How the Republicans caved to Putin. The whole party, not just Trump.
Guest Post by Aaron Harris
AS THE MOST RECENT attempt to interfere with our elections circulates in the media—in the form of a Giuliani “hard drive” story that even Fox News refused to run—we are reminded yet again that there is a recurring cast of characters that continues to plague our national conversation, and certain themes that those characters seem determined inject into the public consciousness.
A specific recurring theme that won’t go away is the two-pronged Ukraine narrative. The Trump gang seems desperate to convince Americans to accept two stories that are unbelievable when considered alongside the facts: First, that Ukraine was somehow involved in the hacking of the DNC in 2016, and, secondly, that the Biden family was engaged in a vaguely-defined series of corrupt dealings in that country.
While those two stories were likely born from two different agendas, they do share familiar characters—specifically, Paul Manafort, Rudy Giuliani and, in Ukraine, one Andriy Derkach, a KGB-connected Ukrainian whose father may have been involved in the beheading of a journalist (yes, you read that correctly).
And, more interestingly, one of these two stories is instructive in helping us to decode why the Republican Party seems to have no bottom when it comes to defending, and participating in, an all-out assault on our democracy. Before we dive into Rudy’s work with Derkach, we do need to establish some context. And that context begins with another key character in MAGA mythology: the disgraced felon Michael Flynn.
I: Mike Flynn
On April 17, 2012, President Obama nominated Michael Flynn to be Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (he would assume his new role in July). The DIA is, in a sense, the Pentagon’s CIA. It collects intel in order to inform our military leadership and policy makers about the militaries of foreign nations and non-state actors. So, in short, Flynn officially oversaw the agency that keeps us informed about what our adversaries are doing, what they are capable of doing, and what they want to do.
When Flynn became DIA Director, we were still in the ill-conceived “Reset” phase of our relationship with Moscow. While the policy seemed, superficially, to be making progress, it began rapidly deteriorating after the Magnitsky Act, signed into law in December of 2012, which sanctioned individual Russians, including many of Putin’s friends. As retaliation, Russia immediately halted adoptions of Russian children by Americans and banned a group of U.S. citizens from entering the country.
Tensions were high between the two adversaries as the calendar flipped to 2013. Which makes it all the more interesting that Michael Flynn would, at that moment, be the first DIA Director to visit the Moscow headquarters of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence unit that carries out attempted coups in other nations—and the same unit that would attack the 2016 U.S. elections. This 2013 visit, while unprecedented, would not be all that remarkable, if not for Flynn’s actions subsequently.
After his return from Moscow, Flynn continued to maintain a relationship with Igor Sergun, the GRU Director. When his proposed follow-up visit was denied, he went so far as to arrange for Sergun to visit Flynn in the United States. That visit was scheduled for February 28, 2014. But this day was not fated to go as planned for the United States—and certainly not for Ukraine. That was the day the Russians set up checkpoints at Armyansk and Chongar, the two major road crossings from Ukraine proper to the Crimean peninsula. So it appears that, while our DIA Director (responsible for knowing what our adversaries are doing) was developing a collegial relationship with Russian Military Intelligence, and bonding with his Russian counterparts over what he believed was a shared passion for fighting terrorism, Moscow was planning its invasion of Crimea. And the Kremlin had planned their first openly hostile action to occur on the very day that Flynn believed he was to have a collegial meeting with Director Sergun.
Two months after this, on April 30, it was announced that Flynn would be leaving his position at DIA, roughly a year before he was scheduled to depart. Was his dismissal due to his rigid feelings regarding the fight against terrorism, as he insisted? Perhaps. At any rate, it seems possible that Flynn found a peer in Russia more sympathetic than his own Commander-in-Chief.
After Flynn left government service, he continued his friendly relationship with the Kremlin. He appeared on Russia’s state-run media outlet RT. In December, 2015, he was invited to Moscow for RT’s 10th anniversary (joined by Jill Stein, the U.S. Green Party candidate at the time), and was seated next to Vladimir Putin—not a trivial detail. (Igor Sergun, incidentally, died in January 2016, at age 58, just a month after that dinner).
