WASHINGTON (CN) – Now that a former top National Security Council official made abundantly clear that the theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential elections is a false narrative from the Kremlin, House Republicans are on the defensive. Two prominent members emphasized in interviews that they were not talking about the Ukrainian government – but citizens of that former Soviet nation.
“I never said the Ukrainian government,” Congressman Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, told reporters in an interview in the gallery outside the floor of the House of Representatives.
“Every single time, I’ve said high-ranking officials in the Ukrainian government,” Jordan continued.
New York Representative Lee Zeldin, a fellow House Republican, hammered the same message, citing testimony from the National Security Council’s ex-senior director Fiona Hill, one of Thursday’s impeachment witnesses.
“As she did during her deposition, Fiona Hill specifically references the Ukraine government when she makes her point, she doesn’t say Ukrainians,” Zeldin noted. “And there’s a reason for that. She’s formed the opinion that while Ukrainians may have attempted to interfere in the 2016 election, her position is that it’s not the Ukraine government.”
Hill’s testimony had been more thundering and categorical on that point.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” Hill said of the theory of Ukrainian interference.
Jordan rattled off a list of names of alleged Ukrainian meddlers. High on that list is Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian investigative journalist and member of parliament who published what became known as the “black ledger” of incarcerated ex-Trump aide Paul Manafort. The file documented Manafort’s secret payments from one of his former clients: ousted Ukrainian autocrat Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Moscow before his conviction in absentia for treason in his home country.
“We know that Russia attempted and interfered in our elections,” Jordan conceded, “but that doesn’t change the fact that you had Mr. Leshchenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, who said that the majority of politicians in this country want Hillary Clinton to win.”
Republican lawmakers have frequently invoked Leshchenko in service of what Democrats – and multiple Russia experts who have testified – have described as a conspiracy theory of Ukrainian interference.
For his part, Leshchenko says his motivations as the same impulse that fuels journalism around the world.
“My goal was to investigate how Ukrainian taxpayers’ money [was] stolen by ousted [Ukrainian] President Yanukovych and then illegally paid to Paul Manafort,” Leshchenko tweeted to Courthouse News.
Representative Jordan aired other grievances with individual Ukrainians, among them Ambassador Valeriy Chaly for writing an editorial in The Hill that was critical of Trump months before the election.
“We obviously understand that it wasn’t to the degree or with the intensity of Russia,” Jordan said, referring to alleged meddling. “But it doesn’t not change the fact that those things happened.”
Representative Zeldin likewise conceded that a government-coordinated attack is not comparable to efforts of individual foreign actors.
“Two different things,” Zeldin flatly recognized.
Spanning 448 pages, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the presidential elections did not define the Kremlin’s attack on U.S. democracy as a matter of individual members of the Duma expressing a preference for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
Nor did the report find Russian interference in investigative journalists battling their repressive state censors to publish damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Mueller instead recounted a coordinated effort by the Russian government, its military proxies and its intelligence services to hack into the Democratic National Committees servers to spearhead a disinformation campaign on social media known as “active measures.” This effort also included attempts by Russian intelligence officers to plant malware into the computer network of a U.S. voting technology company that makes software used in numerous U.S. counties.
“The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign,” the report said.
Despite stopping short of accusing both of conspiring together, Mueller determined that Russia pushed for a Trump victory, and the campaign expected to benefit from that effort.
Congressman David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, told reporters that Hill’s testimony obliterated the Ukrainian meddling narrative.
“I thought it was particularly important for Fiona Hill to make it clear that this crazy Ukrainian conspiracy theory – that somehow Ukraine was involved in the 2016 presidential elections – was really important for the American people to hear,” Cicilline said outside the House floor, where a vote was taking place.
“This is a Russian misinformation campaign that’s being parroted by some of the president’s allies, and it’s clear beyond any dispute that the Russians attacked our democracy in 2016,” the congressman continued.
Since impeachment proceedings began, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told reporters “All roads lead to Putin,” a view that Cicilline found compelling.
“There is no question that this misinformation campaign to assign responsibility to somebody other than Russia is Putin’s claim,” Cicilline said. “It’s an effort to take himself out from under sanctions. It’s completely untrue. It’s a false narrative.”
Rushing back to the House floor for a vote, he concluded: “It’s shocking to hear the president in that phone call to promote this idea that it really was Ukraine, and I think it’s very disturbing.”