The Daily 202: GOP Senators Downplaying Russian Interference Shows How Trump Has Co-Opted the Party

THE BIG IDEA: Last year, in an interview on Super Bowl Sunday, Bill O’Reilly challenged President Trump over his desire to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Putin’s a killer,” said the then-Fox News host.

“There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied. “We got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent? Take a look at what we’ve done, too. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. . . . So, a lot of killers around, believe me.”

There was strong and vocal pushback at the time from most elected Republicans.

-- Over the past several days, as Trump again engaged in a spree of whataboutism and moral relativism ahead of today’s summit in Helsinki with Putin, far fewer GOP lawmakers have called him out.

Piers Morgan, the former CNN host and a one-time contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” interviewed Trump aboard Air Force One for the Daily Mail as he visited the United Kingdom. As the president discussed his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Morgan interrupted: “He’s a ruthless dictator.”

“Sure he is,” Trump said. “He’s ruthless, but so are others. I mean, I could name plenty of others that we deal with that you don’t say the same thing about. I mean plenty of the people that I deal with are pretty ruthless people.”

Asked if Putin would be in that group, Trump replied: “I can’t tell you that. I assume he probably is. But I could name others also. Look, if we can get along with Russia, that’s a good thing.”

Then, in an interview that aired Sunday, CBS’s Jeff Glor asked Trump at his golf course in Scotland to identify the “biggest foe globally right now.” Trump named the European Union, which includes many of America’s closest historic allies. “Well, I think we have a lot of foes,” the president said. “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now you wouldn't think of the European Union, but they're a foe. Russia is foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically … But that doesn't mean they are bad. It doesn't mean anything. It means that they are competitive.”

Trump also continued his pattern of blaming the American victim, not the foreign attacker. The president attacked the Democratic National Committee for allowing itself to get hacked and Barack Obama for not more forcefully responding, rather than the Russian government for conducting the hacks. “We had much better defenses. I’ve been told that by a number of people. We had much better defenses, so they couldn’t,” Trump said on CBS, referring to his campaign and the Republican National Committee. “I think the DNC should be ashamed of themselves for allowing themselves to be hacked. They had bad defenses and they were able to be hacked.”

-- Trump hasn’t changed, but the Republican Party has. CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Sunday how Trump should hold Putin accountable after a dozen Russian officials were indicted last week for orchestrating a massive hacking campaign to interfere with American democracy. Paul replied that it is unrealistic to hold Moscow accountable.

“They are going to interfere in our elections. We also do the same,” said Paul, citing a study that he said shows the United States interfered in the elections of other countries 81 times during a 50-year period in the last century. “So, we all do it. What we need to do is make sure our electoral process is protected.”

Paul, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, has always been a libertarian, but he often tried to downplay this side of his worldview when he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Now that Trump is in control, he’s talking much more like his father again.

-- Even traditional hawks are now minimizing what the Russians did in 2016. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Europe subcommittee on Foreign Relations, said after returning from a July Fourth visit to Moscow that Congress overreacted to Russia’s interference in our elections. “I've been pretty upfront that the election interference — as serious as that was and unacceptable — is not the greatest threat to our democracy,” he told the conservative Washington Examiner. “We've blown it way out of proportion — [as if it's] the greatest threat to democracy . . . We need to really honestly assess what actually happened, what effect did it have, and what effect are our sanctions actually having, positively and negatively.”

Would he feel the same way if Russia interfered in his 2016 reelection campaign to help Russ Feingold, his Democratic opponent?

“Johnson’s remarks to the Examiner were highlighted by Russian state media,” Roll Call reported. “The Russian news agency TASS reported on Johnson’s comments, as did Sputnik International.”

Pressed on his comments last week during an appearance on WOSH, an AM talk radio station in Oshkosh, Johnson doubled down on his position that the U.S. faces more serious threats than election hacking. “It’s very difficult to really meddle in our elections,” the senator said. “It just is. These are locally run. It’s almost impossible to change the vote tally. My concern would be violating the voter files, but we have those issues anyway and there are plenty of controls on that. … From a standpoint of using social media, we spent a couple of billion dollars on the last election. They, maybe, spent a couple hundred thousand.”

-- “Most countries would meddle and play in our domestic elections if they could, and some of them have,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said recently. “We have to be realistic [that] nations are going to do what is in their [national] interest. We’ve done a lot of things, too.”

Shelby, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, made that comment to the Examiner as he prepared to lead a delegation of Senate Republicans on a CODEL to Russia. The group was in Moscow when the Senate Intelligence Committee published a bipartisan report that validated the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in 2016 election on the personal orders of Putin.

“I’m not here today to accuse Russia of this or that or so forth,” Shelby told the speaker of the Duma in Moscow during the controversial trip.

Shelby later sought to clarify that he was not saying Russia and the U.S. are the same, and that he is not excusing everything Moscow has done. “I was just stating the reality of it,” he told the Daily Beast.

-- It’s hard to be surprised anymore, but it is nonetheless surreal to read quotes from Republican senators that sound like they might have been uttered instead by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn or Chalmers Johnson. Conservatives like Jeane Kirkpatrickhammered peacenik liberals for this sort of relativism during the Cold War. Republicans used to be the ones who not only espoused American exceptionalism but accused Democrats of acting like the United States was just another name on the United Nations roster, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.

As Ronald Reagan told the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983, “I urge you to beware the temptation of … blithely declaring yourselves above it all and to label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”

-- Trump, who took out full-page newspaper ads to attack Reagan’s foreign policy during the 1980s (even as it was winning the Cold War), has remade the Republican Party in his image over the past three years. The president has shown a consistent impulse to blame “both sides.” After the violence in Charlottesville last August, Trump said there are “two sides to a story.” He attacked counterprotesters for acting “very, very violently” as they came “with clubs in their hand” at the neo-Nazis and KKK members who were protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that,” Trump said. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? Do they have any problem? I think they do!”

-- To be sure, there are notable holdouts. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), battling brain cancer, put out a rare statement calling on Trump to cancel today’s meeting — if he is “not prepared to hold Putin accountable.”

“Putin is a murderer,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) tweeted Sunday night. “He has ordered the assassinations of political adversaries and used outlawed chemical weapons to do it. He oversees Russian military units that shot down Malaysian flight 17 and murdered almost 300 civilians. … Putin is a crook and a liar. He has broken almost every agreement he has signed with the United States, including on Syria and Ukraine. He has become one of the world's richest men through embezzlement and stealing from his own people.”

-- Paul’s comments on the Sunday shows were deeply revealing. The senator was adamant that he was not engaging in moral equivalency, but he suggested multiple times that the Kremlin was reacting to U.S. policy. Among the supposed provocations: Hillary Clinton calling for free and fair elections in Russia when she was secretary of state. “One of the reasons they really didn't like Hillary Clinton,” he told Tapper on CNN, “is they found her responsible for some of the activity by the U.S. in their elections under the Obama administration.”

Explaining his decision to vote against a resolution expressing support for NATO last week, Paul reached back even further: “The provocation of pushing NATO forward after … James Baker promised [Mikhail] Gorbachev in 1990 when Germany unified that we would not go, the West would not go, one inch beyond Germany, and yet, a couple years later, under the Clinton administration, we kept pushing, pushing, pushing. … From Russia's perspective, they see NATO expansion as a threat. … Part of their militarism and part of their nationalism problem may be inherent to the tides of the current century there, but it's also in reaction to policy from the West as well.”

-- This view is squarely outside the mainstream among foreign policy experts in both parties. Col. James McDonough, the U.S. Army’s attache to Poland, highlighted “Russia’s Moral Hypocrisy” in a piece for Task and Purpose magazine this spring: “Russian soldiers occupy Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine in violation of all international norms. Through these occupations Moscow enables the pirate state of Transnistria, enables the backwards ‘independence’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, strips Crimea from its internationally recognized sovereign, and feeds the Russian separatist movement in the Donbass.  After supporting Libyan leader Mommar Khadafi for years, the Kremlin now backs one of his henchmen, warlord Khalifa Hafter, instead of the Western-backed, and UN-recognized, Government of National Accord, reportedly in exchange for military basing rights in eastern Libya. Further east in Sudan, Russia is exporting arms to the government of Omar al-Bashir whose abysmal record on human rights has left him shunned by more civilized countries. Most alarmingly, Russia has cozied up to Iran, the most significant exporter of terrorism in the Middle East, and Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, whose atrocities against his own people are now well known to the world. Russia’s bedfellows reek, and yet Moscow does not mind the smell. And where on the globe has Russian foreign policy been a force for justice and decency? Nothing comes to mind.”

If you want to go deeper, here are two recent pieces that capture what was until recently a bipartisan consensus:

  • “Russia and America Aren't Morally Equivalent. There is no comparison between Russian efforts to undermine elections and American efforts to strengthen them,” by Princeton professor Thomas Melia in the Atlantic.
  • “Russia’s nefarious meddling is nothing like democracy assistance,” by Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, and Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, in The Washington Post.

-- Paul announced during a separate appearance Sunday on Fox News that he’s planning a trip to Russia next month with members of the libertarian Cato Institute. “We’ll be talking to the president after Helsinki and asking him if there’s something we can follow up on,” the Kentucky senator told Ed Henry. “I think there are a lot of simplistic people out there on both sides of the aisle that are criticizing President Trump. Engagement is a good idea. Even during the height of the Cuban missile crisis, there was a direct line of communication between [John] Kennedy and [Nikita] Khrushchev. … We don’t want to mistakenly amble into a war because we were in close proximity and didn’t know it.”

