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The GOP’s Putin Caucus Steps Into the Spotlight

Just last week I was pointing out the growing rift in the GOP, a rift centered on the open obstruction of aid to Ukraine by what Liz Cheney has famously called the “Putin Wing” of the party. In the last week, the rift has only gotten wider.

What I didn’t elaborate on then, though it’s closely related, was the apparent influence of both Russian money and Russian propaganda on a growing number of Republicans.

This is now out in the open, and more prominent Republicans are going public about it. Several powerful GOP senators, including Thom Tillis and John Cornyn, are known to be not happy about their party’s ties to the Kremlin.

But it’s two GOP House committee chairs who are making the biggest waves. Michael Turner, chair of the Intelligence Committee, and Michael McCaul, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, both made the startling claim that some of their Republican colleagues were echoing Russian propaganda, right on the House floor. They stopped short of calling these people traitors, but I’m happy to.

McCaul started it all in an interview with Julia Ioffe, who asked him, point blank, for examples of “Republicans who parrot Russian propaganda.” He declined to name names, but his answer to the question was nonetheless priceless:

“I mean,” he said, “it’s pretty obvious.”

In other words, if it looks like they’re doing Putin’s bidding, it’s because they’re doing Putin’s bidding. Whether they’re being paid or blackmailed — or whether they’re just useful idiots totally out of their depth — it’s Putin who benefits.

But before we speculate on the more “obvious” members of the Putin Caucus, let’s go back in time a bit, to December of the infamous year 2016.

Donald Trump had just won the election, and the stench of Russian interference was permeating the national conversation.

If you’ll recall, a big part of that conversation concerned the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee — remember Wikileaks? — which exposed thousands of emails to public scrutiny, embarrassing the DNC and leading to the resignation of the DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

What we’ve mostly forgotten is that the Russians had, in fact, hacked both parties. In September, a month before the 2016 election, Michael McCaul — yes, the same congressman who last week stated the obvious — told CNN that the Republican National Committee’s servers had also been breached, but that no documents had been leaked.

Within minutes, the RNC issued a statement denying it had been hacked. McCaul subsequently stated that he had “misspoken.”

So it seems they shut him up, but why? And what happened to the Republican side of those hacks? What happened to the information — let’s think of it as GOP dirt — that Russians could now potentially use as leverage?

Definitive answers are elusive, but there is much circumstantial evidence to suggest that more than a few GOP lawmakers have been compromised.

Consider the July 4th weekend of 2018, in the middle of Trump’s presidency. A delegation of eight Republican lawmakers “celebrated” the birth of our nation in, of all places, Moscow. The negative symbolism alone was staggering.

No Democrats were invited, which was, in itself, a flagrant breach of established norms. But then the delegation met behind closed doors — no press allowed — with Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, two of Putin’s closest cronies.

No account of that meeting has ever been even slightly edifying. We can only make guesses as to what was discussed, what was exchanged, who was leaned on, and why they were invited to Russia in the first place. Or why they would decide to go, bad look and all.

All we know is that there, in Moscow — the world capital of kompromat, kleptocracy, and blackmail — no explanation would be believable anyway.

So we may never know what transpired that day. Just as we may never know what the Russians got from the 2016 hack of the RNC.

But the fallout from both those events seems to have spread, and in the years since they occurred, we’ve seen an inordinate number of prominent Republicans turn uncharacteristically Trumpy.

Blackmail needn’t be the only force at work here. Putin can easily have one of his oligarchs drop five million dollars on every Republican in Congress. Ten, if he likes you. Or fifty.

Regardless, there are now far too many Republicans behaving as if they’ve been bought — whether with money or dirt — and we really need to look at exactly who McCaul means by “obvious.”

Two of the senators in that Moscow delegation — Ron Johnson and John N. Kennedy — come immediately to mind. Both went from shrewd critics of both Trump and Putin to virtual Russian mouthpieces, and they’ve been echoing Kremlin talking points almost verbatim. (This sordid story was told in detail by Greg Olear in 2019, and it has only become more obvious since).

Through most of last year, Sen. TommyTuberville held up promotions in the military high command, using the military’s abortion policy as a flimsy, nonsensical excuse. This threw much of the defense establishment into chaos, even as the Ukraine War continued to rage. Almost as if Putin had planned it that way.

Also last year, Sen. Rand Paul — the same guy who once hand-delivered a letter from Trump to Putin — placed a hold on all ambassadorial appointments until he could get some silly information on Covid he’d been loudly demanding. This left 50 U.S. embassies waiting for Senate approval of new ambassadors. By last October, when the Gaza attacks broke out — a moment when a strong diplomatic corps might have come in handy — the U.S. was still without ambassadors in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE. Almost as if Putin had planned it that way.

In July of last year, Sen. Chuck Grassley — in another norm-busting move — released the confidential FBI report in which Alexander Smirnov accuses Joe Biden of taking bribes from a Ukrainian oligarch. Smirnov’s evidence, we know now, was wholly fabricated by Russian military intelligence, yet Grassley gave it to James Comer’s bogus impeachment committee, even over FBI objections. They both knew it was fraudulent, but they tried to use it against the Bidens anyway.

The list of “obvious” Russian assets could be longer than we think. To the above names you could add Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, and most of the Freedom Caucus. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out “Moscow Marjorie” for special mention.

Ken Buck, one of the Republican congressmen who quit in disgust last month, assigned that nickname to Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose ditsy but seditious public statements have moved her to the front of the GOP’s anti-Ukraine faction. Buck accuses her of getting her talking points directly from Russian propaganda sources.

It’s Moscow Marjorie who is putting the most pressure on the hapless House Speaker, Mike Johnson, to get him to deny a House vote on Ukraine aid. Her “motion to vacate” was a clear shot across Johnson’s bow, and he can’t ignore the possibility that she could trigger his removal at any time, consequences be damned. Marjorie doesn’t do consequences.

Of course, Johnson faces even more pressure from the pro-Ukraine side of his party, who are loudly urging him to bring that vote to the floor, where it would pass easily.

Which could happen, or not happen. This week, or next week. Take your time, Mr. Johnson. It’s only Ukraine — and possibly the free world — hanging in the balance.

But however that plays out, we can be sure Putin’s interests will be well represented.

 

Comments

  1. The irony that these Putinestas are leading an army of flag-waving Americans is not lost on me. Putin must be having a good laugh.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Whether they’re being paid or blackmailed — or whether they’re just useful idiots totally out of their depth ..."
    Of course it could be all three.

    ReplyDelete

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