On Friday, House investigators released the transcript of former National Security Council official Fiona Hill’s testimony from last month. It showed a Republican staff member trying and failing to get Hill to concede that there might be some validity to the conspiracy theories underlying Donald Trump’s demands of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine.
“Are you familiar with the, you know, the allegation about Serhiy Leshchenko?” asked the Republican aide, Steve Castor. He added, “You know, relating to publicizing Manafort’s role in the Ukraine?”
Leshchenko, whom I interviewed in October, is a former member of Parliament in Ukraine and probably the most famous investigative journalist in the country. He helped expose the so-called black ledger that listed $12.7 million in secret payments to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, from his client Viktor Yanukovych, the wildly corrupt Russian-aligned oligarch who ruled Ukraine until 2014. Manafort is in federal prison in part for failing to disclose or pay taxes on the millions he sucked out of Ukraine. Nevertheless, to make Trump’s demands of Zelenskiy seem just and rational, some Republicans have started painting Manafort as the victim of Leshchenko’s plotting.
Hill, a Russia expert and co-author of a psychological study of Vladimir Putin, tried to shut down this line of questioning. “The Ukrainian government did not interfere in the U.S. election,” she said, adding, “The Ukrainian Special Services also did not interfere in our election.” As the Republican questions continued, Hill seems to have grown almost indignant. “I’m really worried about these conspiracy theories, and I’m worried that all of you are going to go down a rabbit hole, you know, looking for things that are not going to be at all helpful to the American people or to our future election in 2020,” she said.
She is right to be concerned. This week, as part of its impeachment inquiry, the House begins public hearings into Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine’s president into starting bogus investigations to benefit Trump politically. Republicans have telegraphed several possible defenses of the president.
The Washington Post reported that House Republicans may try to throw hapless Trump lackeys Rudy Giuliani, Mick Mulvaney and Gordon Sondland under the bus, suggesting they “could have acted on their own to influence Ukraine policy.” Other Republicans have settled on calling Trump’s actions “inappropriate” but not impeachable. But the House Republicans who are actually involved in the hearings seem set to go all in on the fantasy of Ukrainian election interference. To exonerate Trump, they are ready to help cover for Russia.
On Saturday, Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, sent the committee’s chairman, Adam Schiff, a list of people Republicans want to call to testify. To understand the significance of some of the names, you’d have to plunge into the very rabbit holes Hill warned of. Luckily, Nunes made his intention clear, writing of Trump’s “documented belief that the Ukrainian government meddled in the 2016 election,” which “forms the basis for a reasonable desire for Ukraine to investigate the circumstances surrounding the election.”
The conspiracy theories that undergird the president’s “documented belief” aren’t really coherent, but they don’t have to be to serve their purpose, which is sowing confusion about the well-established fact that Russia assisted Trump’s campaign. They posit not just that Manafort was set up but also that Democrats worked with Ukraine to frame Russia for hacking Democrats’ emails, a dastardly Democratic plot that led to Trump’s election. Naturally, George Soros, perennial scapegoat for the far right, is also involved.
“George Soros was behind it. George Soros’ company was funding it,” Giuliani said on ABC in September, spinning tales of Hillary Clinton’s collusion with Ukraine. Speaking to The Post, Giuliani accused Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, of “working for Soros.” Indeed, Hill in her testimony suggested that a sort of Infowars-era McCarthyism has been loosed on the national security bureaucracy, with “frankly an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about George Soros” used to “target nonpartisan career officials and also some political appointees as well.”
Some of these lies seem to have originated in Russia; documents from the Mueller investigation recently obtained by BuzzFeed News show that Manafort was blaming Ukraine for the Democratic National Committee hack back in 2016, a story he apparently got from one of his associates, a former Russian intelligence officer named Konstantin Kilimnik. (Hill testified that she’d encountered Kilimnik in a previous job, and “all of my staff thought he was a Russian spy.”)
A few of Trump’s more responsible aides have reportedly tried to disabuse him of Ukraine conspiracy theories, to no avail. Instead it appears that House Republicans, out of slavish fealty to the president, are going to use high-profile hearings to amplify them.
In her testimony, Hill seemed to warn Republicans off their current path. She mentioned the report issued last month by the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee about how Russia used online propaganda to boost Trump in 2016. “If we have people running around chasing rabbit holes because Rudy Giuliani or others have been feeding information to The Hill, Politico, we are not going to be prepared as a country to push back on this again,” she said. “The Russians thrive on misinformation and disinformation.” Unfortunately, so do Trump’s defenders.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.