-- In March, the Russian Embassy in Washington tweeted a picture of Paul meeting with Ambassador Anatoly Antonov. It said that the two men had discussed “improving” and “restoring” relations. A few minutes later, the embassy deleted that tweet. The picture was later reposted with a more anodyne caption that used neither of those words, according to Business Insider.

-- Asked on CBS if he’ll demand Putin to extradite the dozen Russians who have been indicted by the Justice Department, Trump said: “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Well, I might,” he added. “But, again, this was during the Obama administration. They were doing whatever it was during the Obama administration.”

“It’s pretty silly for the president to demand something that he can’t get legally,” national security adviser John Bolton said on ABC. “The Russians take the position — you can like it or not like it — that their constitution forbids them to extradite Russian citizens.”

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman added on NBC that the FBI will “no doubt” work with the embassy to submit the request, but he noted that this “doesn’t necessarily mean that the Russians are going to follow through.”

Paul said on CNN that making such a request would “be a moot point”: “I don't think Russia is sending anyone back over here for trial, the same way we wouldn't send anybody over there for trial.  No country with any sovereignty or sense of sovereignty is sending anybody to another country for trial.”


-- It was overshadowed by the indictments, but the nation’s top intelligence official gave a very significant speech on Friday afternoon at the Hudson Institute think tank in D.C. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, likened the cyber threat today to the climate before Sept. 11, 2001, when intelligence channels were “blinking red” with warning signs that a terrorist attack was imminent.

“Here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say the warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said, according to the Associated Press. “The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, in coordination with international partners, have detected Russian government actors targeting government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors. … We are seeing aggressive attempts to manipulate social media and to spread propaganda focused on hot-button issues that are intended to exacerbate socio-political divisions.”

Coats added that intelligence analysts are not seeing the identical sort of electoral interference as two years ago. “However, we fully realize that we are just one click on a keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself,” he said. “These actions are persistent. They’re pervasive and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.”

-- Here are three other sobering stories that should be on your radar:

1. The same Russian military intelligence service accused of disrupting our 2016 election is also believed to be responsible for the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England, earlier this year. Ellen Barry, Michael Schwirtz and Eric Schmitt report in today’s New York Times: “British investigators believe the March 4 attack … was most probably carried out by current or former agents of the service, known as the G.R.U., who were sent to his home in southern England … British officials are now closing in on identifying the individuals they believe carried out the operation[.] [The Justice Department’s Friday indictment] detailed a sophisticated operation … carried out by a Russian military intelligence service few Americans know about. But analysts and government officials say the G.R.U. [serves] as an undercover strike force for the Kremlin in conflicts around the world. The agency has been linked to Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014. It has been involved in the seizing of Syrian cities on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. In more peaceful regions, the G.R.U. is accused of creating political turmoil, mobilizing Slavic nationalists in Montenegro and funding protests to try to prevent Macedonia’s recent name change.”

2. “Russia Hawk Axed From National Security Council Right Before Trump-Putin Summit,” by the Daily Beast’s Kate Brannen and Spencer Ackerman: “The circumstances of retired Army Colonel Richard Hooker’s departure from the National Security Council on June 29 are in dispute. It’s not clear whether Hooker was forced out or if his detail on the NSC came to its natural end. But what’s not in doubt is that for the past 15 months, Hooker was senior director for Russia, Europe and NATO. … Hooker ended his tour on the National Security Council early after he discussed information pertinent to Russia with foreign officials without proper authorization, according to two government officials. … A former NSC official strongly denied [that] account.”

3. “A senior FBI official overseeing a government task force that addresses Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. elections has left the government for a job in the private sector,” the Wall Street Journal’s Dustin Volz reported Saturday. “Jeffrey Tricoli had been coleading the FBI foreign influence task force until June, when he left government work for a senior vice president job at Charles Schwab Corp. … Mr. Tricoli, an 18-year veteran of the FBI who became a section chief of the bureau’s cyber division in December 2016, didn’t respond to requests for comment sent to his personal email and LinkedIn account.

  • “The reason for Mr. Tricoli’s departure wasn’t clear. But it adds to questions among some tech companies and lawmakers about how much the administration, and the task force in particular, are doing to protect future elections from Russian meddling.
  • “Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and author of a book about information wars on social media, said the Trump administration has shown little interest in addressing Russian meddling, leaving the FBI’s efforts to tackle foreign influence ‘reactive’ instead of anticipatory.”

-- Hard feelings watch: Jeb Bush named “The Manchurian Candidate” as the greatest political novel of all time. “It is a good read and shows that the Russians have always tried to get involved in our elections,” the former Florida governor told Steve Israel for a feature that ran this weekend.

Learn More at The Washington Post