke from one witness asked to testify, the former Trump National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill, who warned that congressional Republicans were spreading “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
But Hill’s words have not stopped Republicans from reprising those arguments. In late November, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana claimed during a television interview that Ukraine, not Russia, might have hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computers in 2016. After retreating from that claim, he went on Meet the Press on Sunday and equated public criticism of Trump by some Ukrainian officials with Russia’s systematic interference campaign in 2016.
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.
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.
The big question now is how much of the GOP’s shifting tone on Russia reflects a lasting change, versus a temporary alignment with Trump or a tactical maneuver in the impeachment struggle.
Under Trump, the two party’s coalitions have unquestionably switched places on Russia. Through the early part of this century, more Republican than Democratic voters typically expressed negative views toward Russia. But since Trump’s election in 2016, Republicans have been more likely than Democrats to express a positive view about Russia.
Even before Trump’s election, some social conservatives lauded Putin as a defender of conservative social values and a potential partner in the fight against Islamic extremism, as Steve Bannon, Trump’s former top campaign aide and White House adviser, did in a 2014 speech. But the big movement in the GOP, according to polls, came after Trump started touting the potential benefits of closer relations with Putin—and questioning whether Russia actually interfered in 2016. In a poll by the Chicago Council released last February, just over half of Republican voters said the U.S. should seek a cooperative relationship with Russia, while nearly two-thirds of Democrats said America should mostly seek to contain Moscow. Among Republicans younger than 45, three-fifths wanted the U.S. to pursue a friendlier relationship with Russia.
Still, while more Republicans than Democrats now express positive opinions about Russia, even a large chunk of Republican voters express unfavorable views about Moscow and Putin, surveys have found. That encourages some GOP foreign-policy experts to believe the party’s flirtation with Russia may not outlast Trump.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who served as a National Security Council aide to President George W. Bush, told me Trump’s accommodation of Russia is unlikely to precipitate any sort of lasting change. He argued that there is still enough skepticism in the party about Trump’s policy toward Russia—and the country’s international role more broadly—that the president risks eruptions of discontent that force him to retreat, like those he confronted over his withdrawal from Syria. Even inside the administration, he noted, most foreign-policy experts remain dubious of Putin, which helps explain why the administration’s actions toward Russia have sometimes been tougher than Trump’s accommodating rhetoric.
“No one knows for sure, including the president,” how far he can push the party, Feaver said. “The president is wandering around a mine field and doesn’t always know when he is going to step on a mine.”
That may be true. But the willingness of more congressional Republicans to amplify widely discredited arguments against Ukraine—despite repeated warnings from conservative national-security professionals that they are advancing Russian propaganda in the process—suggests that their tolerance for Trump’s repositioning of the party on Russia is only growing.
As Fontaine told me, historically, “one of the reasons people were attracted to the Republicans was because they were the party skeptical of the regime in Moscow.” That’s one more Republican tradition Trump has tossed onto the ash heap of history.