A Senate hearing on Russia policy became a platform for Democrats to hammer home the point that President Donald Trump, some of his senior officials and Republican lawmakers have been spreading a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
That theory has been at the heart of Trump’s justification for withholding aid to Ukraine in return for an investigation into Joe Biden, his chief Democratic rival in 2020 – a move to leverage US government resources for personal political benefit that has triggered a House impeachment inquiry.
Asked if he was aware of any evidence that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 US election, Under Secretary of State David Hale said, “I’m not.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then asked Hale whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election to benefit Trump.
“Yes,” Hale said, “the intelligence community assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at our presidential election.”
And when asked whether US national security is stronger when senior officials repeat debunked conspiracy theories. Hale told the committee that “it does not serve our interests.”
The exchange, one of several, came as Trump and his supporters continue to insist Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, despite the fact that US intelligence agencies have concluded that the theory has been spread by Russian intelligence in an attempt to deflect blame from Moscow.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – a former CIA director – refused to counter the discredited Ukraine conspiracy theory on November 26, saying it was the government’s “right” and “duty” to investigate all instances of election interference.
Republicans keeping debunked theory alive
The intelligence community has briefed Congress that Russia is behind the theory, yet some Republican lawmakers, most notably Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, also insist on keeping the debunked theory alive.
“There’s no question in my mind Ukraine did try to influence the election,” Kennedy told CNN on Tuesday morning. “I know that I’ve read that the Intelligence Committee made some kind of finding, I don’t know what it was,” said Kennedy, a member of the Judiciary committee.
Referring to Fiona Hill, the former senior Russia official on the National Security Council who testified before the House and emphasized that the Ukraine theory is the work of Russian intelligence, Kennedy said, “I’m aware of Dr. Hill’s testimony and she’s entitled to her opinion.”
As justification, Kennedy pointed to media reports. That seemed to prompt a mild rebuke from Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, when he left the committee hearing on a break.
“Our intelligence community and the representatives today from the Department of State indicate that there was not meddling by Ukraine in our election,” Romney said.
When pressed on whether it was dangerous for some of his Republican colleagues to continue to peddle this theory, Romney demurred. “I’m not going to comment on other Senators views,” he said.
But he added: “I do think that we have to adhere to the facts presented to us by our intelligence community and I know some people will look at newspaper accounts and say, gee, this is what I read in the newspaper, but you know not every article is exactly accurate and sometimes articles are being promoted by an intelligence source that is trying to push a narrative that that is not in our interest.”
The political manipulations surrounding Ukraine came up between questions US policy on Russia with