James Downie: The useful idiot from Louisiana
James Downie: The term "useful idiot," usually attributed to Vladimir Lenin to refer to Westerners unwittingly repeating Soviet propaganda, has often been applied too broadly since its first use. But Kennedy has amplified a Russian misinformation campaign and willfully ignored warnings about said campaign. The result? Moscow's attempt to "get people like [Kennedy] to say these things about Ukraine" has worked spectacularly. As a phrase, "useful idiot" has never been more apt.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., showcasing the "typical shell game" of Republicans on impeachment: Eliminate the importance of the "quid pro quo," muddy the waters of the president's motive and distort the impeachment process itself. Since then, the senator from Louisiana has taken his pro-Trump spin to a new level: repeating Russian disinformation without a care.
On Sunday's "Meet the Press," Kennedy began his interview with host Chuck Todd with a mea culpa for recently misstating that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked Democratic National Committee computers in 2016. One would think such embarrassment would lead one to be more cautious in his claims about Russia, Ukraine and the 2016 election. Not so with Kennedy. Instead, he told Todd:
I think both Russia and Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election. I think it is has been well documented in the Financial Times, in Politico, in the Economist, in the Washington Examiner, even on CBS that the prime minister of Ukraine, the interior minister, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, the head of the Ukrainian anti-corruption league, all meddled in the election on social media and otherwise. They worked with a DNC operative against the president.
Unsurprisingly, Kennedy's summary of those articles bears little to no resemblance to the actual facts. For example, the Politico article that Kennedy cited reported only that "Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office" and by highlighting former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort's close ties to Russia. And Politico notes that those efforts "were far less concerted or centrally directed than Russia's alleged hacking and dissemination of Democratic emails." Similarly, Kennedy noted that "a Ukrainian court ruled that Ukrainian officials had violated Ukrainian law by meddling in our election and that was reported in The New York Times" - without mentioning that a higher court later canceled that ruling.
As Kennedy surely knows, foreign government officials' public criticism of a U.S. presidential candidate is nowhere close to the hack of a political party or state-directed misinformation campaigns on social media. The former is expected; the latter all but unprecedented. Even Kennedy admitted as much: "Does that mean that the Ukrainian leaders were more aggressive than Russia? No. Russia was very aggressive and they're much more sophisticated."
But after that admission, Kennedy made his most extraordinary claim - that former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko himself "actively worked for Secretary Clinton." Kennedy had no evidence to support this - and as Todd noted, "you realize the only other person selling this argument outside of the United States is ... Vladimir Putin."
That last quote isn't speculation on Todd's part. It's what U.S. intelligence officials told Kennedy - or would have told Kennedy, had he been at a key briefing:
TODD: According to The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, U.S. senators were briefed, after Fiona Hill's testimony, that actually this entire effort to frame Ukraine for the Russian meddling of 2016, of which you just made this case that they've done it, that actually this is an effort of Russian propaganda, that this is a Russian intelligence propaganda campaign in order to get people like you to say these things about Ukraine. They're trying to frame Ukraine.
You apparently were briefed about this in the United State Senate by intelligence officials. Are you at all concerned you're doing Russian intelligence work here?
KENNEDY: I was not briefed.
TODD: You didn't attend that briefing?
KENNEDY: And listen.
TODD: You didn't attend the briefing on that? OK.
KENNEDY: I wasn't briefed.
Even with Kennedy's absence from the briefing, the Times article that Todd mentioned was published more than a week ago. The senator from Louisiana had ample time to read it. Perhaps he forgot, or perhaps the pro-Trump narrative was too good to be spoiled.
The term "useful idiot," usually attributed to Vladimir Lenin to refer to Westerners unwittingly repeating Soviet propaganda, has often been applied too broadly since its first use. But Kennedy has amplified a Russian misinformation campaign and willfully ignored warnings about said campaign. The result? Moscow's attempt to "get people like [Kennedy] to say these things about Ukraine" has worked spectacularly. As a phrase, "useful idiot" has never been more apt.
James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor.