Senators Must Be Briefed on Russian Disinformation Before the Impeachment Trial

The sun sets over the U.S. Capitol dome, November 2019.

Now that the House has voted to impeach President Donald Trump, attention has shifted to the Senate trial. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has put forward a fair, evenhanded proposal to call witnesses and obtain documents that the Trump administration has been hiding—an approach supported by the vast majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle.

But, before the Senate even begins the trial, it is imperative for every senator to receive an intelligence briefing regarding Russian disinformation tactics, which will no doubt be active during the trial.

Since Russia attacked the U.S. electoral system in 2016, it has engaged in a years-long effort to shift blame for its election interference to others—in particular, Ukraine. This serves a dual purpose of absolving the Kremlin of responsibility and weakening ties between the United States and Ukraine while the latter is engaged in a war with Russia.

These disinformation tactics are at the center of the impeachment inquiry because one of the two investigations that Trump sought to extort from Ukraine was into the bizarre conspiracy theory that Ukraine was responsible for election interference in 2016.

There is no basis for this claim. Trump’s own former Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert has said, “It’s not only a conspiracy, it is completely debunked.” His FBI Director Christopher Wray has said, “We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election.” And Trump’s former Russia expert at the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, described it as “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” Hill then admonished House Republicans, saying, “I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”

In an article for Politico, Natasha Bertrand reported that the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee:

 … thoroughly investigated that theory, according to people with direct knowledge of the inquiry, and found no evidence that Ukraine waged a top-down interference campaign akin to the Kremlin’s efforts to help Trump win in 2016.

So how has this conspiracy theory seeped its way into the Trump administration? Russia’s fingerprints are all over it. Trump’s Deputy Campaign Chairman Rick Gates described to the FBI how the conspiracy theory was advanced by Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI believes is linked to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik was Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort’s right-hand man in Ukraine and supported the idea that Ukraine interfered, a claim that Manafort “parroted,” according to Gates. And, reportedly, Trump told a senior White House official that he knew Ukraine interfered because, in Trump’s words, “Putin told me.”

Sadly, it appears that a number of Republicans in Congress are pushing this narrative as well. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) claimed that Ukraine was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee; he later walked that back, but still made the bizarre claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) advanced the same debunked claims about Ukraine interference. And Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have begun a joint investigation to try to advance the conspiracy theory.

Now, Rudy Giuliani is saying that Trump wants him to brief Republican senators on his Ukraine “findings” and Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, “I’d be glad to talk to [Giuliani].”

The Kremlin has appeared pleased to see Trump’s impeachment defenders echo its talking points; Russian President Vladimir Putin recently gloated that, “Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”

Rather than provide more opportunities to spread Russian disinformation, the Senate should take steps to combat it, starting with a briefing on ongoing Russian tactics. The briefing should be unclassified, provided to all senators, and given by the office of the Director of National Intelligence to ensure it draws from the entirety of the intelligence community.

It is important that every senator understand the risks posed by advancing Russian disinformation and does everything in his or her power to ensure that Trump’s defense in the Senate impeachment trial is not used as a tool for advancing the Kremlin’s goals.

Sam Berger is vice president for democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress. Max Bergmann is a senior fellow and director of the Moscow Project at American Progress.