It is a testament to how far we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole that on the afternoon of July 3, the Republican-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report in which its members unanimously agreed that the evidence shows that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Donald Trump — and on July 4, a group of eight Republican senators were in Moscow, publicly glad-handing Russian officials. It was an odd juxtaposition to say the least.
The SSCI has been releasing reports on its investigation into Russian interference piecemeal, with the latest being the second of what’s expected to be at least three. The first report addressed the attempted hacking and infiltration of the election systems in the 2016 election by Russian entities. This second report confirmed the intelligence community’s findings that the Russian government had interfered in the election to hurt Hillary Clinton and then went all in to help Donald Trump. That wasn’t news, of course, but it is significant that the Republicans on the committee all signed off on those findings, contradicting the House Intelligence Committee’s Republican majority, refused to admit that their president had been a targeted beneficiary of the Russian campaign.
But the unclassified report did make some news — or at least it would have, had it been released at any other time but at 3 p.m. on the afternoon before a national holiday. The senators also found that the Russian campaign of interference continued past January of 2017, when the intelligence agencies’ assessment was released. They also found a “far more extensive Russian effort” to use social media to influence the American electorate than was known at that time.
In what is surely a disappointment to right-wing conspiracy theorists, they also confirmed that the infamous “Steele dossier” had no influence on the original intelligence report. It was handled separately, and there was no political bias involved in the analysis. In other words, Russian interference happened, which has been obvious for well over a year. Nonetheless, the president tweeted out this puerile whine just last week:
Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2018
The report didn’t address the big question as to whether or not the Trump campaign was aware of election interference on its behalf or collaborated with Russians in any fashion. That report is suspected to be more controversial and may possibly break down on party lines. We also may not see it for many months, particularly if the committee decide to hold it back for fear of interfering with special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation.
Nonetheless this current report is significant, both because of its bipartisan consensus and the aforementioned bizarre contrast of its release as a group of Republican senators were in Moscow assuring the Russian government that they weren’t there to cause any unpleasantness. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., led the group and essentially disavowed their previous promise to “be tough” on the Russian government over this issue. He said, “I’m not here today to accuse Russia of this or that or so forth. I’m saying that we should all strive for a better relationship.” It was, by all accounts, something of a love fest.
It’s not that the two countries shouldn’t strive for a better relationship. But rewarding this assault on the integrity of American elections only raises serious concerns that these Republicans are happy to see it continue. The fact that they didn’t (or couldn’t) make it a bipartisan mission makes the whole spectacle more suspicious. An earlier planned trip was scrapped last winter after the Russian government denied a visa to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., because of her critical comments. This time they just brought along Republican sycophants and everyone was happy.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., returned from the trip early so that he could join President Trump for a rally in his home state on Thursday. He went on Fox News and said that the Republican delegation had told the Russian officials in no uncertain terms that they mustn’t interfere in elections, they’d better leave Ukraine alone, work toward peace in Syria and abide by their nuclear treaties. The Washington Post reported the obviously contemptuous Russian reaction:
“We heard things we’d heard before, and I think our guests heard rather clearly and distinctly an answer that they already knew — we don’t interfere in American elections,” said Sergey Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the United States and now a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament.
On Russian state television, presenters and guests mocked the US congressional delegation for appearing to put a weak foot forward, noting how the message of tough talk they promised in Washington “changed a bit” by the time they got to Moscow.
Meanwhile, Trump was still badmouthing all the NATO allies at his Montana rally on Thursday evening, which must tickle his Russian friends to no end. After his usual tiresome gripe about their alleged refusal to pay up, he made a particularly sharp remark, referring to something he allegedly said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel:
And I said, “You know Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you, and it means a lot more to you. … I don’t know how much protection we get from protecting you.”
This thinly veiled threat came on the same day NATO ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchinson told the press that the relationship between the US and its European allies was just swell and she announced that “the overall theme of this summit is going to be NATO’s strength and unity.” It was a week of mixed Republican messages all around.
Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be meeting privately after the NATO summit, and apparently will not even have an American translator with them. Trump is confident that he knows what he’s doing. At his Montana rally he dismissively noted that people are always saying “you know President Putin is KGB and this and that.” And then he added:
You know, Putin is fine. He’s fine. We’re all people. Will I be prepared? I’ve been preparing for this stuff all my life.
That’s absurd. He’s a rich kid from New York who bankrupted casinos, sold some cheap junk, had a TV show and fooled a whole lot of gullible Americans. But Vladimir Putin actually has been preparing for this stuff his whole life. And he definitely knows a useful idiot when he sees one.