GOP senator: 'I don't know' if Ukraine or Russia hacked 2016 election

The U.S. intelligence community has said that Russia hacked the DNC in 2016. Sen. John Kennedy said that "it could also be" Ukraine.
Image: Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., speaks at a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 12, 2017.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., speaks at a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 12, 2017.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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By Allan Smith

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., on Sunday defended President Donald Trump by floating the same debunked 2016 conspiracy theory that Trump asked Ukraine to investigate, a key component of the House impeachment inquiry.

Trump's former top Russia analyst Fiona Hill said during Thursday's impeachment hearings that the idea that Ukraine, and not Russia, was responsible for interfering in the 2016 election was "a fictional narrative being propagated by the Russian security services themselves." Trump first asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskiy to look into the CrowdStrike conspiracy during their July call, a theory he repeated on Friday during an interview with "Fox and Friends."

"Fox News" host Chris Wallace asked Kennedy if he believed Russia or Ukraine was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee server and the Clinton campaign's emails.

"I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any of us," Kennedy said. "Ms. Hill is entitled to her opinion."

Wallace responded that the "entire" intelligence community points to Russia's culpability.

"Right, but it could also be Ukraine," Kennedy said. "I’m not saying that I know one way or the other."

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Kennedy pointed to a Democratic National Committee staffer, Alexandra Chalupa, who recently told Politico that some Ukrainian Embassy officials were "helpful" in her efforts to reveal damaging information about Trump's then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is now serving a more than seven-year prison sentence. Hill said in her testimony that there is "little" evidence of a top-down effort by Ukraine's government unlike the ample evidence of the Kremlin's involvement.

"We don’t know if Ukraine did that," Kennedy said of the Ukrainian Embassy's involvement. "We don’t know to what extent, because they won’t let the president offer his evidence."

In her testimony, Hill asked that lawmakers "please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests."

The CrowdStrike conspiracy seeks to turn the focus away from Russia's culpability and instead place doubt into whether Russia did the hacking. On Friday, The New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials briefed senators and their aides in recent weeks that Russia has engaged in a years-long effort to frame Ukraine for their politically-motivated hacking in 2016.

It was in his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — the conversation at the heart of the ongoing impeachment inquiry — in which Trump raised CrowdStrike.

“I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it," Trump said according to the White House's summary of the call. "I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine. They say CrowdStrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … the server, they say Ukraine has it."

Days later, Trump's former homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, called the CrowdStrike theory "not only a conspiracy," but one that was "completely debunked" and had "no validity."

"United States government reached its conclusion on attributing to Russia the DNC hack in 2016 before it even communicated it to the FBI, long before the FBI ever knocked on the door at the DNC, he added. "So a server inside the DNC was not relevant to our determination to the attribution. It was made upfront and beforehand."

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday that Trump "has said he accepts" the intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, "but also there are plenty of ways to interfere in elections." She added that Trump "wants to get to the bottom of what happened in 2016."

Speaking with CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said he believes Russia interfered in 2016 but that it's "indisputable" that Ukrainians meddled too.

"Well, they certainly — I don't know about interfered," CNN host Jake Tapper responded. "They voiced opposition to candidate Trump and support for Hillary Clinton. That's absolutely true. But that's not the same thing as the kind of nefarious intervention that the Russians did involving hacking and the like, right? I mean, they're very different levels."

Zeldin said that the two matters are "absolutely" on different levels, but that, "You do have Ukrainians who weighed in, who interfered in the 2016 election."

"There is no equating that with Russia interference," Zeldin said. "I believe that foreign interference with the U.S. election is something that, whether it's 2016 or looking forward to future elections, it is an issue that is in U.S. national security interests to get to the bottom of."