Three months later, in Feb 2016, Flynn joined the Trump campaign as national security advisor. Over the course of the rest of the campaign year, Flynn and other aides held 18 phone and email conversations with Russians. During the summer, US IC members even picked up Russian intelligence officers discussing how they could use Flynn and Manafort to their advantage. (Manafort, of course, was quite a nexus of Russian connective tissue in his own right.)
In an August 2016 Washington Post interview, Flynn had some curious things to say. He claimed that Russia’s state-run media outlet RT was no different from CNN. He assured us that Russia wasn’t an adversary because they were helping to fight the war on terror (that single-minded—almost ideological—fixation on the war against terrorism again). He repeated the claim that NATO members weren’t paying their fair share. He even said that Russian assistance in defeating Hitler in the Second World War is a reason that we should work with them.
It’s important to note that these are all Russian talking points that he is repeating.
At roughly the same time—early to mid 2016—the Republican Party was going through a highly contentious primary season. It was the biggest field in U.S. history, with 17 candidates running to divide the GOP vote. Several of those dropped out of the race early. Even so, by the time the primaries officially started, there were still 12 candidates, and three clear front-runners: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump.
Rubio eventually withdrew, leaving Trump and Cruz to battle it out, but for some reason Kasich continued on, despite having absolutely no path to victory. While Cruz ended up suspending his campaign on May 3, effectively leaving Trump as the nominee, the final state contests weren’t completed until June. Trump wasn’t officially declared the nominee until the Republican National Convention, in July.
And that brings us, again, back to Ukraine.
Why? Because, right in the middle of all this—on June 15, 2016, a month before the GOP Convention—the Prime Minister of Ukraine happened to be visiting Washington. Republican Congressional leaders met with him that morning and, afterward, were having what they thought was a private conversation. As it turns out, that conversation was secretly recorded, and a few months later, would make big news.
By now, most of us have heard the infamous quote from House Leader Kevin McCarthy: “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” followed by chuckling, and then Paul Ryan asking for assurances that this is all off the record—even going so far as to say: “NO LEAKS … This is how we know we’re a real family here.” Those quotes, understandably, made big waves when they were revealed by the Washington Post a couple of months after Trump took office.
But here’s the thing: This explosive quote—claiming that Vladimir Putin pays a GOP Congressman AND the presumptive GOP presidential nominee—is not even the most damning part of that conversation. There are other parts of their exchange that carry much darker, and graver, implications for the Republican Party when considered in their full context—and that signal just how early they had completely abdicated their responsibility to honor their oaths and protect this country.
Let’s take a look at the transcript (“Ryan” is Paul Ryan, then Speaker of the House; “Rodgers” is Cathy McMorris Rodgers, then GOP Conference Chair; and “McCarthy” is current House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy):
RODGERS: I went [to Ukraine] a year ago. It was like, wow. These people are living…they’re on the front lines. They’re fighting for their freedom…their independence.
RYAN: [The Ukrainian Prime Minister] has this really interesting riff about…people have said they have Ukraine fatigue, but it’s really Russia fatigue because what Russia is doing to us [in Ukraine], financing our populists, financing people in our government to undo our government, you know, messing with our oil and gas energy, all the things Russia does to basically blow up our country, they’re just going to roll through us and go to the Baltics and everyone else.
RYAN: So we should not have Ukraine fatigue, we should have Russia fatigue.
RODGERS: Yes! The propaganda…my big takeaway from that trip was just how sophisticated the propaganda…
RYAN: It’s very sophisticated.
RODGERS…coming out of Russia and Putin.
RYAN: Very sophisticated.
RODGERS: Not just in Ukraine. They were once funding NGOs in Europe. They attacked fracking.
RODGERS: Russian TV. I was not…you know…I hadn’t tuned into Russian TV until that trip. It’s…it’s frightening.
RYAN: So he’s saying they’re doing this throughout Europe. So, uh…
RYAN: This isn’t just about Ukraine.
