Email #190: “Russian fatigue”?

Yesterday the Senate passed a bill imposing sanctions on Russia for its interference in the election. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 97-2. The bill also requires Congress to review any steps the President might take to alter those sanctions. You voted for similar legislation in 2015, requiring the same of President Obama regarding Iran sanctions. For that reason I assume you will be supporting the Russia sanctions bill when it comes before the House soon.

I am concerned though that the House has not been responding adequately to Russia. Last June, Speaker Paul Ryan, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Steve Scalise, and at least one other unidentified House Republican were recorded having a conversation about Russia. At the end of the conversation, McCarthy made a joke that Donald Trump was working for Putin. Some news sources have suggested that the comment was not a joke, but I have read the transcript and don’t believe it was said seriously.

But the conversation still concerns me, especially the content leading up to the unfortunate joke. Ryan had just left a meeting with the Ukrainian prime minister, who he called “a good guy,” “the anti-corruption guy” working on “amendments to the constitution” and “passing all these anticorruption laws” in order “to clean up their government.”

After Rodgers praised Ukraine for “fighting for their freedom, their independence,” Ryan repeated the prime minister’s opinion about Russia:

“people have said that they have Ukraine fatigue, and it’s really Russian fatigue because what Russia is doing to us, financing our populists, financing people in our governments to undo our governments, messing with our oil and gas energy, all the things Russia does to basically blow up our country, they’re just going to roll right through us and go to the Baltics and everyone else … So we should not have Ukraine fatigue, we should have Russian fatigue.”

Rodgers emphatically agreed, as she and Ryan described Russia’s “very sophisticated” and “maniacal” “propaganda war”:

“Russia is trying to turn Ukraine against itself.  Not just in Ukraine. They were once funding the NGOs in Europe. They attacked fracking … they’re doing this throughout Europe … this isn’t just about Ukraine.”

But when Ryan tried to say that “we” were the “only one taking a strong stand up against it,” Rodgers disagreed: “We’re not, we’re not, but, we’re not.” McCarthy then told Ryan the latest news: “The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research that they had on Trump.” Ryan seemed surprised, asking: “and delivered it to, to who?”

McCarthy answered: “There’s two people, I think, Putin pays. Rohrabacher and Trump.” The group laughed and he added, “Swear to God.” Ryan interjected into the continuing laughter four times: “This is an off the record. NO LEAKS! Alright?! This is how we know we’re a real family here. What’s said in the family stays in the family.”

It wasn’t until I read the transcript for myself that I realized that the conversation was explicitly about Russia interfering internally with democratic countries by supporting populist candidates as well as government insiders. The conversation also wasn’t based on conjecture but on specific concerns communicated by the prime minister of Ukraine, a country actively fighting Russia’s attempts to undo its government through corruption.

McCarthy joked about Rep. Dana Rohrabacher because of his support for Russia in Congress, but the FBI actually warned Rohrabacher in 2012 that Russian spies were attempting to recruit him. This is precisely what the prime minister said about Russia “financing people in our governments to undo our governments.”

McCarthy joked about Donald Trump because of his support for Russia on the campaign trail. Trump said in his first foreign policy address in April: “I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia, from a position of strength only, is possible, absolutely possible.” We also now know that the Trump campaign had undisclosed phone and email contacts with Russia beginning in April, two months before McCarthy’s joke.

The conversation reveals that the GOP leadership was fully aware that Russian recruitment of western politicians was an immediate threat. Although Speaker Ryan’s attempt to keep the conversation “in the family” is excusable because there were no allegations of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia at that time, when those allegations rose in early January, the GOP leaders would have understood them in a radically different light than those of us in the general public. Knowing that Russia was actively financing populist candidates increases the need for a thorough investigation. But despite having this insider knowledge, the GOP leaders did not support an investigation and instead kept their knowledge “in the family.” They put politics first.

Since the Washington Post did not identify everyone present in the June conversation, could you please confirm that you were not present?

Would you also please detail when and to what degree you became aware that Russia was engaged in a strategy of recruiting and aiding western politicians, especially populist ones?

Do you agree that such knowledge should have stayed “in the family” of GOP leadership?

Where do you draw the line between political family and the larger family of our shared nation?