During the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, Republican House members led by Rep. Devin Nunes repeatedly declared that the real scandal was not President Trump’s attempt to muscle the Ukrainian president but Ukraine’s supposed intervention in the 2016 election to harm Trump. Other Trumpers, including Rudy Giuliani, Fox News hosts, and assorted right-wing partisans and journalists, have passionately decried the Trump-Russia affair as a hoax and insisted that Ukrainian interference was the true wrongdoing. And Trump himself has denied that Vladimir Putin attacked the election, and he has called for an investigation of Ukrainian meddling. In fact, Trump’s phone call to the Ukrainian president that led to his impeachment was partly prompted by his desire to find evidence to back up the Ukrainian conspiracy theory and to absolve Russia of assaulting American democracy. But Trump and the rest of the Ukraine-did-it crowd have been played by a clandestine Russian influence operation, and they have, wittingly or not, amplified this covert Moscow disinformation campaign. They have been useful idiots for Putin.
Who says so? The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee.
On Tuesday, the committee released a 966-page report that definitively shows that the Trump campaign aided and assisted Putin’s attempt to sabotage the election to help Trump; that Paul Manafort, a top campaign official, secretly interacted with a former business associate and Russian intelligence officer named Konstantin Kilimnik (while Kilimnik possibly was connected to the Russian attack on the US election); that these Manafort actions posed a “grave counterintelligence threat”; that Donald Trump Jr. tried to collude with a clandestine Kremlin plot to boost Trump; and that Trump likely lied to special counsel Robert Mueller about his own efforts to use Roger Stone to obtain inside information on the Russia-WikiLeaks operation that Trump could politically exploit. The report even raises the prospect that Moscow had gathered kompromat—blackmail information—on Trump related to his personal conduct during visits to Russia in 1996 and 2013. The report also contains a long section that indicates Putin’s intelligence operatives, including Kilimnik, pulled off a major disinformation op that targeted—and was assisted by—Trump, Republicans, and right-wing media.
Let’s start with the bottom line. In the report, the committee states, “During the course of the investigation, the Committee identified no reliable evidence that the Ukrainian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.” That finding couldn’t be more clear. And it was accepted by all the Republican members of the committee, including Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, James Risch, and John Cornyn. These Senate Republicans are essentially saying that all that rhetoric from Trump, Nunes, and others about Ukraine is pure bunk. This finding casts Trump and his henchmen’s claims about Ukraine as a false counter-narrative promoted to distract attention from the Trump-Russia scandal and Trump’s own acts of betrayal.
But, according to the committee, Trump and his pals didn’t just cook up this phony cover story on their own. It came from Russia.
The committee spells it out:
The Committee observed numerous Russian-government actors from late 2016 until at least January 2020 consistently spreading overlapping false narratives which sought to discredit investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections and spread false information about the events of 2016. Manafort, Kilimnik, [Putin-friendly Russian oligarch Oleg] Deripaska, and others associated with Deripaska participated in these influence operations. As part of these efforts, Manafort and Kilimnik both sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
The report notes that Kiliminik—whom it describes as both a “Kremlin agent” and a “Russian intelligence officer”—“almost certainly helped arrange some of the first public messaging that Ukraine had interfered in the U.S. election.” He did this, according to the report, by being a source for a Financial Times story in August 2016 that reported Ukraine’s leaders were working against Trump. At the same time, Kilimnik was pushing out information suggesting that Manafort, who had been accused of corruptly accepting millions of dollars for his consulting work for a pro-Russia Ukrainian party called the Party of Regions, had been framed. The report states that Kilimnik helped write an opinion article for Serhiy Lyovochkin, a top Ukrainian politician in the Party of Regions, which claimed that the case against Manafort had been “manufactur[ed]” and that Trump had no Russia ties. There was “no real fire behind all this smoke,” the article said. In early 2017, U.S. News & World Report published this opinion piece that was secretly written by a Russian intelligence officer.