RODGERS: So, yeah, it is a, um…
RYAN: …it’s really a messaging…you know…they are…it’s a propaganda war. Russia is trying to turn Ukraine against itself.
RODGERS: Yes. And that’s…it’s sophisticated and it’s, uh…
RYAN: And guess…guess who’s the only one taking a strong stand against it? We are.
RODGERS: We’re not…we’re not…but, we’re not…
McCARTHY: The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research they had on Trump. [laughs]
RYAN: The Russians hacked the DNC…
McCARTHY:…to get oppo…
RYAN: …on Trump and delivered it to…to who?
Reading the above transcript, while knowing what we know now, is revealing. We understand the context of the topics that they were discussing, which we may not have completely understood before. Beyond that, and more importantly, we can clearly see that they understood them.
What is impossible to say for sure here (due to the “[Unintelligible]” bits), but which clearly fits within the narrative, is that they are making the obvious connections between what is happening in Ukraine and what would soon be happening in the United States under Trump (and we should note that they also admit knowing that Russia hacked the DNC—even while they spent the next four years denying this).
And that brings us to the final section of this recorded conversation—the infamous McCarthy quote and the conspiratorial hush. Before revisiting that final line, let’s recap and put it in the full context, based on what we saw discussed in the transcript:
Ukraine—an ally of the West, and a country that the U.S. has agreed to assist in their fight against corruption—is under siege by Russia, in a multi-front hybrid war. We have pledged to assist them in several key ways, but first we need to help them fight endemic corruption in their legal system. America made a deal with Ukraine, with the full, bipartisan support of Congressional Republicans. Ukraine was a key part of American foreign policy in Europe.
The Republican leadership shows they fully understand key issues that, in hindsight, are extremely pertinent to what we are experiencing today: Russia is waging a “very sophisticated,” and “frightening,” “propaganda war,” specifically using weaponized propaganda to attack specific issues that are important to them (e.g. fracking); they are “funding NGOs” in other countries (think about the NRA); “this isn’t just about Ukraine;” “they’re doing this throughout Europe;” and finally, that Russia wants to “roll right through us [Ukraine] and go to the Baltics and everyone else.” The Kremlin, if successful, will not stop at Ukraine. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the GOP leaders understand exactly how Moscow is doing it.
Recall Paul Ryan’s earlier statement, quoting the Ukrainian Prime Minister: “financing our populists, financing people in our governments to undo our governments […] all the things Russia does to basically blow up our country.”
Does that sound familiar?
It should. It was certainly clear to the House Republican leadership. Because they admitted that it was happening right here in the United States—and then they swore each other to secrecy about it:
Yes, you read that correctly. They knew. Republican leadership knew. And not only did they allow it to happen, and cover it up, but they went further than that.
The conversation with Ukraine’s Prime Minister occurred on June 15, 2016. On July 18—a month later, and just before the Republican National Convention—the Republican Party suddenly changed its platform position on Ukraine, to support Russia’s geopolitical agenda—one of the only changes to the platform made:
On July 18, party insiders took the unusual step of watering down its formal position on whether the U.S. should help protect Ukraine from Russian incursions—a move viewed as a surprising concession to the Russian government at a time of tension in Ukraine.
The RNC just decided, at the last minute, to give a major concession to Russia, right before it publicly disclosed its party platform. Why would they do that?
Think about what we know.
We have a presidential candidate that Putin “pays.” We have his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who just helped Putin subvert Ukraine’s democracy a few years ago. We have a Moscow dinner in December 2015, where Putin dined with both the national security advisor of their candidate, and with the candidate for the Green Party. Putin was sending a public message, showing the level of influence he has, on the eve of the GOP primary. “I’m ready; I’m here.”
It has been said that Russia without Ukraine is just a country, but Russia with Ukraine is an empire. Whether or not that is true, it does convey just how strategically important Ukraine is to Russia. And Republicans know that Ukraine is under a terrible assault from all sides—through frontal military attacks, through psychological/information warfare, and through a devious corruption of their government via politicians that they own. So, again, what could possibly explain the RNC giving away such an immensely valuable concession to Russia—especially when doing so would run counter to U.S. geopolitical interests, and would be diametrically opposed to widely established Western policy?
