A new lens into the ongoing folly of Republican ‘Russia hoax’ rhetoric

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In early June 2023, Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) earned an unusual amount of right-wing media attention when she publicly reported something she said she learned from the FBI. At issue was a claim being hyped by Republicans that President Biden and his son Hunter had received a bribe from a Ukrainian business executive.

The bureau, she said on social media, “is afraid their informant will be killed if unmasked, based on the info he has brought forward about the Biden family.”

This was obviously not true even at the time. The FBI was concerned about releasing an unredacted copy of an interview with the informant who made that allegation because it might reveal the informant’s identity, putting him at risk not because of the allegation but because he was someone with connections to dangerous individuals. Which, of course, was why the FBI was using him as a source in the first place.

But Luna, amplifying Republican rhetoric in the moment about the severity of the allegation made by this informant — that the Bidens had received multimillion-dollar bribes — reshaped those concerns in a way that made it seem like the allegation itself was the source of the danger. To make it seem like the danger posed wasn’t from the shadowy world of international actors in which the informant operated but, somehow, the Bidens.

Last week, that (never-substantiated and apparently dubious) allegation was severely hobbled when the Justice Department unsealed an indictment charging the informant, Alexander Smirnov, with lying to government officials specifically about the bribery claim. Evidence presented in the indictment makes a strong argument that Smirnov never had the conversation in which he was told about a bribe because, at the time the conversation allegedly occurred, he had never met the person who had made the allegation. It also suggested that Smirnov was motivated by hostility to Biden’s candidacy.

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On Tuesday, the Justice Department filed a motion aimed at keeping Smirnov in detention until trial. This was necessary in part, it argued, because Smirnov had contacts with foreign intelligence officials who might aid his flight.

The filing articulated some of those alleged contacts, including with people linked to Russian intelligence. When the Justice Department was interviewing him in February before his arrest, for example, Smirnov allegedly introduced a new claim about Hunter Biden — a claim that was sourced to Russian actors.

“Smirnov suggested that investigators check to see if [Hunter Biden] made telephone calls from the Premier Palace Hotel since those calls would have been recorded by the Russians,” the filing states. “Smirnov claimed to have obtained this information a month earlier by calling a high-level official in a foreign country. Smirnov also claimed to have learned this information from four different Russian officials.”

“According to Smirnov, the Russians want Ukraine to assist in influencing the U.S. election,” the filing reads at another point, “and Smirnov thinks the tapes of [Hunter Biden] at the Premier Palace Hotel is all they have.”

The Premier Palace Hotel is in Kyiv, a city Hunter Biden has never visited. The filing bolsters the idea that this came from Russian actors by including raw intelligence reports documenting Smirnov’s previous reports about the hotel and its infiltration by Russian intelligence.

In other words, the filing argues, not only do the “effects of Smirnov’s false statements and fabricated information continue to be felt to this day” — that is, the fallout from his bribery claim — but he “is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November.”

Understandably, critics of Donald Trump seized on this aspect of the filing. Here was an explicit example of Russia spreading false claims about American political actors — specifically Democrats — as it attempts to influence the presidential election.

But, of course, this is already well established.

Over the past five years, since the release of Robert S. Mueller III’s assessment of how Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election, the contours of that effort have been worn smooth in the public conversation. On the right, in particular, the hundreds of pages of research earn shrugs: It’s all a hoax!

Trump began trying to reframe Russia’s actions even before he took office and inculcated a knee-jerk hostility among his Republican allies to anything that might suggest Russia did anything untoward. However, the evidence that Moscow did so is robust, from the consequential infiltration of the Democratic National Committee’s network and a top campaign official’s emails to the probably-not-consequential efforts to inject rhetoric into the national conversation. There were multiple points of contact between Russia-linked actors and Trump’s campaign team, triggering the federal probe into possible coordination. This part of the story was not proved.

Trump was so successful at waving all of this away, though, that there is still a huge market for efforts to disprove Russian actions or to punish those who alleged that Russia had tried to affect the outcome of the race. Fox News recently elevated a report citing anonymous sources that purported to show how President Barack “Obama’s CIA set up the Russia hoax,” in the overheated verbiage of host Jesse Watters.

Or consider Luna. Two weeks after she seized on the bribery claim that even then seemed highly unlikely, she was the lead sponsor of a measure censuring Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) for having promoted the idea that Trump’s campaign was linked to Russia. The censure motion argued, falsely, that this was a “conspiracy theory … invented, funded, and spread by President’s Trump’s political rivals.”

It is certainly the case that Schiff got out over his skis at times in arguing that Trump’s campaign was tied to Russia. But there probably was not a claim he made that was as pointed or dire as Luna’s assessment that the FBI was worried that its bribery informant, Smirnov, was at risk because of the allegation he made against Biden. If anything, Smirnov’s foreign contacts would probably have been happy to see the allegation spread.

It is worth noting that the allegation about Hunter Biden visiting the Kyiv hotel was apparently relayed to Smirnov only after the full documentation of his Biden-bribery allegation was made public by congressional Republicans. The FBI pushed back on its release out of concern that Smirnov would be clocked by his foreign contacts. Maybe he was, revealing him as a conduit for allegations back to the Americans.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about this to anyone who has seen a spy movie or two. That Russia would try to feed the United States misinformation or reshape American politics is a basic Occam’s razor assumption about how the world works. That the CIA contrived Russian outreach to hurt Trump only once he was elected — or whatever the reframing du jour happens to be — is the sort of acrobatics that Trump-loyal Republicans have been practicing for more than seven years.

Trump appeared Tuesday night on Fox News for a conversation with host Laura Ingraham. She offered that Russia and China wanted to keep Biden in office because “they can dominate the global, you know, the global situation much easier with him in office.”

“They want him very badly to be president,” Trump said. “I mean, I’m sure a lot of money is being spent on — between Russia … and China? No question with China. Russia, too.”

Setting aside the assertion that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not prefer an American president who has publicly stated he would look the other way at Russia invading NATO countries, notice that Trump is acknowledging how this all works — when it’s not purportedly benefiting him. Sure, Russia and China are probably spending money trying to influence the election outcome. Why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t we assume such efforts are underway? We have inordinate evidence that Russia in particular attempts to do so.

The revelation from this week’s Smirnov filing isn’t that Russia is trying to influence the outcome of the election. It’s that the Trump-led effort to pretend that hasn’t happened is so blinkered that it ends up putting Republicans in rhetorically embarrassing positions.

Smirnov’s original allegation about the Biden bribe came after then-Attorney General William P. Barr had established a process for vetting information that was coming in from dubious sources. Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, had been fishing for dirt on Biden in Ukraine, working with people later explicitly linked to Russian intelligence. So Barr created a process to ensure that efforts by Russia to introduce misinformation were weeded out.

Smirnov’s June 2020 effort to spread a negative story about Biden failed to break through that barrier. It wasn’t until credulous Republican officials on Capitol Hill were told about it last year that it finally entered the mainstream — to the GOP’s eventual embarrassment.

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