Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large
Updated: Tue, 26 Nov 2019 02:55:32 GMT
Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy was asked a simple question by Fox News' Chris Wallace on Sunday: "Who do you believe was responsible for hacking the [Democratic National Committee] and Clinton campaign computers, their emails. Was it Russia or Ukraine?"
Here's what Kennedy said in response: "I don't know. Nor do you. Nor do any of us."
That is simply not true. False. And what's worse is Kennedy, of course, knows that. Because he has been residing on planet Earth for the last three years.
And, because of that, Kennedy knows four things:
1) The intelligence community concluded in early 2017 that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election to help President Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton
2) The Senate Intelligence Committee -- chaired by Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr -- affirmed that finding
3) The Mueller Report, almost two years in the making, reaffirmed Russia's role and goals
4) Robert Mueller himself, in sworn testimony on Capitol Hill this summer, said this: "The Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systematic fashion."
When confronted by Wallace with just one of those facts -- that the intelligence community has made clear it was Russia that hacked the DNC server and Clinton campaign emails and then pushed what they found to the website WikiLeaks -- Kennedy responded: "Right. But it could also be Ukraine."
Let's be clear here: NO, IT COULDN'T.
This yeah-but-Ukraine defense is hung on a series of half-truths and thinly reported pieces that suggest that there were elements within Ukraine that didn't want Trump to win. Just as a thought experiment, let's grant that that supposition is true. It still isn't anything like the concerted, deep and targeted misinformation campaign run by the Russians to help Trump and hurt Clinton. Nothing like it. Like, not in the same universe.
Kennedy isn't dumb. He knows what he is saying is like looking at two snowflakes and 20 inches of snow and saying they are the same thing. They're not. And no matter how many times you say they are the same, it doesn't change the actual proven facts.
Later on Monday night, Kennedy cleaned up his statement and admitted he was wrong in an interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo on "Cuomo Prime Time."
"I was wrong," Kennedy said. "The only evidence I have, and I think it's overwhelming, it was Russia who tried to hack the DNC computer. I've seen no indication that Ukraine tried to do it."
Why he was doing what he was doing isn't complicated. He was echoing Trump's own defense of his actions regarding Ukraine over the summer. Trump, in his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, pushed two fact-free conspiracy theories -- one that Ukraine actually had the DNC server in its possession and second that Joe and/or Hunter Biden had engaged in widespread corruption related to Ukrainian natural gas giant Burisma (there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by either Biden). And we know from testimony offered by Trump administration officials over the past 10 days that Trump was deeply skeptical of Ukraine, believing the country somehow played a role in helping his opponents.
"They gave the server to Crowdstrike, or whatever it's called, which is a country -- which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian," Trump said on "Fox & Friends" Friday, a sentence remarkable in that absolutely nothing in it is true. (The DNC didn't give the server to Crowdstrike, the company imaged a cloud copy. Crowdstrike is not "owned" by Russian-born Dmitri Alperovitch; he is a co-founder and CTO. Oh and he's also an American citizen.)
What's scary about Trump's views on Ukraine -- and the remarkable capitulation to those conspiracy theories by the likes of Kennedy -- is that it leaves the US open to the future influence campaigns that we know are coming.
"It wasn't a single attempt," Mueller said in July about Russia's efforts in 2016. "They're doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign."
In February 2018, the heads of the various intelligence agencies were unanimous in their belief that Russia was emboldened by what happened in 2016 -- and would go even bigger in future elections.
"We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means to influence, to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," said Dan Coats, then the Director of National Intelligence. "There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations."
We're now just 344 days from the November 2020 election. And we still have top Republican officials -- from the President to members of the Senate and the House -- debating who actually ran a sophisticated interference operation in the 2016 campaign. That's should worry us all.