They wouldn’t be doing so if they weren’t getting something in return.
And what were they getting in return?
They were getting Russia’s help. What else could it be?
All of those things that Russia was doing to Ukraine were to be used by the RNC, against the U.S government and against the American people. The psychological/ information warfare, the political warfare, the attacks on the system of law and order. All of it. (In fact, there is evidence that House Republicans had described their political agenda as “asymmetrical warfare” as early as 2009.) What else can that transcript mean? Why else would someone, clearly a Republican insider, a member of the “family,” take such pains to record the conversation and leak it?
The United States of America is not a former Soviet state with a fledgling democracy and weak legal system. We are the democracy with the oldest living constitution on the planet, with extremely resilient systems based on law and order. There is no way that Moscow would have tried to do this alone. It would have been impossible for a country like Russia, once described by the late John McCain as “a gas station masquerading as a country,” to do this in the United States, without willing accomplices on the inside.
To paraphrase the Prime Minister of Ukraine, via Paul Ryan, the Republican Party was, it appears, asking the Kremlin for “all the things Russia does to basically blow up our country.” They wanted to run psy-ops against Americans. They wanted to turn the country “against itself.” They wanted to destroy the regulatory state. They wanted to use corrupted populists and others in government to undermine our systems.
What did Moscow demand in return? Ukraine.
And the GOP gave it to them.
III. Drug deal
One of the most frequently asked questions in the Twittersphere and elsewhere today is, “How can Republicans continue to support this? Are they compromised? What does Trump have on them? What kind of kompromat can Putin possibly have?”
On a personal level, everyone has his or her own reasons. Some may choose money, some may follow ideology, some may pursue power or other egotistical visions. And while it is possible that a few individuals may be acting out of a fear of blackmail, Occam’s razor cautions us against jumping to such a conclusion when behavior may be explained by much simpler motivations.
For anyone who was involved in this “drug deal” that Trump and the RNC cooked up with Russia—and for anyone aware of it who did nothing—there is a simple reason they won’t speak out: They partnered with an adversary to attack Americans. That isn’t an action you can walk back.
If one antes a penny for treason, one doesn’t have the luxury of balking when asked for a pound. Republicans waged war against their own country. They aren’t being forced to support this after the fact; they supported it from the beginning. They are only terrified now because they are losing—they got caught. They know what the consequences of that are, and they will fight it with everything they have. Even if it is hopeless.
When they unexpectedly lost the midterms in 2018 (when their electoral tricks suddenly didn’t work)—when House Democrats suddenly gained subpoena power—they desperately started covering their tracks. That is when they became driven to convince us that it was really Ukraine who hacked the DNC, although attempting to do so resulted in an impeachment trial (and it should go without saying that impeachment, strategically, short-circuited the Ukraine op that they are still attempting to use today). They are also desperate to keep Flynn’s case from fully playing out in court, because he knows more than most. He was the Director of Defense Intelligence when we were blindsided by Russia’s capture of Crimea. His messages to QAnon and his comments about his “army of digital soldiers” suggest that he likely had a larger role that has yet to be revealed.
Republicans’ moves today are born of desperation, and they have been desperate for the last two years. Even when it feels that they are operating from a position of strength, because they are able to bring the full power of their elected offices to bear, it is all for show. The blustering facade is the con man’s only tool. The projected image of strength and confidence is, arguably, the only thing that Donald Trump brings to the table for them, and now that is failing as well.
In fact, desperation is probably what drove them to make this Faustian bargain to begin with—not immediate, personal desperation, but the crushing desperation of changing demographics that they can no longer hold at bay. Texas is a toss-up—Texas! This may have been their only chance to retain power.
When Joe Biden says that this is a battle for the soul of our nation, we should listen to him, because he means exactly that.
It wasn’t just Trump who sold out the country. It was the entire GOP.
Remember that on Tuesday.
Aaron Harris has spent the last 12 months extensively researching and writing about Trump/Russia and similar topics.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.