Congress can’t protect US elections from foreign manipulation if lawmakers can’t — or won’t — grasp the real threats. One of the biggest right now comes from Russia, which every US intelligence agency, backed by reports from Congress’s own committees, believes meddled in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of then-candidate Donald Trump. With 2020 looming, Moscow has the means, and the motive, to again launch propaganda, disinformation, and hacking campaigns on behalf of its favored candidates.
Still, instead of passing legislation or conducting oversight hearings based on Congress’s own reports, Republicans are instead gravitating to a widely debunked conspiracy theory that it was actually Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 election by hacking into Democrats’ computers and then distributing damaging information via WikiLeaks. It’s an absurd, politically motivated canard. And treating it as legitimate does Russia’s work in two ways: first, by undermining the US relationship with Ukraine, and second, by taking Congress’s and the public’s eyes off the ball to prevent such interference from happening again next year.
The fact that every credible investigation has concluded that Russian intelligence services ran a sophisticated effort to help the Trump campaign obviously bothers the president, who reportedly sees the Russian role as delegitimizing his victory. So he and his allies have tried to shift the blame to Ukraine, a US ally that has been embroiled in a war with Russia for the last five years. Senator John Kennedy of Lousiana, asked point-blank over the weekend whether Russia or Ukraine had hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s computers, said, “I don’t know. Nor do you. Nor do any of us." (He later walked his innuendo back, but not before the seeds of doubt were sown.)
It’s important that Americans understand just how loopy the theory of Ukrainian involvement is. Trump’s own former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, was too polite last week when she called it “fiction” in a congressional hearing. The far-fetched story of servers, shadowy D.C. think tanks — it’s one step removed from conspiracy theories about Freemasons and the JFK assassination.
To support the charge, the president’s apologists have also attempted to dilute the meaning of the word “interference" to include run-of-the-mill activities by Ukrainian diplomats and officials. Here’s one example of what some congressional Republicans now characterize as meddling: During the campaign, after candidate Trump mused about letting Russia keep the Ukrainian territory of Crimea that it illegally annexed in 2014, a Ukrainian diplomat then wrote an op-ed that argued against allowing Russia to carve up his country. That’s a diplomat defending his country in public, not covertly manipulating the politics of another country.
For Congress to waste its time indulging the Ukraine conspiracy theories is an insult to the taxpayer. It’s also dangerous. The GOP’s antics tell American allies that this country can no longer tell fact from fiction. And by casting Ukraine as the villain for short-term political gain, the Republicans put at risk the public bipartisan support for a vulnerable democracy whose struggle against Russian aggression the United States has supported.
The crowning disgrace is that it was Russia itself that appears to have planted the false narrative of Ukrainian meddling, as senators were reportedly told in secret intelligence briefings in recent weeks. In other words, the Russians seem to have achieved a two-fer: Not only did they get the candidate they wanted elected in 2016, but afterward, when that president was looking for another explanation, they handed him a conspiracy theory that advanced their interests by driving a wedge between America and Ukraine.
Congressional Republicans should know better than to dignify this nonsense. Just because Russia targeted Democrats in 2016 doesn’t mean the GOP’s day won’t come; Russia’s interest, according to US intelligence, is more in stirring up rancor and boosting polarizing candidates than it is in aiding any particularly party or ideology. Instead of responding to the real threat — Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has kept election security bills from receiving a vote in the Senate — too many in the GOP are propagating a conspiracy to win their immediate political battles. Meanwhile, when it comes to the integrity of our elections, we may be losing the war.