On Tuesday afternoon, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee issued some important findings, concluding that the U.S. intelligence community was correct in its assessment: Russia attacked the U.S. elections in 2016 and did so in the hopes of putting Donald Trump in the White House.
It was right around this time that seven Republican members of Congress -- six senators and one House member -- were in Moscow. Making matters much worse, however, is what the GOP lawmakers had to say while they were there. The Washington Post reported:
Republican members of Congress sounded a newly conciliatory tone in meetings with Russian lawmakers and officials here on Tuesday in a rare visit to Moscow and a preview of the looming summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) told Russia's foreign minister that while Russia and the United States were competitors, "we don't necessarily need to be adversaries." ... "I'm not here today to accuse Russia of this or that or so forth," Shelby told Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin.
In addition to Shelby, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and has limited foreign policy responsibilities, the official congressional delegation featured Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas).
On the surface, official foreign visits like these -- known as "codels" (for "congressional delegations") -- are as routine as they beneficial. I've seen some suggestions that members shouldn't be abroad during the 4th of July, but that doesn't matter much to me. Lawmakers are out this week for the holiday, so it stands to reason that they'll schedule international travel at a time when they won't miss votes on Capitol Hill.
What's far more alarming are the specific details of this particular trip.
At issue is seven Republicans traveling to an adversary's capital less than two years after it launched an attack on our sovereignty. Did the Americans make the trip to take a firm stand against our attackers? Hardly. They had no interest in confronting Russian officials over their election interference, preferring instead to let bygones be bygones.
There was no reason for the delegation to be partisan, but it was. There was no reason for these Republicans to give the Kremlin a pass on its misdeeds, but they did. There was no reason for the GOP lawmakers to downplay the significance of election meddling and the fate of Crimea in their discussions, but based on multiple accounts, they did that, too*. [corrected: see below]
Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov said on Tuesday that he's met with many American lawmakers before, but this week's meeting "was one of the easiest ones in my life."
If the Republicans who were in Moscow consider this a compliment, they're badly missing the point.
As the 2018 midterm elections approach, there are widespread concerns among U.S. officials about Putin's government launching another intelligence operation against our political system. The more Russia thinks it can get away with these attacks, the more emboldened it will be to launch them.
And yet, there was Alabama's Richard Shelby, traveling to Moscow and signaling weakness, reluctant to make accusations about "this or that or so forth."
In the recent past, Republicans saw Russia as an adversary, convinced of the need to show strength. That was before it became Donald Trump's party.
* Correction: I'd originally noted in this post that election meddling and Crimea were excluded from the delegation's talks with Russians, which was incorrect. I meant to say the importance of the issues was downplayed, and the above text has been corrected accordingly.