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Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland in July 2018

On Monday, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) warned that his office was getting calls from Fox News watchers whose reliance on Tucker Carlson had led them to argue that the United States should be supporting Russia. Not just supporting Vladimir Putin in his plans to invade a sovereign nation, but supporting Russia’s “reasonable” position in their arguments that NATO is somehow the aggressor.

It’s not just Democratic lawmakers getting these calls. As Axios made clear on Thursday, Republicans are also hearing from their base. And, in the modern Republican tradition, those Republicans are doing what they always do when confronted by extremists in their own party — rolling over.

“Leery of the base, they are avoiding—and in some cases, rejecting—the tough-on-Russia rhetoric that once defined the Republican Party. GOP operatives working in 2022 primary races tell Axios they worry they'll alienate the base if they push to commit American resources to Ukraine or deploy U.S. troops to eastern Europe.”

Strangely enough, Axios gets through the whole article about Republicans being afraid to offend Vladimir Putin, without mentioning one little thing: The whole reason that this is happening, is because Russia interfered in U.S. elections to support Donald Trump.

Repeatedly, the Axios article comes close to spilling the beans. Republicans who are still willing to be critical of the idea that Russia should be allowed to swallow whole Europe’s second-largest nation while the U.S. cheers from the sidelines are described as “still making statements that sound more at home in the pre-Trump GOP.” This shift in the Republican base is attributed in part to “President Donald Trump's warmer posture toward Russia.”

But let’s go to the tape. Or, in this case, to the five-volume report on Russian interference in the 2016 election prepared by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, and finally released just three days after the 2020 election.

What does that report have to say about Russia’s actions in 2016?

  • “The Committee found that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian
    effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak
    information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president. Moscow's intent was
    to harm the Clinton Campaign, tarnish an expected Clinton presidential administration, help the Trump Campaign after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and undermine the U.S. democratic process.”
  • “The Committee found, that the [Russian intelligence operation] IRA sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton's chances of success and supporting Donald Trump”
  • "Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency"
  • “Russia's targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society”
  • “The Russian government ‘aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him’”
  • “[Russian] social media activity was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump, and to the detriment of Secretary Clinton's campaign”
  • “Posing as U.S. political activists, IRA requested-and in some cases obtained-assistance from the Trump Campaign in procuring materials for rallies and in promoting and organizing rallies”
  • “IRA employees were directed to focus on U.S. politics and to ‘use any opportunity to criticize Hillary”
  • “[S]tories about Democratic emails might have mentioned that their release was part of a Russian influence campaign and that Donald Trump's repeated references to the releases, his stated adoration of WikiLeaks, and his solicitation of Russian assistance were taking place in the context of an ongoing influence campaign to assist him.”
  • “Manafort hired and worked increasingly closely with a Russian national, Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer. … Prior to joining the Trump Campaign in March 2016 and continuing throughout his time on the Campaign, Manafort directly and indirectly communicated with Kilimnik, Deripaska, and the pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine.”
  • “On numerous occasions, Manafort sought to secretly share internal Campaign information with Kilimnik.”
  • “The Committee obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the GRU's hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election.”
  • The Russians who Manafort and Donald Trump Jr met with at Trump Tower had “significant connections to Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services.” This included Natalia Veselnitskaya, whose connections to the Kremlin “were far more extensive and concerning than what had been publicly known.”

What Russia got for the few million it expended is priceless: Not just Trump in the White House for four years, defending Moscow’s interests from Ukraine to the Middle East, not just a greater-than-ever gap in American society, but a fundamental shift in the Republican base, and in right-wing media, that turned them into an extension of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign.

In 2012, Mitt Romney took heat for the vehemence of his antipathy toward Russia. Romney’s warnings about Russian aggression drew scorn at the time, though soon after the election the Utah Republican actually got apologies from Democratic officials and candidates as Russia massed its forces on the border of Ukraine and staged an invasion with the assistance of Republican insider Paul Manafort.

Romney’s position wasn’t unusual at the time. In fact, most of the heat he took from his anti-Russia stance was based on the idea that the presidential candidate wasn’t putting any thought into his response. He was simply continuing a long Republican tradition of using the threat from Russia as an excuse to bolster U.S. military spending.

From the Cold War right up through the Obama administration, Republicans didn’t just maintain a solid front when it came to the danger represented by Russia, they built their foreign policy around that threat.

It should be noted that this isn’t the first time Putin has been handed a gift by the radical right. In 2014, with the invasion of Crimea underway, Mitch McConnell stood in the way of passing a bill considered vital for Ukraine. Why? As Politico explained at the time: “McConnell faces a tea party primary opponent in May.”

“Twenty, 25 years ago, if you told me McCain would be the leader of the Republicans on foreign policy and McConnell [would be] on the sidelines, I would never have believed you,” said one veteran of President George H.W. Bush’s administration. “Mitch was one of our go-to guys.”

Yeah, well, Mitch is always willing to go … wherever the wind blows him. When it looked like a Tea Party candidate might challenge him, McConnell threw away his “beliefs”

Republicans have been riding the whirlwind since those Tea Party days, banking on an anything-goes faux populism that champions hurting fellow Americans over anything else. They stayed on that whirlwind even when they knew their candidate was being backed and bankrolled by Moscow. And now they have a party that’s urging them to surrender an ally to Putin, arguing that the U.S. should just ignore military aggression from an expansionist authoritarian empire and it will go away. Because that’s worked so well in the past.

Putin bought Trump. Cheap. Now he owns the power-base of an American political party, with GOP candidates falling all over themselves to prove how much they don’t care about Russia tearing a chunk out of Europe.

It’s almost as if the Republican tough-on-Russia position was never real, to begin with, but just something they were doing to bolster donations from defense contractors and create the impression that they had a serious position on foreign policy.

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos

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