Romney: I've seen no evidence that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 campaign

The media teed up an easy one here for a man who famously and presciently said in 2012 that Russia was our top geopolitical foe and ate mountains of sh*t for it from the left.

Romney was asked about this after a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with David Hale, the number three diplomat at the State Department. Hale too was asked about possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. His reply:

“Was the Kremlin’s interference in our 2016 election a hoax?” Menendez followed up, echoing the president’s own language, and eliciting a swift “no” from Hale.

“Are you aware of any evidence that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election?” Menendez continued, to which Hale responded: “I am not.”

Menendez then quoted from the public impeachment testimony of Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the White House National Security Council, who two weeks ago described the theory pushed by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani as a “fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

Hale went on to say that he had no reason to disagree with Hill when she claimed that the “Ukraine meddled in the campaign” talking point is itself Russian disinformation. Trump has been eager to pursue that disinformation, though, and seems to believe it deeply enough to have raised the mysterious CrowdStrike server during his phone call with Zelensky in July. Which leaves his Republican allies in Congress in a bind: In choosing how to defend the president on impeachment, how much do they want to invest in supporting Trump’s suspicions on the merits? What I mean is, they don’t have to agree with him that Joe Biden is probably corrupt or that Ukraine somehow hacked the DNC server and pinned it on Russia in order to find grounds to vote for acquittal on impeachment. They can simply say that what the president did isn’t a high crime or misdemeanor, or that Zelensky’s assurances that there was no quid pro quo should suffice to clear Trump. Or, if they’re feeling more daring, they could claim that it doesn’t actually matter for impeachment purposes whether the president is right about Biden and CrowdStrike. What matters is simply whether he had an honest belief that corruption was afoot in both matters and that he believed it was in the public interest to get to the bottom of it. He may be a crank for suspecting that Ukraine hacked the DNC, in other words, but he’s a well-meaning crank.

And we’re not going to remove a president who means well.

The problem, as usual, is that Trump doesn’t just want political protection from his loyal subjects in Congress, he wants them to validate his beliefs and actions. And so, on top of the basic loyalty test that each will be expected to pass when the time comes to vote on removal, Republicans in Congress are subject to a secondary loyalty test in which their willingness to substantiate Trump’s suspicions about Burisma and CrowdStrike becomes another important measure of their devotion. Lindsey Graham has spent the last two months discovering that. Imagine being Lindsey, railing against Adam Schiff’s impeachment process on the president’s behalf night and day, only to find that he and his allies are mad at you because you won’t use your power as chairman of the Judiciary Committee to investigate the Bidens yourself. Graham held out a long time on doing that but ultimately decided he couldn’t afford to fail that test, so he caved. Here’s another example from CNN last night in which GOP Rep. Randy Weber palpably didn’t know basic facts about CrowdStrike but felt obliged to go on TV and back Trump up on it anyway:

CrowdStrike was founded by a U.S. citizen who was born in Russia. It’s publicly traded here in the U.S., not some shadowy Ukrainian outfit. If Trump and his cronies are bent on accusing the company of foreign spycraft because of its founder’s ethnic heritage, they should be pointing at Russia, not at Ukraine. But the point of Weber’s appearance, and appearances lately by the likes of Trump ally John Kennedy, isn’t to make a convincing case of Ukrainian interference, it’s to show Trump that they’re willing to go the extra mile in confirming his suspicions even when U.S. intelligence is telling Congress that they’re playing right into the hands of Russia by spreading that lie. At least when Kennedy pushes theories about Ukraine meddling in 2016, he’s lawyerly about it: He’s not out there heavy-breathing about CrowdStrike, he’s pointing to old news stories about how Ukrainian officials were “campaigning” for Hillary. His strategy for backing Trump up is to simply muddy the waters a bit when assessing the two countries’ culpability. If Ukrainian officials at the time were openly pro-Hillary and Russian officials at the time were, uh, committing crimes against Americans by hacking into their correspondence and leaking what they stole at opportune moments to try to influence the election, well, then, they were both sort of “meddling” in the election, weren’t they?

Which means Trump is right to be suspicious of them, even if he’s not right about CrowdStrike.

I think the difference between Weber, Kennedy, and every other Republican in Congress is a simple matter of how much each can personally stomach in abetting the president’s worst tendencies. Weber can stomach anything, it seems, up to and including the CrowdStrike conspiracy theory. Kennedy can’t stomach that, but he can stomach drawing a moral equivalence between Russian and Ukrainian activities in 2016 to give Trump cover on inquiring about CrowdStrike. Romney can’t stomach that or any other suggestion that implies Ukraine interfered in the campaign when U.S. intelligence says otherwise, but he can probably stomach voting to acquit Trump at the coming Senate trial for some reason or another, probably that what he did doesn’t amount to an impeachable offense. Here he is not stomaching the accusations against Ukraine.