Significant portions of the report’s section on this Russian venture to develop the Ukrainian counter-narrative are redacted. But it does disclose that Manafort pushed this view and that during a February 2017 meeting with Trump Jr., he “discussed how Ukraine, not Russia had meddled in the election.” Last year, the Washington Post reported that Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, had “consulted several times with Manafort through the federal prisoner’s lawyer in pursuit of information…that would bolster his theory that the real story of 2016 is not Russian interference to elect Trump, but Ukrainian efforts to support Hillary Clinton.”
Kilimink, according to the intelligence committee’s report, used a Twitter account under the alias @PBaranenko to spread information supporting this distraction. At one point, Kilimnik retweeted a story by Sputnik reporter Lee Stranahan, who claimed that interactions between a Democratic Party official and the Ukrainian government was “THE REAL 2016 Election Interference.”
The report’s descriptions of Deripaska’s attempt to disseminate the Ukrainian alibi are largely redacted. But the committee notes, “it is likely that some coordination occurred between Deripaska-directed efforts and those undertaken by Kilimnik and Manafort.”
Meanwhile, according to the report, the Kremlin was all in on this endeavor:
[I]n mid-2017, other Russian-government proxies and personas worked to spread the false narrative that Ukraine interfered in the U.S. election. On July 12, 2017, [pro-Russian hacktivists] Cyber Berkut—which had been dormant for months—alleged on its blog that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections. In the post, Cyber Berkut claimed that hacked emails revealed a set of financial transactions between [Ukrainian oligarch] Viktor Pinchuk and the Clinton Foundation. On July 13, 2017, @USA_Gunslinger, a long-running false persona account of the [Russian disinformation outfit] Internet Research Agency (IRA), tweeted about “Clinton and her campaign team’s collusion with Ukraine to interfere in the US election.”
About this time, Ukrainian parliamentarian Andrii Derkach sent a letter to Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko asking Lutsenko to investigate Ukrainian “interference” in the US election. Derkach, whose father is a former KGB officer who became head of Ukraine’s intelligence service, studied at Moscow’s FSB Academy, which trains Russian intelligence officers, in the 1990s. He later joined Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions. The report doesn’t dwell on this fact, but this is a Russian-linked pol pushing for a Ukrainian probe that would advance the Ukraine-not-Russia-interfered theory. (Last December, Derkach met in Kiev with Giuliani, and he has been part of a group of Ukrainians spreading allegations about Vice President Joe Biden. This month, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, named Derkach as assisting a clandestine Russian effort to “denigrate” Biden.)
The section of the report on this Russian influence operation contains numerous references to stories by conservative journalist John Solomon, published in The Hill, which promoted unfounded accusations about Biden’s actions in Ukraine. But many of these passages are redacted. One Solomon article mentioned in the report cited Lutsenko’s claim that he had “opened a probe into alleged attempts by Ukrainians to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” And the committee report notes that Kilimnik, using a false persona, retweeted this piece. (“Kilimnik repeatedly tweeted information related to the Bidens and Ukraine, much of which originated from Solomon,” the report says.) Moreover, the report reveals that Kilimnik had reached out to Lutsenko “in an apparent effort to propose that Lutsenko pursue political office with the assistance of Kilimnik and others.” So Kilimink—a Russian intelligence officer and Manafort crony—offered to back a Ukrainian politician who could mount an investigation that would shift the focus from Russia to Ukraine.
Perhaps a coup de grace for the Russian operation came on July 25, 2017. That day, Trump tweeted: “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign – ‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G. @seanhannity.” The committee report does not refer to this tweet. (It may have been just too embarrassing for the Republican members.) Here was the US president promoting Kremlin disinformation that Kilimnik had helped to spread. Mission accomplished.
Because of the redactions, a definitive reading of the committee’s account of this successful Russian influence campaign is not possible. The public cannot tell exactly what Deripaska did. The role of Solomon’s work cannot be fully evaluated. Yet the top lines of this Republican-okayed report are stark: Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump, Ukraine did not interfere to aid Clinton, and Trump and others who have pushed the Ukraine tale have been boosting Kremlin propaganda designed to confuse and to cover up Putin’s attack on the United States. The committee wouldn’t say the obvious, but the verdict is undeniable: Trump and his crew are dupes for Putin.